THIS IS MY ORIGINAL DRAFT SUBMITTED TO MY EDITOR, WHICH LATER BECAME THE ARTICLE POSTED IN THIS BLOG AS "PAY IT FORWARD":
With volunteer activities on three consecutive weekends, March turned into volunteering month in our family.
The first activity was Flag Day. We stood outside a shopping centre in Causeway Bay and solicited donations for the Hong Kong Society for Rehabilitation. The correct order of events should be: volunteer asks “please buy a flag sticker”, donor drops spare change in donation bag and volunteer puts sticker on donor’s lapel. In our case, our children simultaneously solicited and stuck stickers on passersby, in effect guilting these sticker-laden strangers into emptying their wallets.
Flag Day was the prelude to selling raffle tickets at the Dutch Chamber of Commerce annual ball. Our group of young volunteers enthusiastically accepted the challenge by accosting ballgoers with gap-toothed grins and a ready shpiel. They felt so proud of their accomplishment: raising tens of thousands of dollars in a mere 60 minutes.
It was also a good opportunity to practise math in everyday life. Question: At $100 per ticket or 6 tickets for $500, if a man gives you $1000 and asks for 6 tickets, how much change do you give back? Answer: Apologise for not having any change and sweetly ask whether he would like to have 12 tickets!
And the third activity was having my children join me at my day-job of donating bookcases to underserved communities. On this occasion, we set up a bookcase at a daycare centre in Shaukeiwan, and read stories to curious two year-olds.
Children have an under-developed sense of community and mutuality because they are born self-centred. My children will undoubtedly learn good manners and reciprocity at home and at school, but I also wish to instill in them the true meaning of giving. This can only come from feeling good about the mere act of generosity, regardless of any tangible reward.
My personal view is that the strong sense of protocol and reciprocity in Asian cultures sometimes overshadows how we give. When someone shows you kindness by treating you to a meal or sending you a gift, there is cultural pressure to reciprocate. As a result, we also expect that our acts of kindness towards others will be reciprocated. It is this expectation that may affect who we choose as the recipient of our kindness. (And how this may set the tone for the Chinese concept of guanxi is something best left to the articulate and thoughtful Alex Lo in his page 2 column “My Take”.)
An age-appropriate introduction to compassion is Carol McCloud’s Have You Filled a Bucket Today? Using invisible buckets to symbolise how our words and deeds affect others as well as ourselves, this guide illustrates ways in which we can all become bucket-fillers to achieve happiness. “You fill a bucket when you show love to someone, when you say or do something kind, or even when you give someone a smile… You dip into a bucket when you make fun of someone, when you say or do mean things or even when you ignore someone.”
In the 2000 film Pay It Forward, Kevin Spacey plays a social studies teacher who assigns his class to think of something to change the world and put it into action. One of his students creates a mini-revolution in the lives of those around him with his idea to repay good deeds not with payback, but with new good deeds done to three new people.
I love the notion of paying it forward. I grew up with parents who do volunteer work and contribute to their community in tireless anonymous ways. They made me hyper-aware of our interconnectedness with others by reminding us that paying it forward also happens with acts of meanness; that is, if I am rude to a waiter, that will make the waiter feel bad and he will go home and yell at his son who will then feel bad and kick the family dog. This became an inside joke in our family, to say “some poor dog will be getting kicked tonight” whenever we witnessed a “bucket-dipper” in action.
The notion of interconnectedness is subtly presented in Because Amelia Smiled, a new story created by award-winning writer-illustrator David Ezra Stein. “Because Amelia smiled, coming down the street, Mrs. Higgins smiled, too. She thought of her grandson in Mexico and baked some cookies to send to him. Because Mrs. Higgins baked cookies…” And so the good feelings travel across the world, inspiring more smiles, kindness and love.
Making time for volunteer work is a great complement to the journey of becoming a bucket-filler.