|http://www.sina.com.cn 2004/03/02 08:31 英语沙龙|
At Columbia University, where I taught economics for many years before coming to China, most of my students spent a great deal of time in volunteer work. They taught poor children in the local neighborhoods, they visited the elderly in hospitals and at home and helped them with their shopping, they worked to preserve historic sites and places of beauty, they cleaned up waste dumps, they prepared food for the hungry, they created and ran student newspapers, they organized concerts and artistic events, they acted as translators for migrant workers, they formed political pressure groups, they raised money to combat AIDS, malaria, and other diseases, and so on.
As part of that tradition I do volunteer work here in Beijing, just as I did in New York, but I find that my students at Tsinghua University and at other schools in Beijing are much less involved in volunteering then I had expected. In part, of course, this reflects the heavier workload in Chinese schools, which leaves less time for outside activities. But I think there is more to it than just this. I think it also reflects a very different system, in which volunteer work for students here is usually organized or sponsored by government, schools, or other official groups, rather than by the students themselves. This means that many students here in Beijing think of volunteering as something that must be done to please teachers, bosses, or other figures of authority, rather than because of a desire to address a problem about which they have thought very deeply.
This is unfortunate. I think it would be better both for them and for society if Chinese students took the initiative to decide what kinds of problems or issues they felt to be of importance, and then played a more active role in organizing the work. There are many reasons why this would be good. The most obvious reason, of course, is that we all have obligations towards our society, and volunteer work is one way of repaying this obligation.
But there are at least two other important reasons for doing volunteer work. The first is that you can learn a lot about yourself and about your abilities by organizing, taking on responsibilities, deciding on objectives, and fulfilling them. When you work closely with others who are less fortunate than you, or when you set a local goal and work to accomplish it, you see directly how your actions can affect the world around you.
This is an important lesson. Many of my students here work very hard, but their attitude towards their work is not always a healthy one. They do the work not because they love it or feel that it is exciting but rather because it is expected of them, and they will get rewarded (or at least not punished) if they do it. With charitable work there is no explicit reward. You work because you have goals, and in the end the only judge of your work is yourself. This changes the way you think about work and about your responsibilities to yourself and others. It also forces you to think about what you are doing and the best way to accomplish your objectives. You are no longer simply doing something because your teacher or your boss told you to do it.
The second important reason for charitable work is that it changes your relationship with your society. Sometimes I feel that many of the people I meet here don't really appreciate the greatness of China and the excitement of the process through which it is currently living. The Chinese are well-known for being nationalistic, but sometimes I think this nationalism has more to do with distrust of foreigners than with love of country. Many of my friends and students simply do not know very much about their own country, and often seem unhappy with or embarrassed by certain aspects of China.
I think that if they had spent more time engaged in activities outside of school and family such as doing volunteer work, they would feel very differently. For example, if you help the children of migrant workers with their education, you will quickly realize that poor migrant workers should not be seen as an embarrassment to Beijing. On the contrary, they are a great strength, and their stories are part of a huge and dramatic experiment that China is undergoing. In a small way by working with migrant children you can help make the experiment a success.
To take another example, when you spend time taking care of old people, who have lived during a very turbulent part of Chinese history, you will discover that the dry and boring stories in your history books actually describe very important events that had an enormous impact on the lives of people that came before you. You will realize how future events can have just as big an impact on your life and those of your friends and family.
Volunteer work does not have to focus only on helping the poor and disadvantaged. When you help preserve a small and neglected monument that is part of Beijing history, you take possession of your city and begin to love it more deeply. You realize what it means to be a Beijinger, and you begin to see your life in your city as part of a long and wonderful history. Or when you start a small local newspaper written by you and your friends and whose copies are sold or even given away free, for example a simple newspaper to discuss the music that you love (in America, we call these newspapers "zines"), you learn how providing a forum for discussion can unite a group of people and have a direct impact on the way they think and act.
If you are interested in volunteer work you don't have to wait for your school, your teachers, or officials on television to tell you what to do. The best volunteer work is work that you decide for yourself and organize with your friends. The best projects are those that you think are truly important to you, no matter how small and insignificant they may seem to society as a whole. By deciding what you want to do, and doing it, you benefit not only your society but also yourself, and you and your friends can take control of some part of the life around you and change it for the better.
By Michael Pettis
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