Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Volunteerism 1

Recently I’ve been feeling as if I live many days per day, because I'm leading so many simultaneous lives. The Museum activities are going incredibly well; it's interesting and challenging and motivating. It gives me a lot to think about. A few days ago (I'm trying to remember how many exactly, I think three…but it seems much longer) was the Hongkou government district volunteer celebration ceremony. There were about forty volunteers, all ages, covered in blue ponchos. That's another thing that happened this week – it became winter overnight. The weather dropped ten degrees (Celsius) and turned from mildly sunny to freezing rain at some point between Tuesday and Wednesday. 

So there we all stood in our blue ponchos. Hongkou district parks, libraries, elderly homes and museum volunteers, waiting in rows to go onstage and recite the Volunteers' Oath, listening to speeches by Party leaders and distinguished guests. I was getting simultaneous translation, thinking for the umpteenth time that even though I probably can't even begin to understand how much I'm not understanding because  I don’t speak Chinese, you can learn a lot through translation too (my consolation price really). Suddenly, my translator, another volunteer, says "you know, you're the star at this event". I looked around at all the Chinese faces around me – regular people, just like me – and I was filled once again with an awesome sense of being grateful that I've been put in such a unique position – to work for the Chinese government, to represent a great organization and even, to an extent, the Jewish people. It's really incredible.

After he said that, I got a little nervous about what I might have to do. It's funny how things can have such a different meaning. I think what he meant was that it's an honor for them to allow me to be a volunteer at the Museum (the Museum being the only institution with a foreign volunteer). It turned out I only had to follow the ranks – get on the stage with my row, and recite the pledge along with everyone else (it had been provided for me in English ahead of time…in fact, I helped translate it).

The Museum was chosen to host the event in part because of the amazing courtyard that it has (the synagogue was used as the prep room), but also because it runs an excellent volunteer program. Most of its volunteers are students, but there are also older volunteers who sell tickets or hold down the fort during lunch.  I’m not entirely sure what the volunteer culture is like here. It’s something I’m very curious about.

The volunteers at the museum certainly have a lot to gain from volunteering here. They practice English and meet foreign people. I think for some it’s also leisure time: they get to interact with peers who are in different fields than theirs. But the commitment would make the glamour wear off after a while. They have to give one full work day a week. That’s a lot for a student.
I’m starting to suspect that volunteering has a lot to do with other ideas I’ve heard of helping improve Chinese society, as well as one’s district, city and country. I think Chinese people are very family-oriented, and they help their own first, but there is also a sense that you have a duty to improve the society you and your family are from. I still don’t know what the motivation behind this sense of duty is, or if volunteerism is a part of this at all.

The reason why this is important is because it feeds into the way Chinese people can and will understand the Jewish world, which has community at its core, especially the part of the Jewish world relevant to the history here. Community is a circle in which individuals benefit from the collectivity and vice versa. I remember the Rosh Hashanah speech the Rabbi gave; it was all strengthening the community through individual abilities. If Chinese people understand and live according to similar principles (with the desire to give, or volunteer, simply because one wants to), then perhaps the gap of understanding can be bridged more easily. 

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