Things I Learned as a Volunteer on a Farm in Southern China

On February 9th, 2015, just 8 months after moving to China, 6 months after living on my own, I decided to volunteer on a farm in Southern China.

Do it, they said. It’ll be fun, they said. Well, it was a little more complicated than that.

Being a Peace Corps volunteer is “the hardest job you’ll ever love” and they’re right, but they don’t tell you much more than that.

Peace Corps China extended an offer to the volunteers looking for extra opportunities to give help and support by partnering with a farm now far from Peace Corps Chengdu headquarters. Volunteer commonly chose to visit this small farm which promised a great lot of experiences.

Naturally, I signed up. I sucked at volunteering or investing my time in clubs during my college years, so I was trying to make up for the lost time.

things I learned as a volunteer in china

I was rather anxious about volunteering since my Chinese wasn’t very good just yet (despite my efforts to learn). But I felt better after I found out a few other volunteers would be joining me the same week.

After my first trip solo to Beijing as a volunteer in China, I decided to spend the week in Pi Xi’an, Sichuan on the Gao Farm just 45 minutes by train from Chengdu. I packed up a small bag and the extra warm sleeping bag (meant for Antarctica) my dad insisted I pack for the journey in China.

I rode the train to my final stop and found myself in the middle of nowhere, homes seldom, and many dirt roads around me. I could feel the anxiety rise in my chest and I started to panic. I still couldn’t read a Chinese GPS for shit. For minutes, I stood on the side of a busy highway trying to decide what to do.

Should I go back to Chengdu? Should I just start walking? Should I call Peace Corps?

After asking myself these few questions, I spotted a green vehicle coming my way and realized it was a taxi. I raised my hand up to flag the vehicle, which slowed down at the site of me. Luckily, I had a screenshot of the farm I would be going to. I showed it to the driver and he took me to the farm no problem.

He drove me down a dirt road lined with bare trees. I saw no people, but plenty of homes, and very unlike the city life I was becoming accustomed to.

When the driver pulled over, I got out of the vehicle with my bags and told the drive thank you and then paid him. He drove off and I stood in the dirt road looking for any sign of a human.

volunteer in china

Then a rather dirty white dog galloped up to me to greet me. I squatted down to pet him and looked up to find an older man walking towards me. I stopped up and he smiled warmly at me. He introduced himself as Farmer Gao, owner of this property.

He didn’t speak a shred of English.

Anxiety arose in me again, and I assured myself that at least one other volunteer would be here soon. Farmer Gao introduced me to the rest of his family, his sister, his son, and his wife. We walked into an open space that they referred to as home, which looked much more like an open garage to me. That’s when I discovered I would be the only volunteer staying on the farm for the week. All the other volunteers backed out and didn’t tell me.

a volunteer in southern china

A sudden feeling of not wanting to be there hit me in the pit of my stomach and I wish I was back home in Chongqing.

As night came, the air got colder. Much colder. And on a farm in Southern China in the middle of winter, it was incredibly cold. Thankfully, I had a sleeping bag with me.

When it was time to go to bed, I unrolled that sleeping bag, bundled up and slid inside. 20 minutes later, I was still freezing. I slid my hand down the side of my pants and felt my skin, which was much more like ice. After a cold day of picking vegetables and struggling to speak, all I wanted was to be warm.

After trying to keep myself warm and failing, I decided to FaceTime my Mom and Dad. (P.S. I Love you, Dad. I look back on this and laugh every time.)

At first, I started crying. I was the only volunteer on this farm, I couldn’t communicate, this whole situation was putting me under pressure, and I was struggling to get warm. When I told my dad what was going on with the sleeping bag, he said only two words to me.

Dad: Oh, shit.

Me: What?!

Dad: Well, I told you before that there needs to be a sleeve in the back of the sleeping back for it to work. The problem is, it’s here. I forgot to give it to you before you left.

In the midst of my crying frustrations, I started laughing. I was on a farm in the middle of nowhere with an ice cold ass, crying and laughing.

Me: No problem!

Dad: I can use it here though!

Me: Oh, that’s helpful! 

We laughed it off and then my dad instructed me to fold one of the blankets in half and stuff it in the sleeve. After that, I bundled up in my sleeping bag and warmed myself to a mild sweat.

Dad: I’m so effing sorry.

Mom: I hope you’re writing about this shit. 

So, that’s the longer intro to my story of what I learned as a volunteer during my time on a farm. Here are a few other things I learned during my stay in Pi Xi’an.

Get Used to Long Days

Being a volunteer on a farm is a lot of work and requires a lot of walking, a lot of squatting, and a lot of sitting down.

Make sure you’re prepared to get up early and work until sundown. You’ll be involved in picking vegetables and moving them to other parts of the farm. You’ll also get used to sorting the produce you pick to make sure you can sell the good products.

There is No Heating on a Farm

I REPEAT. NO HEATING. I mean, people told me, but I just don’t think I was prepared for just how cold it would be. Typically, Southern China is without central heating, so I shouldn’t have expected too much.

The best idea is to bring fur-lined pants or thermals to stay warm, and really well-insulated boots. Gloves are a great idea too. The one big mistake I made was trying to stay warm in a sleeping bag with multiple layers of clothing on. The only way you can get warm is to have less clothing so your body heat and circulate.

You Clean Your Dishes With Sawdust

Things I learn as a volunteer on a farm in china

I actually loved this idea and thought it was absolutely genius. Preserving water was a thing on this farm. Of course, they used it to rinse their dishes, but they used the sawdust as a sort of scrubber to clean out any additional food in your bowl.

After you scrub your bowl, you rinse it out, and the dish is clean and ready for its next use.

You May Eat Highly Vegetarian

vegetarian dishes for a volunteer program in china

I loved this part. Never did I think I would’ve enjoyed a week being vegetarian. I was treated to freshly picked vegetable cooked to perfection in a large bowl of knife shaved noodles with just the right season. I ate hot pumpkin soup and sweet potatoes baked in a hot fire.

I would go back for that food any day.

You Will Be Looked At

Farms will be in more rural areas, and chances are, the general population will be in awe once they see you. You most likely will be the first time they’ve ever seen a foreigner. You can either choose to be very offended by this, or just go with the flow. If you’re staying in China long-term, chances are you won’t be able to avoid it.

Be Prepared to Drink Lots of Alcohol

This isn’t as much of a problem for women, but for men, expect to drink a ton. During my trip on the farm, I went to a banquet, where I met a huge group of around 40 people. After discovering I was American (and knowing full well Americans are quite the drinkers) they insisted on giving me multiple shots of a nasty alcohol known as Baijiu.

Be careful how much you drink and know when to quit or else you will be under the table. Thankfully, I only got away with drinking three shots.

You’re Likely to Learning Chinese Just a Little Faster

This is the one proven way for people to really pick up the Chinese language or any language for that matter. Putting yourself in a situation where you have no choice but to use Chinese is the best way to learn. Period.

Things I Learned as a Volunteer on a Farm in Southern China

It was during my trip to Pi Xi’an that the Mandarin Language finally started to click for me. I was able to distinguish between words and was able to start asking more questions.

Get Used to Seeing Things and Not Understanding What They Are

When I was on the farm, I was with a family that worked hard every day to pick produce and sell it to people in surrounding areas. That kind of work puts a toll on the body, so what do they do? 

The use some kind of pyrotechnics to soothe muscles. One of the sisters called it “huo liao” a traditional Chinese medicinal practice. Farmer Gao’s younger sister took a large basin full of steaming hot towels and brought them into a room. She insisted I stay to watch and see what she was doing since she couldn’t explain it very well.

When I first saw what they were doing, I panicked and thought, surely someone would be lit on fire.

a volunteer observing chinese medicine practice on a farm

The older sister got undressed in the frigid room and scurried to get under the blankets. After laying down, the young sister poured dragon oil on her older sister’s chest and stomach and then covered her with a steam towel. She then doused the towel with rubbing alcohol. She lit one corner of the towel on fire and continued from one corner to the next. After a few rounds, I understood this as a form of hot massage or a way to warm her hot body up in the bitter winter.

So, there you have it. The few things I learned as a volunteer on a farm in Southern China. If you liked this, please leave your thoughts in the comments or visit my other posts to learn about life in China.