Kitty Zhao

Funded by Mr. and Mrs. Haney, I am more than fortunate to volunteer for the Asian American Civic Association for three weeks. It is a half-charity based organization that provides limited English speaking and economically disadvantaged people with education, occupational training and social services to enable them to reach economic self-sufficiency. Lasting from 6.6 to 6.26, I was assigned to the “Buds and Blossoms Day Care Center” which hosts about 60 pre-elementary school kids in Boston, Chinatown. During this time, I stayed at an American host family, in which I got a chance to experience a real, American life as well.

On the first day, I met the office coordinator, Mindy, a cantonese lady who excels at English. It was a huge buster for me when I realized that although I work at a Day Care Center, I could not play with the children or be near them out of legal reasons (because I do not have a SSN, the background check for me is going to actually last longer than my internship length, and people are not allowed to be near the kids unless they passed the background check). “But then what can I do?” A little frustrated, I worried that I would be useless there. “Don’t worry, we are always short of staff.” Said Mindy, as she led me to an art room filled with dust.

She was right. My position was a full time busboy, and my first job was to clean up the messy art/storage room due to the lack of space. Reading the work of other Haney Fellowship winners, it wouldn’t be true if I say I had never felt envious for filling my volunteer career with daily chores in a downtown basement.

However, I was totally wrong about it. At the end of the internship, I truly feel grateful for having this opportunity.

As it turned out, the reorganization of the art room was not easy. Unlike the dorm rooms, donations, randomly placed materials and worst of all, tons of dust overwhelmed the room itself. I still remember coughing for over a minute when I opened one of the drawers. The organization not only covers its cost with tuitions, but also donations of all kinds. Boxes of egg cartons were collected to be reused as kids’ drawing boards; used buttons were collected to be “feeling materials” (little kids grab and feel them in order to train their five senses) and etc. The effort it made to create a economical organization shocked me when I recalled how many useful stuff I threw out simply because I regard them as too much trouble. In total, I spent over a week drowning in a world of children’s stationary and toys until I made it look like a newly constructed space.

My supervisor was another volunteer named Joan, who has worked them for three college summers because she majored in East Asian Studies and wanted to learn more in a “local environment.” To me, she has been an absolute role model. Patient, meticulous and super nice, she was basically in charge of the supplies, staff schedules, event planning and else. Although she does not take any wages, she willingly works over time while she also takes over two summer college courses at night. After I arrived, a lot of her responsibilities slowly became mine such as getting mail, organizing staff and children’s files and distributing weekly supplies. Those tasks, no matter how easy they seem, proved to be much more difficult when ten of them pile up together in one morning. They greatly improved my efficiency as well as the ability to manage my time wisely.

Aside from that, my time at AACA also taught me the basic rules of working at an organization. I have always imagined my first “internship” to be one in which I get to go to fancy events with my boss, be trusted with major files and meet lots of awesome people. However, it was a mere exemplification of my naivety and vanity, for everyone should start with mastering the basic first instead of dreaming about something vague and impossible. On the first day, I was informed about the strict working dress code (for a place filled with young children, tops with sleeves and no skirt or short was the basic rule) which denied most of the apparels I brought for I only considered what makes me look good instead of what actually suits the situation. Additionally, as I got more experienced and accustomed to the daily routine, Joan put me in charge of many other responsibilities such as making the next year’s parents handbook and preparing for the graduation ceremony. They were some “boring” tasks—I stood by the copy machine for one hour to make the 80 copies of parental information book—but all of them taught me something new. Amongst all, remembering the procedure of distributing lunches was by far the toughest. Here, as the delivery man leaves, I need to separate the food into lunch, breakfast for tomorrow, snack and milk. After labeling the milk’s date and putting them in the fridge, I must sanitize my hands and wear gloves before touching any food box and measure the food boxes’ temperature to see if they reached national bacteria sanitization standard. Quickly dividing them into piles for four different classrooms, I must also divide the allergy lunches and vegetarian ones aside for each room as well as the afternoon fruit and snack. What makes the process fairly hard was to do all of above within three minutes, for the staff often gets impatient waiting beside me to take their class’s portion away. At last, I write the temperature of the food and other details on a daily report sheet and sanitize the kitchen again before I leave. The meticulousness of how Americans handle kid’s meal safety earned my deep admiration. In China, all they did was put the kids’ food in a big bucket, and we go scoop our own portion. Charity or not, everyone treated food safety seriously and never allowed anyone to break the rules.           

Besides those, the people I met was another part of major importance. The office of the day care center only had four people—most of the staff were either part-time workers or Chinese grandmothers who wanted to serve the community after immigration. Most of them knew little English and remained culturally Chinese. Nervous, I brought nothing for my own lunch on the first day. However, the grandmothers welcomed me warmly, and shared their own food with me. Li Nai Nai (Grandma Li), who came from the same city (Shanghai) in China, treated me like her own granddaughter, constantly asking me about my high school life and else. The younger staff were also incredibly friendly. Soon, I stepped up as a translator and communicator between the office and the staff as I made Chinese translations of various documents and taught some of the staff English grammar to help them pass the MA state exam for children’s caretaker. Living in America for many of the grandmas was not easy. Most of them came after their sons and daughter and did not have a license to drive. A few almost never step out of Chinatown at all unless their children came to visit. Seeing me, they were delighted to chat in their native tongue. Noticing such situation, a new volunteer idea sprouted in my mind, as I wanted to start a program for the elderly immigrants—to visit them periodically and help them with their daily needs. While their hospitality moved me greatly, they also taught me useful life hacks, such as how to quickly dice three giant watermelons for the parents. If it wasn’t for them, I could never cut all the watermelons into nice little cubes for the graduation ceremony in time (And yes, the labor shortage is severe enough that I have to cut them) or assemble the giant trolley by myself. As I became more familiar with the staff, the teachers also asked me to draw objects (e.g different types of ants) to be used as teaching materials, while my superior, Joan, allowed me to arrange kids’ confidential files, and fill out basic office work. Thanks to this opportunity, I encountered wonderful people that lived in a completely different setting, and got to truly look into their daily lives. The life of a first-generation immigrant is insanely tough. They often strive in the bottom of society, while their lack of language fluency greatly impeded them from improving their life quality. Many of them felt lonely in such a new environment, and their low income level also prevented them from being able to afford certain classes to improve themselves. However, all of those failed to stop them from being optimistic and passionate in life. Realizing this, I feel even more grateful for the life I have now, and quite ashamed for always whining and complaining about stuff like how I don’t like the dining hall’s salad bar.

Aside of the Day Care Center, I was also lucky enough to participate in their annual Charity Gala at Boston Plaza Hotel on one of the Fridays. It hosted more than 500 guests, including the Massachusetts governor. After setting up, I was assigned to registration, signing the guests in and guide them to their table. Everything there, to me, represents a brand new experience. Formally dressed, I felt exhausted by the end of the registration period, sitting still for two hours, smiling and scrambling through a huge guest list. However, after registration, we volunteers still have to collect the guests’ donations, as well as pooling the results for the charity auction. It was a huge test of my people skills, for most of the staff there already know each other, and I was the youngest newcomer they ever had. Yet, none of them treated me like a new staff. Instead, I was expected to be as efficient and experienced like all others. That night, I met multiple language teachers who work in the AACA’s language school. They were mostly college students or new graduates, and their enthusiasm for their job deeply affected me. Mostly Chinese, they demonstrated a perfect balance of a mix of eastern and western culture. As we got along well, I was also invited to watch their dragon-boat race in the Boston Dragon Boat Festival. Such experience, while it indeed widened my horizon, also brought me several new friends as an extra gift.

At the end of the internship, I felt reluctant to say goodbye to everyone, having totally forgotten about the frustration of not being able to play with the children. Again, I want to give thanks to Mr. and Mrs. Haney for making it possible for me to have such a wonderful experience.