Female volunteer's perspective

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Being a Female Volunteer in China

Being a volunteer in China is a rewarding experience, but there can be some unique challenges for female volunteers in China. Three of these challenges are:

1. The cultural beauty expectations and standards of China can sometimes be difficult for female volunteers who don’t fit the ideal model. For example, Chinese nationals might tell you directly that you are too tall or too fat and need to lose weight; they might deny you entrance to clothing stores that don’t sell your size; they might make comments behind your back about your size, expecting that you don’t understand what they are saying. And even if no one speaks to you directly about your size, it will be apparent everywhere you go that you don’t fit the cultural norm if you wear larger than size 4 clothing or size 8 shoes. In fact, it might be shocking at times to catch a glimpse of yourself in photographs or in store windows and realize just how much bigger you are than Chinese nationals. Although many women don’t mind being larger, for some volunteers, our cultural conditioning that we should not be ‘bigger than average’ can lead to body image concerns.

2. Your social status in China in general. Women are generally still considered to have lesser ability mentally and physically than men; if your site-mate is a male, there might be differences in the way your Chinese colleagues judge your abilities compared to your male site-mate. You might find that no matter how hard you work or study, you will be compared to your male colleagues. You might often find yourself being placed behind male colleagues in importance, simply because you are a woman. For women who have grown up a society that stresses ability driven, not gender driven, respect, this can be difficult.

3. Your social status in the dating world can be difficult to navigate. Many American men who come to China are interested in dating Chinese nationals, and most Chinese men seem to be intimidated by dating an American woman. Many Chinese men and women do not engage in publicly open same-sex relationships. Although it is very common for American men to date Chinese women in China, other types of relationship combinations are still quite unusual. So, there might be times when you feel that there are no dating options for you, due to these social circumstances.

Although these three things individually might not present much a challenge, when combined in concert with your overall adjustment to Chinese culture, at times they can seem quite overwhelming. So, what can you do to make sure your self-esteem and sense of self-worth is not affected by these new circumstances in which you find yourself?

Suggestions for Female (and all other) Volunteers

These are just a few suggestions that have been helpful in the lives of female volunteers in China:

1. Find ways to incorporate your existing hobbies and skills into your daily life in China. This might include making room in your luggage for or arranging for shipping of seemingly non-essential items, but which are necessary for you to continue with your hobby. For example, photography equipment, musical equipment, yoga materials, cooking utensils or ingredients, sports equipment, art supplies, or any other supplies necessary.

2. Explore the new hobbies available to you in China. For example, learn Chinese calligraphy, Tai Chi, meditation, cooking with new ingredients and methods, locally popular sports, additional language study, Chinese beauty products and rituals that might be new to you, Chinese popular culture, Chinese teas, travel, or other Chinese arts such as paper cutting. Learning these things can usually be done very inexpensively, and Chinese nationals are usually very eager to help you learn.

3. Bring a few clothing items that make you feel like “yourself.” You will have a lot of downtime to be able to wear your own clothing, even if it is just in your own apartment.

4. Take time to talk with other female volunteers about your struggles and concerns. Often just saying these things out loud will help to alleviate the stress you feel from them.

5. If necessary, appropriately assert the boundaries of what you are and are not comfortable discussing with other volunteers or Chinese nationals. Don’t hesitate to remove yourself from situations that are causing you unnecessary stress or making it difficult to feel good about yourself.

6. Understand that the male-driven respect and judging of ability is cultural, not personal.

7. Remember that you are in a unique position to show Chinese females just how strong, intelligent and awesomely talented women can be! Let your wonderful talents, strength and intelligence shine through!