As a college student, I am always in search of how to channel my energy and career towards my passions, which are healthcare and international development. For instance, although the American system has its problems, its healthcare and education are still “accessible” to the majority and the awareness of mental disorders and learning disabilities has increased throughout the years. I experienced and understand the American system, but now I crave to see how other countries are handling these issues. Thus I was excited to truly take a peak at how China cares for their unique citizens compared to the models witnessed in America (Texas). That was my motivation volunteering in Shang Gang Disable Center and I was not disappointed. I believe this opportunity was an essential to my life. However, like all first-time international volunteers, my experience had obstacles to overcome.

I have always been fascinated with the Chinese/Shanghai culture, however all my knowledge has been gained from dramas, blogs, documentaries, articles, and friends. With that, I held a very romanticized view of Shanghai, China and I believed that I, a non-mandarin speaker and an American with limited exposure to the true Chinese culture, could of course navigate through the hustle and bustle of Shanghai. I was wrong. The first few days, I recognized that there would be a mountain to climb and after my first day of work in the Shang Gang Disable Center, I realized that mountain like the Shanghai World Financial Center was steep and towering. The biggest obstacle for me was the language. I thought in Shanghai everyone would know, understand and speak English, but most knew as much English as I knew Mandarin. At first I was surprised that most could not speak or understand basic English, but my surprise slowly turned into acceptance. After all why should they speak English when they live in China, where the official language is mandarin? However struggling with daily interaction with store clerks or bus drivers could not compare with attempting to forge bonds and make an impact to the students of Shang Gang. Most of the students spoke only mandarin, therefore interacting with them during their lessons and activities was both daunting and difficult at first (even though they were extremely welcoming and nice). Also because they were adults and needed to be treated with dignity and respect, I could not just play nonsensical games or prattle like I would do with children.

After the initial culture shock, I prepared for my trek up that mountain. I poured my energy into creating a bridge of communication with the students. At first I tried to communicate through only body language. However after my first English lesson I discovered some of them spoke English well (when prompted) and most did understand basic English words. Coupling their English with my basic Mandarin, we communicated with simple English and Mandarin words, bodily language, hand signs and of course iPhone applications (English to Chinese dictionary, phrase book, and sentence translators). I enjoyed my time with them, crafting discussions and conveying meaning. It was fun and every misunderstanding was met with patience and amusement. Working in Shang Gang, I became more flexible and resourceful. I have met amazing people that taught me a lot about adversity and diversity.

While slowly climbing this mountain (overcoming obstacles), I witnessed how China cares of their unique citizens. Shang Gang Disabled Center is an impressive facility that offered sign language, voice lessons, music (drum), dance, drawing, English class and other lessons depending on the volunteer teachers. In the beginning, walking through the hallway of the center and looking at the students’ artwork, I can honestly say their drawings were surprisingly good. Also I later found out the center provided resources for the students that show a high aptitude in a course in order for them to further their talents. In addition, observing their sign language class I was stunned that all the students could “sign” full sentences and have conversations. I can honestly say that they are vibrant, thriving, and intellectually bright in this center and especially in my English lessons. Moreover, this place provides a productive environment for mentally disabled students to learn and also create friendships. With that said I would hope there are places like Shang Gang everywhere in China and even the world.

In conclusion, I came to China wanting to enrich others with my values and skills but in the end I feel like I was the one most enriched with this experience. I became part of this city as I met new friends at Shang Gang, XuBo, and elsewhere. However, navigating through this urban jungle would have been much harder if it was not for the workers of XuBo (they all speak English and Mandarin fluently). They were extremely helpful and friendly. Any problem ranging from being stranded in the railway station to the ATM machine never returning my debit card, they were available to help me solve the problem. The staff at XuBo enhanced my experience in Shanghai and also in reflection, I would say I have become more independent, resourceful, flexible, social, and the list goes on. This was an excellent experience. I would advise anybody to volunteer outside their comfort zone because not only will you learn more about yourself (weaknesses and strengths) but also be immersed in a different culture that will broaden your perception. Of course, I will be coming back to China in the future and hopefully by then I will be fluent in Mandarin.