"Now I understand what 'seeing is believing' really means," said Hannah Alexander, a college student and international youth volunteer from the United States, of her first journey to China. Alexander flew back to the state of New York last Saturday.
The 20-year-old British-born American said that with the brief but informative and touching journey she has realized her long-time dream of connecting with China, the home country of her grandfather and her mother.
On August 13, she joined 20 other students from China, Japan, Mongolia and the United States for an international youth volunteer service project in a remote mountainous village in North China's Hebei Province.
"Before I came to China, my knowledge about China, Chinese people and Chinese culture was so limited that I always found it hard to communicate with my mother and my younger sister. Both of them are much more Asian-looking and seem to have forged a closer tie with Chinese culture, the Chinese way of thinking and lifestyle," said Hannah, who has a typical Caucasian face and an obvious American accent.
"But after my stay in the small rural community and my trip to the Chinese cities of Beijing and Chengde, I feel more comfortable and it's easier now to relate to Chinese culture. I'm sure I will be back in the near future to work on more volunteer service projects in China."
The week-long international youth volunteer project was co-organized by the China International Culture Exchange Centre and the New York-based International Educational Foundation.
The summer project included visits to several Chinese historical sites, labor work in the terraced fields and on the mountains in the Baicaowa National Forest Park, 170 kilometers north of Beijing, as well as fun and games, reflective group discussions about life and world peace, inter-cultural performances and encounters with local farmers.
Beginning August 13, the overseas students made their first contact with Chinese culture.
The first stop was the Palace Museum, the Tian'anmen Rostrum and the Temple of Heaven, followed by a trip to a Chinese acrobatic show at the Tiandi Theatre in central Beijing. Next came a trip to the Great Wall before the students headed for Pendikeng village at Baicaowa in Hebei Province.
The Baicaowa National Forest Park, 900 meters above sea level, used to be part of the Jinjiagou Forest Farm in Luanping County in the province. The park, which covers an area of about 54 square kilometers and features a mountain peak 1,768-metres high, is famous for its well-preserved natural plant communities, especially its forest of white birches.
The park was officially designated a national forest park and a key ecotourism attraction early this year by the State Administration of Tourism, according to Yang Yongping, director-general of the park.
The Pendikeng village, near the entrance to Baicaowa, consists of 17 households ranging from three to six members. It has a population of less than 90 people.
As the temperature here varies greatly between day and night, very few types of vegetables and fruits can be grown. Corn is the major crop in this area. As a result of such limitations, the annual per capita income in the village is less than 1,000 yuan (US$120).
These days, the locals are pinning great hope on the development of the national forest park.
"Since last summer, many of us have been making preparations for the official opening of this national park. We hope to benefit from this forest park by doing ecotourism-related businesses, and we hope to gradually give away our farming fields to the forest park," said Li Shutian, a primary school teacher in the village.
Some families, including Li's, have already offered homestays to sporadic tourists who come sightseeing for the weekend.
And each family who gives up part of its farming fields receives about a 150 yuan (US$18) subsidy every year from the local government, according to Li who provided a homestay for three volunteers.
The volunteers were split into three small groups, each with students from more than one country.
"In doing so, we hoped to give the young students as many opportunities as possible for intercultural communication in a short period of seven days," explained Eric Wenzel, the main coach for this volunteer project.
The volunteer students engaged in many interesting activities. During the daytime, they hoed the fields, built tourist routes on the mountains, picked vegetables and fed livestock with guidance from local farmers. On breaks from the manual labor, they played games to help "foster the spirit of mutual trust and teamwork," said Wu Jihua, coach and project coordinator with the China International Culture Exchange Centre.
In the evenings, students held group discussions and made sketches to express themselves on such topics as world peace, cultural differences and personal growth. They staged three evening shows featuring both Chinese and foreign cultures for the local farmers.
The volunteers were also encouraged to learn how to cook simple Chinese food such as jiaozi (Chinese dumplings) and fried eggs with green chili peppers. Several local families gave cooking lessons.
"We found the local farmers easy to get along with. We have learned a lot about rural Chinese life from them which we could not get from American media," said Charmaine Doroski from Suffolk Community College in New York State.
"They treated us just like old friends though we were meeting each other for the first time," she said.
"Because it was a trial, this summer's volunteer service project was relatively small in terms of the number of participants and it was not very well-prepared in terms of content," said Lu Hongsheng, executive deputy secretary-general of the exchange centre.
Even so, the participants reported that they enjoyed this physically challenging but interesting and meaningful project immensely.
Li Yipeng, a former chef with the Great Wall Sheraton Hotel in Beijing and now a sophomore at the privately-funded Beijing-USA College of English, said: "I see it as a turning point in my life to have been involved in this 'intercultural exchange activity' in Baicaowa.
"Through youth volunteer service, or 'social practices,' side by side with other Chinese and foreign students, I have come to realize that one should not only care about one's own business but also care more about others and make contributions to society," Li said.
The coaches from the exchange centre and the educational foundation also learned from their volunteer service experiences here, said Wenzel.
"I discovered the great diversity of the Chinese people in appearance and personality. This was very enjoyable because I like to observe and learn about the many dimensions of human culture," he said.
In his opinion, "working together creates more harmony and peace than any amount of dialogue or study."
He said his expectation of strong emotional connections among the participants was fulfilled.
A first-time traveler to China, Wenzel, in his 40s, said he did not imagine the great division between the farming class and the emerging Chinese middle class. The Chinese farmers seem to be less integrated in modern society than other people, he said.
"I expected the farmers to be somewhat suspicious of me as an American, but they did not appear suspicious at all. In fact they were most welcoming," he recalled.
When asked about his impressions about Chinese and foreign students in this project, he said: "When I travel internationally, I am often ashamed of the ethnocentric attitudes of Americans.
"So few American students are bilingual. Whereas it seems many Chinese college students know English. Also, the Chinese have learned to keep life more simple. American life is too complicated -- too many gadgets, accessories and fads. But the Chinese make due with what they have."
Many of this summer's participants expressed their hope to come again next year.
"I really enjoyed my stay here in China with my newly made friends. I like the people in the rural area; I also like to go shopping and sightseeing in big cities like Beijing. But it may take a long time before I get used to the strange Chinese food," said Jamal White, 19, from Washington, DC.
"I hope to make more friends in China, and meet more young people from different cultural and social backgrounds," said White.
(China Daily August 29, 2002)