Tuesday, October 16, 2007

Report from Xi'an, China

There is an epidemic of national pride for the 2008 Olympic Games everywhere in China.

While the Games in Beijing are less than nine months away, everyone you meet is proud that China will showcase its country, people, culture and history to what will be the largest television audience in Olympics history. Shanghai also is aggressively promoting and preparing for its World Expo in 2010 and along with Beijing, is hosting international sports events. The FIFA world cup in football (soccer) is underway now in Shanghai, which also will be one of the venues for this sport in 2008. Both cities are concerned, however, that the behavior of some Chinese in public may be offensive to many foreign visitors. Spitting, littering, queue jumping, jay walking, smoking in non-smoking areas and talking loudly in crowded public places have been cited as bad habits that need to be corrected. And, the ill-mannered are from all social and economic groups

Emily Post and Amy Vanderbilt would be proud of the officials in both cities who have launched massive public education campaigns to teach proper etiquette and manners and avoid for China public indignation from foreign travelers. The women's federation in Shanghai published and distributed booklets about etiquette and discussed this subject at public forums and on television and trained more than 750,000 residents on manners. According to studies, more than 75 percent of the people in major cities consider this etiquette drive very important for the overall success of both the Olympic Games and World Expo.

In the three weeks I have been in China, I have found the Chinese people extremely warm, hospitable, friendly and accommodating and many speak English. However, when it comes to getting a taxicab during a busy time, it helps having had experience in New York City trying to get a taxi during rush hour or when it is raining. The Chinese do not queue nor is it first come, first-serve, but strictly survival of the fittest and who can get in the taxi first. On the positive side, taxicabs are cheaper here than anyplace I have visited and there is no tipping. You pay only the meter and many of my trips have been less than US$2. In Beijing, I was in a taxi for nearly an hour and a distance that would take one in New York from the Bronx to the Battery and the cost was US$7.50.

At markets and other public areas where people would normally stand in line for service, visitors to China should be prepared for people to push in ahead of them as a matter of local custom. While there are pedestrian cross walks and stop lights, there is absolutely no pedestrian right of way. Crossing a street anywhere in China is like running an obstacle course of fast-moving buses, trucks, taxis, autos, bicycles and all types of moving vehicles coming at you at high speed. I found it helpful to look for a woman with a baby or small children and cross the street in a group. No preference is given to women or seniors. All pedestrians are considered fair game once you step off the sidewalk. For the past week I have been in Xian, a city of more than eight million people in the center of the country. It is hard to believe Xian is considered only a mid-sized city in China yet it is larger than Los Angeles, Chicago or New York. Xian was the nation's first capital and home of the first emperor. During his Qin Dynasty the Great Wall of China was built as well as the world famous Terra Cotta Army that was buried with him.

While Beijing is the government center of China and Shanghai the financial center, Xian is the educational and technical center with more than 100 universities and 800,000 students. I am a member of a team of 12 volunteers through Global Volunteers, a non-profit organization headquartered in Minneapolis that is teaching conversational English to students at Eurasia University. Eurasia is a 10-year-old private university with 20,000 students. Every student lives on campus in a dormitory and all freshman are required to take military training. In the foreign language department the students are required to take English and either French or Japanese. Almost every student on campus has some command of English. The students are extremely proud of the Olympic Games and are an excellent example of the pride everyone is taking in China being showcased to the world next year.

In addition to classes, we helped prepare nine students for a national speech contest and several used the Beijing theme, "One World, One Peace," in their essays. Last week, we judged a speech contest at the Fourth Army Military University and Hospital and again, several of the presenters adopted the Olympic slogan in their remarks. National pride is a positive epidemic in this country of 1.3 billion people who are proud of its 5,000-year-old history. Before Xian, I visited Shanghai, Yichang, Chongqing and Beijing and you could not walk a block without seeing the Olympic logo. You don't need to understand Chinese when you see the Olympic promotions on television or billboards, or in newspapers and magazines.

However, as Chen Weihua wrote in a commentary in China Daily, bad manners could jeopardize the success of the Olympics. "While the Beijing Olympics and Shanghai World Expo will be a big test and a display of public behavior, cultivating good social manners is not just for these events, it is vital to the country's goal of building a harmonious society, sustaining development and winning respect from people all over the world," Chen wrote. "Cultivating good social manners for our citizens means a lot more than winning 100 Olympic gold medals." Notes: Visitors should be prepared for a surprise in Chinese toilets. There are very few Western toilets except in five-star hotels and I didn¡¯t see any in the new Xian International Airport. Visitors also should always carry toilet paper with them because there is none in most toilet facilities.

Several of us took a break from local Chinese food, unlike anything you can order in the U.S., and decided to have lunch at the Pizza Hut in Xi'an's largest mall. We needed reservations but it was worth the wait. You cannot drink or brush your teeth with any tap water, even in five-star hotels. It is not safe. Always use bottled water and carry it with you wherever you go. Athletes who have sought out hotels in the past may find it in their best interests in Beijing to stay in the Olympic Village. The Beijing Organizing Committee for the Olympic Games has not issued a statement regarding the safety of the tap water in the Olympic Village. Years ago the late Col. Red Blaik, coach of the greatest teams in Army history, always had local water trucked from West Point to the site of every away game the team played. National Olympic Committees may want to insure a plentiful supply of their country's bottled water for their athletes.

(Rene A. Henry is an author and writer who lives in Seattle. He spent more than 35 years of his professional career in international and Olympic sports. He also has given of his time to teach in Italy and Mexico for Global Volunteers. )

Wednesday, September 12, 2007

My Heart Remains in Romania

Sue Surma Volunteering I volunteered with eight other Global Volunteers at a clinic in the small rural hamlet of Codaesti, about a 45-minute drive outside the cultural center of Iasti in northern Romania six years ago. For three weeks we cared for about 30 infants and toddlers, ranging in age from five months to two years. I have many poignant memories from 20 years of international travel, but those three weeks profoundly changed my life.

I’ve been a volunteer in Brazil, the Cook Islands, Ghana, Peru and Vietnam and other countries. Nineteen programs in all. On another Global Volunteers program I mixed cement in Guatemala and built roof trusses in Mississippi. But those three weeks working with this infants and toddlers in Codaesti introduced me to a new career.

In my adult years, I worked several part-time jobs (bartender, waitress, tour guide) but I knew I need a steady job to support my international volunteer habit. At the age of 52, I went back to school to become a licensed practical nurse, and now I'm studying to become a registered nurse. I know this would not have happened without my Global Volunteers experience. In fact, every major decision I've made about the next 50 years of my life can be traced back to this short, but profound experience with the babies of Romania.

Thankfully, memories aren't always built on first impressions. When we stepped into the small four-room house–a temporary orphanage–on the grounds of the Codaesti hospital, we were hit with the overpowering stench of urine. Babies of all sizes and ages were crying in their cribs, most of them suffering from a full body rash. The overworked staff could only change diapers three times a day and propped them for their feedings.

We were nonplussed by the challenge we faced but enthusiastic to soothe their tiny bodies and spirits. We cleaned the infants and covered the soaking wet mattresses with large plastic bags. We had brought with us lots of sleepers, dozens of cloth diapers, rubber pants and a case of Desitin.

There was no formula, so the staff had been feeding them a thin gruel of crushed crackers and water. We worked to fortify the meals to improve nutrition and to hold each of them as we fed them. Just holding and comforting dry babies became a joy.

As I write, I am staring at my psychology textbooks and thinking about the cognitive, physical and psychosocial abilities of each of those small children. I think in three short weeks what we performed was nothing short of miraculous. The babies began to turn over, the older ones began to crawl, and they all experienced a sense of love, probably for the first time in their short lives.

But, please don't conclude this was easy. Truth be told, we put in long days and passed up brief opportunities to be tourists in order to get the rest we needed for the next day’s challenges. Washing over 100 diapers by hand is not pretty or easy. But to know they those clean dry diapers would caress the dear bottoms of our babies made it worth every minute.

Perhaps that's why Romania stays in my mind. We witnessed unmistakable improvement of our babies, and we knew that another team would be arriving in a week to take our places. It eased separation anxiety some of us felt when we left.

While the service program in Codaesti ended when the hospital closed several years ago (a casualty of changes brought about by membership in the European Union), my experience exemplifies what happens on a well-run volunteer team. Global Volunteers has sustained a long-term development partnership with Dr. Dehlia at Tutova Hospital in Romania to care for similar needy babies at the Tutova Failure to Thrive ward outside Barlad. The philosophy of Global Volunteers is to help a community with a project that the community decides is necessary. Working side by side with a person from a different culture is not only a good way to learn about that culture but also to make a close relationship. I have never been on a team that expected me to do anything for which I was physically unable. I was, however, offered the chance to learn new stuff. But in the end, it is about making friendships and letting others get to know an American. Many people I have met tell me I am no the American they expected. And I have learned that people all around the globe have the same needs and wants as we do, laughter comes in all languages.

Susan Surma, nurse and indefatigable international volunteer

Thursday, September 06, 2007


Thoughts of a Grandmother:
Most parents want their children to be happy and successful throughout their lives. Unfortunately, the mainstream culture in western society has defined happiness and success by the amount of material goods an individual possesses, or is capable of purchasing. Parents’ buy the latest video games, I-Pods, and cell phones to create happiness for their children. Families take vacations and buy family passes to theme parks to be happy. Successful movie and rock stars show our children the glamour of hedonism by indulging in designer clothing, alcohol and drugs. While these material possessions and experiences may create temporary or artificial happiness, solely teaching our children to be self indulgent is not the answer to developing our children into successful and honorable leaders.

Although I am only one person, there are steps that I can take to make the world a better place, one footprint at a time. I can teach my grandchildren to appreciate the gift of being born in the United States with parents who can provide them the luxury of plentiful food, clothing and education; I can teach them that most children in the world live in families struggling to find enough to eat and clean water to drink; I can bring them to meet those who are poor, disabled, and sick so they will know the real identities of the less fortunate children whose faces they see in photographs, and I can develop my grandchildren’s compassion so that throughout their lives they will reach out to those who need them. Global Volunteers has provided one avenue for me to accomplish these goals.

Kathryn Kuehnle - Clinical Child Psychologist and volunteer

Thoughts of a Grandson

Starting when I was 12 years old, my grandmother and I developed a tradition of giving presents to homeless children for Christmas. Each year we gather a Christmas wish list from the children living in one of our community’s homeless shelters. We purchase the items and then take the presents to the shelter before Christmas Eve. I find our tradition very rewarding because my grandmother and I are sharing something special, and I know that the children in this particular homeless shelter will wake up to find presents under their Christmas tree. When we started this tradition I didn’t actually comprehend the plight of the children because I had never experienced these children as unwashed and sleeping in cardboard boxes or living in their cars. The shelter we visited had clean rooms, beds, running water, and electricity. I didn’t think about what their life would be like if the shelter did not exist.

My understanding of homelessness and the plight of the poor changed when I started feeding breakfast to the homeless in my community. It was through this experience that I saw the living conditions of the almost “invisible” portion of our society. Sleeping under bridges or in parks, with no access to facilities to clean their bodies or their clothes, they were often unkempt and dirty. Without adequate food and medical attention, these people suffered from a range of untreated physical and mental illnesses. I found the experience of getting to know this group of people even more rewarding than giving Christmas presents to homeless children. I found myself looking for more opportunities to volunteer.

Three years ago my grandmother and I started volunteering through Global Volunteers. Since I have been 14 years old, we have spent our summers in foreign countries helping people who live in impoverished communities. In Ecuador we taught and played with physically and mentally handicapped children and adults. In Australia, we helped an Aborigine community establish a tourist industry for their artifacts. In Africa, I worked at the village medical clinic, and when I returned home I began the task of raising money for medical supplies for the clinic.

During my volunteer work, I have seen children whose only meal is served at their school, which means they feel hunger every day. I have seen a 5 year old girl die because there was no money to buy the medicine to treat her and no transportation to take her to a hospital. I have met people who are mentally ill and living in cardboard boxes under freeways in the greatest country in the world. I have learned that the basic necessities that I take for granted may be rare luxuries for the poor.

All too often in our society we are encouraged to place value in consumerism and material worth. We find ourselves taking things for granted and develop a false sense of entitlement. We tend to ignore the portion of our society who is poor. We also blame the poor for their fate, and egotistically assume that we, the fortunate, have done something to earn our privileged placement on this earth. My grandmother has taught me the joy of giving to others. My volunteer work has raised my awareness of global economic and living conditions, and helped put a name and face to those individuals who struggle to survive.

We've decided to help raise money for the Pommern Medical Clininc, and you can view our web site and make a donation here: http://pommerndonations.com/

Chris Evans, high school senior

Monday, August 06, 2007

Appropriate Volunteering is a Choice

The protagonists in "The Ugly American" were early examples of "generalized Global Volunteer types". I just re-read the book and this is only partly true.

The book, as you probably know, was written 50 years ago in the early anti-communist era when West threw money at the corrupt third world governments to build vast projects (of little value to the poor folks) to keep the governments on our side. In opposition to this policy, the protagonists in the book went out to work with village people to help them build things themselves that were wanted and needed. I remember the huge effect this contrarian view had.

But in critical details, they were not working as Global Volunteers. They did work marvelously with the local people in most ways; but they arrived, decided themselves on what was needed (and possible), and then manipulated the people into doing what they suggested. They were "Have Gun, Will Travel" types. They also had an agenda of promoting entrepreneurialism. Whether or not to do this is, of course, a hot topic still today - I'm content to just give help.

I agree that Global Volunteers’ "Servant-Learner" philosophy addresses this, and that "The Servant is not a Problem-Solver" position is the best approach. I agree that volunteers certainly should not interfere in local management, nor offer suggestion on what should or needs to be done. But once the locals make these decisions, I feel we should use whatever skills we have to help them - and that certainly involves "Problem Solving" as I understand it.

Tom Head, 17-time volunteer to Ecuador and retired CEO

Monday, June 25, 2007

It's a Small World

It is a small world. We were enjoying an ice cream on a hot day in Central Park in NYC while visiting our daughters. While relaxing on a park bench a cell phone call came in asking for a short interview about our experiences with Global Volunteers in Peru last year. My husband, Peter, and I were both part of the Lima team in Nov. 2006. While answering the interviewer's questions I couldn't believe my eyes. Coming toward us was a team member I had worked closely with in the orphanage in Lima. We cared for two small children with special needs and traveled each day by death-defying taxi to take the two to physical therapy. Suddenly there she was vacationing with friends in NYC. Big hugs and smiles and photos all around. Serendipity made for a special moment for us all and helped to renew our happy thoughts about our accomplishments in Peru and the friends we made in service with Global Volunteers.