Stories > Trading Places

2015 • Issue 3

Trading Places

Xu Boʼs overseas volunteers bringing residents of Singapore Cheshire Home to Chinatown for a visit.

Xu Bo Art and Culture Exchange offers enriching intercultural experiences for volunteers in Singapore and beyond.




hen Jessie Duanmu returned to Shanghai after getting her master’s degree in education in Portsmouth, England, she thought hard about how she could contribute to her country.

She had spent three years in the United Kingdom – one year for her bachelor’s degree and two for her master’s – during which she volunteered with various organisations, including as a teaching assistant at a primary school and at a computer literacy centre for adults.

She felt that the time she spent volunteering had given her a more well-rounded experience than she would have had if she had just focused on her studies. She gained a better appreciation and deeper understanding of another culture and country, as well as a network of friends. She says: “I asked myself, why not help more people benefit from volunteer programmes?”

So, in 2005, she launched the Xu Bo Art and Culture Exchange in Shanghai. It is a non-profit organisation dedicated to developing intercultural education experiences between China and Singapore and the rest of the world.

Its Singapore branch opened in 2010, followed by one in Sweden this year, providing volunteering opportunities and internships for both locals and foreigners in Singapore, as well as internships for Singaporeans in the United States, Italy, Turkey, South Africa, Cambodia, Sri Lanka, Thailand and Australia. About 200 to 250 people sign up for its programmes each year.

Jessie Duanmu (extreme left) with Sarah Alelia (second from left) and other visiting volunteers.

“I was very impressed by the way the different cultures in Singapore melted together and how different people live peacefully with one another. I was also overwhelmed by the kindness of all the people I met, no matter where I went.”
Sarah Alelia, a biologist from Germany


“People in Singapore have a culture of doing volunteer work abroad and they are eager to contribute and learn,” says Duanmu, who is based in Singapore.

“Our volunteer-abroad programme involves living, working and making a difference in a local community while learning about its culture and gaining new perspectives on global and development issues.”

Although Xu Bo’s programmes are open to volunteers aged 18 to 70, the majority of them are young people taking a break from their studies. Through volunteering, they learn about teamwork, problem solving, flexibility and independence, which are important skills for young people entering the workforce, says Duanmu.

A Singaporean who had an eyeopening experience through Xu Bo is student Zhang Zhekai, 21. In April, he volunteered in the Dutch town of Rijswijk with a Dutch non-governmental organisation called Welzijn Rijswijk, which supports government projects for the elderly, youth and children.

He says: “Generally, Europeans are more open and are not shy to socialise and meet new friends. I met quite a few other volunteers along the way and we exchanged contacts. I still chat frequently to one of them.”


Volunteers from the UK, the US, Germany, France and Italy also get a chance to contribute in Singapore, working with organisations like the Singapore Cheshire Home, which cares for people with disabilities; wildlife rescue group Animal Concerns Research and Education Society (Acres); the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped, which encourages people with visual impairments to develop greater selfreliance; and Enactus, which seeks to inspire students to improve the world through entrepreneurial action.

Volunteers from Europe learning to make dumplings from a family in Singapore; Korean volunteers performing at the Singapore Association of the Visually Handicapped; A childcare centre in Holland where Singaporean Zhang Zhekai volunteered.

While giving their time to these organisations, visiting volunteers also have the opportunity to experience life in Singapore and to gain a better understanding of the country as well as its people and culture.

Sarah Alelia, 33, a biologist from Germany who volunteered at Acres from January to February this year, says: “I was very impressed by the way the different cultures in Singapore melted together and how different people live peacefully with one another. I was also overwhelmed by the kindness of all the people I met, no matter where I went.”

Now working at a hospital in Switzerland, she still keeps in touch with the friends she made through Acres, as well as her Singaporean boyfriend, whom she met during her volunteer stint. She adds: “Volunteering makes you happier simply due to the fact that you know you helped those who can’t help themselves.

It broadened my horizon and helped me decide where I want to go and in which direction I want to develop.”

This kind of response gives Duanmu immense joy. “When volunteers come to me and say ‘You are my life changer’, I know that Xu Bo’s mission has been met,” she says. “We are changing the world!”


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