China
A small good deed can go a long way
By Abdilahi Ismail Abdilahi  ·  2023-07-10  ·   Source: NO.28 JULY 13, 2023
Abdilahi volunteers at a police station in Wuhan, Hubei Province(COURTESY PHOTO)

Many friends have asked me why I participate in so many volunteer activities and whether I get tired, given volunteering is a rather laborious undertaking. My answer is always: "I am tired, no doubt about that, but the more I volunteer to do, the more I gain from it. Every time I make the effort to help others, I gain a sense of joy and satisfaction."

Over my many years of living and working in China, so many people have come to my aid when I needed it the most; that's why I want to help others and contribute more to society here.

Anything I can do? 

As a student from Somalia in Wuhan, capital of the central province of Hubei, I often offered my services as a Chinese New Year, or Spring Festival, transport volunteer. Chinese New Year usually occurs somewhere between late January and mid-February. The holiday's accompanying travel rush, also known as chunyun, is the China-specific phenomenon of the largest population migration in the world as hundreds of millions of people return home or travel around the country. It has a history of more than 40 years. With China's rapid development over the past decades, chunyun services and related support mechanisms have also witnessed expansion. Many volunteers join the service teams every year, and I am honored to have been one of them for many years at this point.

But before I became a volunteer for the event, I didn't know much about it. However, my Chinese teacher once put on the 2010 comedy Lost on Journey, which features many chunyun-related scenes as it tells the story of the toy company owner who is trying to get to his hometown to ring in the Chinese New Year with his family. I remember thinking "fascinating," but I couldn't understand why people had to go to such extreme lengths to return home and reunite with their families before the holiday.

The first time I served as a chunyun volunteer was on Spring Festival Eve. We gathered at 6:30 a.m., the world outside still dark and frosty, to make our way to the train station. Many people were coming and going, all in a hurry and all carrying multiple big bags. I had only ever seen these scenes on a screen and being part of the real-life setting was overwhelming. I mainly had to stand guard at the entrance to Wuchang Railway Station, helping passengers buy their tickets, giving directions and assisting with luggage. All of us volunteers worked non-stop till 6 or 7 p.m. On our way home, I realized I'd lost my voice. 

By serving as a volunteer, I not only experienced the joy of helping others but also was able to observe chunyun from a unique perspective. When I saw with my own eyes the vast crowds, carrying big bags, small bags, children, and so on, I could also sense their anticipation and joy of soon being reunited with their families. But the journey was often very time-consuming and wearing. I think what all human beings have in common is our desire for a happy life surrounded by family and spent in good health. Chunyun paints a vivid picture of the Chinese people's pursuit of a life of contentment.

Abdilahi Ismail Abdilahi, originally from Somalia but a long-time China expat, poses for a group photo with other members of an expat volunteer team at Central China Normal University, Wuhan, capital of Hubei Province (COURTESY PHOTO)

Like Lei Feng 

When I volunteered at a local police station, the first dispute I had to mediate dealt with two Congolese students who had accidentally spilled coffee on a Chinese passerby. They had apologized, but since they couldn't understand each other's language, a mutual misunderstanding intensified the conflict and resulted in the police intervening. At the police station, I helped them translate and explain the misunderstanding. In the end, the parties involved reconciled. And they all thanked me for making the time to lend a helping hand.

This was the first time I'd ever dealt with such a conflict. This coordination made me realize a language barrier can easily lead to confusion. And so I continued my journey of volunteering and helping other expats live smoother lives in China. Although most mediation deals with minor conflicts and incidents, it does give me a sense of pride. I feel accomplished whenever I help others solve problems, making me feel like a bridge between other expats and Chinese people. 

Later, my volunteer activities led the university to commend me as "Foreign Lei Feng." I didn't even know what those three words, Foreign Lei Feng, actually meant, let alone their underlying meaning. I figured it was another certificate of merit.

But when chatting with a Chinese friend, I casually mentioned winning the Foreign Lei Feng award. The look in his eyes immediately changed to one of admiration and he said, "Then you must be a very helpful person." I didn't quite understand his reaction. Why did he say I was amazing when I hadn't even told him what I'd done? My friend noticed my confusion and asked, "Do you know who Lei is?" I admitted I did not. He was so shocked that he immediately decided to enlighten me. 

Lei was born in 1940 and died in an accident in 1962 when he was serving in the People's Liberation Army. He had done many good deeds and helped many people throughout his lifetime, therefore holding a special place in Chinese hearts. Every March 5, China celebrates Lei Feng Day, an event designated to promote altruism.

After listening to Lei's story, a deep sense of respect filled my heart. I admired Lei's commitment to doing good things without asking for anything in return.

Sima Qian (ca. 145-87 B.C.), a court scribe and renowned historian of the Han Dynasty (202 B.C.-A.D. 220), wrote in his book Historical Records: "Man is inherently dead, heavier than Taishan Mountain, or lighter than a feather." The general idea is that each of us will reach the end of life, but the value of each person's life is different. Those who have made significant contributions to society will be remembered. We cannot have a say in the length of our lifetime, but we can broaden its depth. We can learn from Lei: helping others, contributing our strengths and making our lives more valuable.

The author is a Sinologist and teaches at Beijing Foreign Studies University. This is an edited excerpt of an article first published in International Talent magazine 

(Print Edition Title: The 'Foreign Lei Feng') 

Copyedited by Elsbeth van Paridon 

Comments to liwenhan@cicgamericas.com 

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