Volunteering in Asia
The Big Picture, Top Tips, and Recommended Organizations
With over 40 countries from Japan to Thailand to Pakistan, Asia provides an incredible diversity of learning and service opportunities for international volunteers. China and the former Soviet nations of Central Asia seek volunteer English teachers. India offers dozens of direct service and sustainable development volunteer opportunities. Even countries that used to be somewhat closed to outsiders, such as Mongolia and Vietnam, now welcome volunteers in health, education, and economic development.
Of course, in many countries of Asia you will find obstacles to effective volunteering. Language barriers are generally higher for Westerners than in Latin America and Africa. Political turmoil has put some countries such as Burma virtually off limits for international volunteers. Travel costs can be high and cultural differences challenging. But if you are flexible, keep your expectations low as to what you can contribute and high for what you can learn, you can overcome these obstacles and find meaningful and rewarding volunteer work.
Examples of Types of Volunteer Service in Asia
- Practicing conversational English with students at a technical college in rural China
- Playing with children with disabilities at a school in Vietnam
- Providing rehabilitation services at a hospital for low income patients in India
Top Considerations When Volunteering in Asia
Culture shock: I had years of experience volunteering in Latin America and Africa before my first trip to Asia, and therefore thought that I was a seasoned traveler. Yet, I was overwhelmed by child poverty in India and dog meat in Vietnam. On the other hand, I was delighted by a family that let me help them harvest coconut fuzz (coir) in a village in Kerala, and the friendly street venders in Hanoi. I suggest that you prepare for cultural difference by talking with recently returned volunteers, keeping a journal to help you process what you see, and allowing for a period of time for cultural adjustment upon arrival and before going home.
Language: English is dominant in many countries of Asia but won’t do you much good in some rural areas. Many Asian languages are more difficult for Westerners to learn than Spanish or French. For example, Chinese and Vietnamese have tonal qualities that can be difficult to master. Expect to use ad hoc sign language outside of urban areas unless you speak the local language.
Regional differences: Culture, climate, and politics vary widely between countries as well as within them. Volunteers in the cool, Tibetan-influenced high altitudes of Ladakh, India are almost on a different planet from those in the heat of Mumbai. Volunteering on a farm in Japan will have a vastly different flavor than teaching English at an orphanage in Vietnam.
Your health. As in other parts of the developing world, you’ll need to visit a travel clinic for shots before volunteering. My husband was almost swept out to sea at a beach in Thailand. Take extra care when swimming as currents may not be visible and warnings may not be posted; even waters that look calm may be deadly. Buses, cars, and motorbikes may be most dangerous to your health in Asia. Be extra careful when walking, especially at night, with cars driving on the “wrong” side of the street or not following traffic laws. Make sure you have health and evacuation insurance just in case, and know where to find the nearest English speaking doctor.
Top organizations to consider for volunteering in Asia, based upon research for my book: How to Live Your Dream of Volunteering Overseas
Volunteers in Asia offers U.S. Citizens and U.S. Residents (from 18 to 75) volunteer opportunities in China, Vietnam, Indonesia, Myanmar, Laos, Cambodia, and Thailand; most volunteers teach English.
If you are interested in agriculture and sustainable development, you might enjoy a volunteer experience with The International Society for Ecology and Culture. Volunteers live and learn from locals in Lahdak in northern India. Willing Workers on Organic Farms (WWOOF) connects volunteers with organic farmers in many Asian nations, from the Philippines to Kazakhstan to Japan.
For volunteers with a spiritual and cultural focus, Cultural Restoration Tourism Project provides opportunities to help renovate a Buddhist monastery in Nepal.
For those interested in direct service such as working with kids with disabilities or helping individuals in hospitals or clinics,Cross Cultural Solutions (CCS) provides meaningful short term opportunities in China, India and Thailand.
If you are interested in volunteering with your family, in addition to CCS, Global Volunteers hosts volunteer in India, China, and Vietnam.
For college students I recommend Break Away, the alternative spring break organization.
New volunteer organizations are springing up every year. If you are interested in a program not listed here, see my article on how to evaluate volunteer programs.
If you have prior travel experience in Asia, and speak a local language, consider setting up an independent volunteer experience. See Trends in Volunteering Abroad for ideas on how to get started.