Like many people, I started the new year vowing to lead a healthier lifestyle. I plan to eat better, exercise harder, and make more time for friends and family. I’m also planning to do more volunteer work, and lucky for me, it’s good for my health. Multiple studies over the years have found that people who spend time volunteering are healthier, happier, have stronger immune systems and lower rates of anxiety and depression.
When I moved to Beijing, I met people from all over the world. Many of them, like me, were in China because of their spouse’s job, and also like me, they were literally labeled “trailing spouses” by the Chinese government. (This is also common practice in many other foreign countries.) The trailing spouse visa, besides having a demoralizing name, prohibited us from working. So how did we stave off crippling home-sickness and stay upbeat, especially when faced with the endless cold and smog of Beijing winters? Besides having lots of adventures with new friends and too many Chinese foot massages to count, the answer is simple: we volunteered for local charities.
The hardest working, happiest volunteer I’ve ever met.
Source: Cynthia Kim Beglin
Even though there are far fewer NGOs per capita in China than in the U.S., we were able to find organizations that were making a difference in people’s lives.
One friend planned benefits for the city’s cancer society to help fund supplemental care for the many twenty-something people who developed the disease. (Beijing has a very high cancer rate among young people, probably due to the extreme pollution.)
Another friend volunteered at a hospital for babies and young children with severe disabilities. She cleaned and fed the children, oftentimes holding them and singing to them for many of the several hours she spent with them each week. (This may not sound too appealing if you’ve never felt a baby respond to your care and attention… or unless your children’s baby years are far behind you.)
A couple from our building worked at a shelter for the homeless, feeding the many hungry people who fell through Beijing’s scant safety nets.
All of these new friends reported that volunteering gave them a sense of purpose and helped them forge new friendships with the people they worked with. What’s more, seeing the desperate plights of others helped them to feel grateful for their blessings and gave them a way to connect with their surroundings.
I volunteered at the Dandelion School, the only middle school for migrant workers’ children to be accredited by the Beijing Education Bureau. As the unofficial PR person, I helped the principal write speeches and grants, worked on fundraising, and promoted the school to the ex-pat community.
The staff and children at the school were among the happiest people I’ve ever met. The teachers were underpaid, the principal didn’t take a salary, and the chef worked nearly every waking hour, seven days a week. The children came from some of the poorest families in Beijing, yet they were always smiling. Many of them were malnourished when they first came to the school, and all of them had failed the Beijing Education Bureau’s exams. But in less than a year, they were getting above average grades on those same exams and were working diligently to better themselves.
As the children of migrant workers, none of them had a hukou, the residence permit that allows access to the city’s schools and health care system. Because the Chinese culture is deeply grounded in Confucian philosophy, social interactions are traditionally based on relationships. While it’s customary for close friends and family to help one another, helping strangers is a relatively new concept. So these children never expected to be helped by strangers and were incredibly grateful for the chance to improve their lives. Their joy was truly infectious.
Beijing is a city of extremes, where sleek modern buildings exist not far from garbage-filled slums, extreme wealth not far from biting poverty. Until several decades ago, the government theoretically provided for the people, so there were few domestic NGOs. Chinese society was strictly regulated until the country began to open up in the late 70s and early 80s, so with a few exceptions, there were no foreign NGOs. Since then, NGOs have been gaining acceptance. Until recently, they were governed by a loose set of laws that left their legal status unclear. In January of 2017, the Chinese government passed laws to make it easier for domestic NGOs to operate and harder for foreign NGOs.
During the last several years, the leadership increasingly encourages and supports local NGOs, presumably because they recognize their usefulness in helping meet the needs of their people. Maybe they even recognize how much it improves the lives of the people who volunteer at these local charities.
Luckily, you don’t have to go to China to find an NGO that needs your help. Wherever you live in our vast country, there are charitable organizations nearby. Local food banks need donations of food, afterschool tutoring programs need tutors, soup kitchens need cooks and servers, at-risk families need mentoring, animal shelters need caregivers, the environment is at risk, and virtually all of these organizations need money. Why not find a cause that needs you, and find a way to help out? If you do, odds are that you’ll have a happier and healthier new year.
(Click on the following link to read about my first visit to the Dandelion School in Beijing: https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/culture-shocked/201409/learning-….