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More Than Give and Take: Volunteering is Empathy in Motion

by Simone Wong

As a working student who’s moving around the world, it can be challenge attempting to make the most out of my time in a new country. In a city like Berlin, making new friends is easy if you’re outgoing (…or active enough for the clubbing scene). Yet for some, forming meaningful connections can still be difficult when everything around simply seems … so foreign. Volunteering is an obvious choice for many to meet new people and do something good (and is of course a great platform for this). My experiences, however, have brought me much more – and this is exactly what I want to share with you today.

Simone Wong
(Simone Wong)

Breaking your bubble

Life is full of diversity, and Berlin is the perfect example. The city attracts people from all kinds of cultures and backgrounds; you’ll never fail to hear at least three or four languages when walking down a single street in Mitte.

Diversity in this city, sadly, can come with conflict or biases between social groups. Most times it can be as subtle as giving an impolite glance on the U-Bahn, or avoiding a street you heard might be ‘sketchy’.

In society we naturally form groups of ‘us’ and ‘others’ as a shortcut to position ourselves. The sad truth is, people are often afraid of unfamiliar ‘outgroups’, hence the illusion that it’s hard to interact with those that are different from us. In worse cases, this can lead to hostile attitudes or prejudice towards those that we don’t associate with.

What I think is a good way to tackle this? Improving your sense of empathy through volunteering.

Empathy is our ability to understand other’s mental states, emotions and feelings. I think many people often think of volunteering as an act of contribution or ‘giving back’ to the community. It almost seems like there’s a pre-assumed power dynamic, that the only reason why we’re here is because someone is in need of time or resources. Yet is it simply just a concept of give & take? Instead, volunteering gives us a chance for a first-hand, authentic understanding of societal issues and struggles of others.

“More importantly, the sharing of time and creating bonds that would never be possible in our social bubbles.”

(Simone Wong)

My volunteering story

I began volunteering in high school merely to meet requirements for my IB studies, but gradually I started to enjoy more and put in a lot more effort. 

“The more activities I participate in, the more I’m exposed to new ways of thinking that could never be sparked on my own – and it simply makes sense for me now to continue the journey in Berlin.”

I continued volunteering after moving to the UK for university (and later to Denmark). Since then I’ve lost count on how many social issues I’ve come across: from mental illness, LGBTQ +, poverty, food waste … to AIDS, animal rights, recycling, ethical consumerism …  the more activities I participate in, the more I’m exposed to new ways of thinking that could never be sparked on my own – and it simply makes sense for me now to continue the journey in Berlin.

As an expat, volunteering also helped me reconnect with my hometown. Hong Kong is one of the richest cities in the world, yet the wealthiest 10% of households earn nearly 44 times more than the poorest 10%. This absurd income disparity has only fostered our ignorance towards ways of living and the needs of other social groups.

This problem, of course, isn’t limited to Hong Kong. It’s true that even without first-hand experiences, we can still discuss social welfare, or list out policies or issues we think should be prioritised. Yet how much would this list of yours truly benefit the community? Or would it be based on a narrower view of what you think is ‘good for everyone’?

“For me, volunteering is never about the gratification you get afterwards for doing something ‘right’; instead, it’s having a deeper understanding and reflection of why you think certain things ‘aren’t right’.”

I would love to know what volunteering has brought to you – it would be great to hear your stories and thoughts!

In my next article, I’d like to share my comparison of volunteering in different countries in terms of practices, attitudes and more (which my opinion is of course, only based on my own experiences ?).

Thanks for reading! Until then – happy volunteering!

Simone is a 22 y.o. from Hong Kong studying masters in Copenhagen and now interning in Berlin. Several things she enjoys: ☕, rambling on her blog & Instagram, getting lost in Berlin and the serendipity of meeting new people.

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  1. Pingback: What I’ve Learned After Volunteering in 3 Different Countries – vostel Blog

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