Getting Out There – A Volunteers Experience

Connecting with the migrant communities in Shanghai through volunteering

There is one goal that I must try to achieve whenever I move to a new country and that is: connect with and contribute to the local community. Developing genuine relationships and participating in the lives of the local people are certainly on top of my ‘to-do-list’. It may sound easy in theory, but in practice, I did not even know how to begin.

Coming to Shanghai as a ‘trailing spouse,’ I felt so far removed from everything. The excitement of being in a new country lasted for around 2 months, and after that it was the sense of isolation that dominated. I wanted to do more, be in more places, get to know more people, experience more, contribute more, but there are many barriers on that bumpy road. Yes, I made friends with people who come from different countries (thanks to Shanghai being home to a vibrant international community) but still, it felt as if I was living in a bubble; removed from the very community that I am surrounded by.

Despite the tall skyscrapers and luxurious shopping malls that Shanghai has to offer, I know that there are those whose lives are outside of ‘that’ wall. I saw them everywhere, migrants who come from the rural parts of China to seek better job opportunities. Take a glimpse at the train station a few days before Chinese New Year and there they are, in tremendous numbers, with their bags and boxes and young children and babies squeezing into the train that will take them on a once-in-year migration journey back home.

Maybe it’s because I too identified as being a ‘migrant’ that made me feel that I wanted to do something. I, and my parents and their parents have all moved from one place to another to seek a better life. In that sense, perhaps you and your family are migrants too. So when I heard of a volunteering opportunity to improve the education for migrant children with Stepping Stones China, I jumped right at it.

Do you know that out of the 24 million of people residing in Shanghai, almost 10 million are migrants*? Despite the rapid development of the city, migrants face many difficulties in accessing benefits due to the houkou (Chinese household registration) system. This system ties the social benefits of Chinese citizens (health care, education, pensions) to the place where their families are originally from.

There are currently over 500,000 school-aged migrant children in Shanghai. Around 70% of migrant children are enrolled in public schools whereas the remaining 30% are in 145 registered migrant schools. In general, migrant schools received less funding which leads to more students per class, a higher student to teacher ratio and generally less qualified teachers.

I joined Stepping Stones as a volunteer for their Classroom Teaching Program and volunteered for two semesters. The school that I went to was one of the further ones from central Shanghai, in Zhejiang province, and I remembered waking up at 5.30 am once a week to catch a van at 7.00 am for a 1.5 hour journey to the migrant school. We taught oral English, in a big classroom of at least 50 students per class with no air-conditioning or heating system. English is not my native language and I had never taught before. And yet there I was.

Handling a group of over 50 kids, in a language that you don’t understand, in a place that you’re not familiar with is not ‘easy’. But it is definitely rewarding and meaningful. English is important in these schools because it’s one of the three core subjects in the Chinese school syllabus. This means students must pass their English exams to continue their education.

Throughout my volunteering with Stepping Stones, what strikes me the most is having an opportunity to actively participate in the community that I’m residing. For me, volunteering opens up doors to experience and be part of a group of people whose culture is totally different from mine. It’s certainly a humbling experience and through it, I can fulfill my goal. Not only I was able to connect with and contribute to the local community, I also reminded myself every time I volunteered that I could grow to become someone better.

Learn what it is like to volunteer with Stepping Stones here or visit the website and sign up as a volunteer. Spring semester volunteer recruitment has just started and trainings will be held January through March.

 * migrants refer to people from the rural area of China who comes to Shanghai to search better job opportunities

Sally Wangsawijaya started off as a volunteer for Stepping Stones China and is now the Program Coordinator for the Classroom Teaching Program.

Sally Wangsawijaya