When a dear old friend invited me to join him and his wife on a humanitarian trip to Tongren, a third-tier city in China, I didn’t stop to think and immediately said “Yes”. My prompt acceptance seemed to be a pleasant surprise for them and some other friends who eventually got wind of my intention to make the trip. Hey, I’m no cold-blooded, uncaring person, but I’m your typical “very busy Singaporean” who doesn’t seem to have time for anything except work. (By work, I mean planning and designing wonderful holidays for everyone else, but myself!)

I certainly didn’t know what the details of the intended trip were nor what this decision entails, except, I thought it was nice to finally make an effort to set aside time and try to help some people. It was also about getting back to basics, away from all the complicated modern sophisticated world that we live in… blah, blah blah.

I’ve always wanted to go on a humanitarian trip. But the truth is, I am not an adventurous backpacker gal who is willing to carry her 60-litre backpack and trek through dirt roads to reach some forsaken village and be the saviour of the villagers — at least that was my impression of a humanitarian trip. Neither do I qualify as a philanthropist who can afford to build a village for the poor. I am just an average person who lives in her own world most of the time, leading a generally comfortable life and occasionally thinking about making a difference in the world.

I turned out to be a bigger cynic than I’d ever admit prior to this trip.  Two weeks before going to Tongren, I was in Shanghai and Hangzhou for business. Shanghai and Hangzhou are considered first- and second-tier cities in China. I last visited Shanghai in 2011 so it wasn’t that different from what I remembered it to be. Hangzhou, on the other hand, had changed so much in the last five years! I was genuinely shocked when I visited the city centre — it really resembled Singapore’s Central Business District! It was dotted with tall nice buildings, similar to Singapore’s architectural structures except they were twice the width and height because there are no land constraints. When we stepped into the shopping mall for lunch, every retailer brand mirrors that in Singapore. While some may find this flattering to Singapore, I was scared. Back home, we are complaining about everything conceivable but this second-tier Chinese city with a population of 7.5 million people is trying its best to modernise at an incredible speed. What took us 47 years… they will accomplish in less than half the time! My next thought was, “Oh dear, I’m coming back to China to do for a humanitarian project in a week’s time. Do they really need my help? Do they deserve it as much as some other people in other more ‘needy’ countries? Why can’t all these rich Chinese help their own people? Am I going to be wasting my time, money and efforts going to Tongren?”  I felt like a fool at that point in time.

The group headed to Tongren comprised people from diverse backgrounds including a civil servant who held a doctorate, a banker, a business development manager, a social worker and a pharmacist. I rarely travel on a ‘group trip’ but such a size for volunteering initiatives was not only fun but full of learning opportunities. All of us had different reasons for taking part in this humanitarian trip and our combined work experiences contributed to the overall experience.  We used our strengths and corporate know-how to benefit the children from the three schools we visited. We taught them about personal hygiene, learnt about their aspirations and inspired them by sharing with them our professions and life in the city. After all, we were there to assess how we can help groom talents from among the students and if we can contribute financially to build them infrastructure and facilities so they can learn better. Some children trek 2 to 4 hours just to attend lessons. The available student hostels have up to three kids sharing one bunk bed. Witnessing their living conditions was indeed a heartbreaking moment for the delegates.

We were most humbled by the dedication of the local teachers to teach the kids despite the low pay. We found out that they have to sacrifice their family and personal life just to mentor these children. The teachers live in the school compound (very dilapidated rooms!) and only commute back home once a month (for some, once every two or three months) to spend time with their families, many of which live no fewer than 4 hours away from the villages.

I learnt that the kids’ dreams were built on their lack, current situations and inspirations from people around them — aspirations to be someone bigger and better so that they can contribute back to their community or their families. One of the kids we interacted with wanted to be a scientist so that she can improve the laborious work and hours needed to tend the farm fields. Another desired to be a teacher — just like her own who inspired her. Yet another intended to be a doctor, so that she can come back to the village to treat her neighbours and family. In all the village schools we visited, we realised that just about every household comprised a grandparent and their grandchildren. All the parents have left the village in search of a ‘better life’ in the city, leaving the old and the young back home. What are our own dreams built on? Those of us in developed societies have become really comfortable and most people’s basic needs are more than met.

The children were extremely touched to have visitors to their schools and by the knowledge that someone, somewhere, out there actually cared and made the arduous journey to their little forsaken corner of the world. We gave out bursaries to some selected kids, based on their study merits. We encouraged them to continue learning so that they can grow up and be the person they want to be. I personally hope they will not be ‘tainted’ by the city’s glamorous lifestyle and its pursuit of material wants. We have seen how ladies in the third-tier city walks on the uneven roads in high-heels, all dolled up.

Perhaps we think too much and don’t allow our emotions to lead us. We assess cost and benefits, we rationalise decisions and actions that we negate and devalue the intangibles and potential in life. And that was probably why I was so glad I made the trip despite my initial skepticism. In the short one week, I experienced emotions I’ve detached myself from over the years, learnt more about myself, realised that the little I do actually can make a difference in others’ lives. In the process, I was rejuvenated and recharged. While I had gone to ‘help’ others, I had in fact,been helped. I went back to my world and strived to be the ‘best’ all over again. Thank you children, thank you China!

Editor’s note:
Quotient is keen to organise a humanitarian trip in 2013. If you or your company/organisation is keen to be involved, please email to enquiry@travelplanner.com.sg