Ashley

Gifts

When I was younger, I was pretty self-absorbed. I didn't see the benefit or have the motivation for volunteering at all. Going on exchange, though, changed the way I think!

I can't remember doing much "volunteer work" when I was in high school, or at least nothing I considered to be "real" volunteering. To me, volunteering meant a big, abstract cause like saving the environment or maybe doing cancer fundraising. I helped out in our school's multimedia room, wrote for the student paper and was active in Army Cadets - but to me, this wasn't really volunteering. These things were extensions of my hobbies, and not things to list on a resume.

Later, when I was finally working a part-time job and had been thinking more about things I could put on a resume, I felt like I "didn't have time" to volunteer, even though I knew I needed contacts and the experience. It was too easy to talk myself out of doing something for nothing. That was because I didn't have a cause I believed enough in to give my time to it freely - and I certainly didn't realize that when it came to volunteering, every little bit helps!

My exchange to Japan was the real source of the change. Western people say that the Japanese are generous - I witnessed this first-hand every day. What I didn't expect was for that generosity to change the way I interacted with people after coming home. For instance, a younger, more selfish me greedily accepted any gift given, yet cut corners when it came to reciprocating gifts. If I didn't have money for a proper present, I should have given my time, yet I was greedy with that as well. I certainly never gave gifts out of the blue. In Japan, though, presents always seemed to just turn up on my desk. Crackers or snacks, little gachapon toys, even the free items that came with bottles of chilled oolong tea. The people at my school knew that I liked such things, and freely gave them. When I went to the home of one of my teachers, she presented me with a vintage furoshiki cloth. When I commented how much I loved furoshiki and often carried them, she pressed two more into my hands. When I realized that I could inadvertently be offending these generous people with my stinginess, I began to change little by little.

I started to often feel nervous when people invited me over, in case someone gave me a present. More than once, I arrived empty-handed, even though I knew that the custom was to bring a gift for the host. Present-giving culture was a bit confusing to me; I was torn between not having money and not knowing what to do for a gift in its absence. My two American best friends, who were also exceedingly generous, frequently stumped me in the same way: one was a talented cook and crafter who was thrilled to make things with her hands; the other just genuinely enjoyed picking out and giving presents, and mails me Christmas and birthday gifts to this day. I often didn't know how to respond, and ended up not responding in kind at all. Just a "thanks" and I'd hope for the best.

As time went on, I got a better feel for meeting these situations, and for picking out appropriate tokens for the people who had done nice things for me. I started to recognize, as well, that my knowledge and time was also worth something. Years later, I guided some friends through a trip to Japan, who repaid me with a night's stay in a gorgeous ryokan. To me, it felt hopelessly unbalanced. To them, though, non-Japanese speakers who had never booked a hotel where English wasn't spoken, nor travelled far into the Yamanashi countryside, my language abilities must have been crucial.

I began volunteering with YFU four years ago. I chose it as a way of staying connected with the country I loved, and giving back to an experience that had done so much good for me - in other words, exchange. I remember being excited to be part of a YFU Canada volunteer training held in Monkton, and not realizing at the time that I was having a rare experience as a Toronto-area volunteer, when many of our volunteers are too scattered across the country to be able to participate in an organized training. I remember agreeing to take over maintaining the YFU Canada website, using what few skills I had in that area, and being proud that I could fill a niche that had gone unfilled at YFU Canada for some time.

Now, 4 years later, here I am rolling out a brand-new website in line with YFU's new global brand. I never imagined, on that first day in Monkton, that someday I would be here. That I would be picking up fresh-faced students from Pearson airport (I love it when they send me to get the Japanese students!) and teaching orientations on being an Area Rep. Sometimes after a rough wait at the airport - a student arrives 2 hours late and then takes another 2 in customs, even after I rushed to get there straight after work - I grouse a little bit, and my friends ask why I give so much time to volunteering, when I'm already working two jobs and keeping very busy with a dozen hobbies. I'm certainly much busier than I was back in high school when I "didn't have time" to volunteer. But I don't think of it that way anymore - not as making a sacrifice.

All I am doing is returning the gift I was given in Japan; for every phone strap and pear and furoshiki, I am here gifting my time to make sure another student has a chance to change.

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