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December 23, 2009

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Stepping outside expat bubble to help others

EXPATS are venturing outside their lifestyle bubble and volunteering to help residents. Cushla Norman reports on BEAN charity.

Work, bars, shopping, coffee, pampering - this can be the monotonous lifestyle for many expats in Shanghai.

But increasingly, charity work is filling up the expat social calendar and instead of spending weekends socializing in bars, they are visiting orphanages, schools for migrant children and homes for children and adults with disabilities.

The president of the charity organization BEAN, Shelia Seiler, says membership has increased from 200 to 1,200 today over one year.

After the novelty of living in a foreign city wears off, young professionals start to see that there's more out there and seek more meaningful ways to spend their time.

"There's a bubble a lot of expats live in - there's only so may weekends you can watch DVDs, go for coffee and go shopping, and at some point you realize there's got to be more to life," says Seiler.

Every month there's an event on BEAN's calendar and this month volunteers helped around 20 disabled adults practice calligraphy. Organizer Albert Chang says doing calligraphy helps improve motor skills and is a good opportunity for foreigners and Chinese to interact.

BEAN stands for Business and English Activists Network, a group started in Seatle, US state of Washington, in 2002.

BEAN volunteers frequently visit the Taixing Road Home for the Disabled. Volunteers have helped residents make sticky rice dumplings wrapped in banana leaves and in January basic English lessons will be held in advance of World Expo 2010 Shanghai.

Chang says volunteering gives expats a healthy dose of the realities of life for many people in Shanghai.

"Shanghai is not all glitz and glamor - there are people out there who really need help and we are happy to do as much as we can to fill that niche," says Chang.

BEAN regularly helps out at migrant kids schools in Minhang District and at orphanages for disabled children in Hongkou District.

For some expats it's a very emotional experience to see how different some people's lives are from their own. Those who can handle the situation are those best able to play around with the kids.

"You really forget they are disabled," says Seiler.

Children are thrilled with the attention from the volunteers, getting hugs and cuddles - the visit is the best day of the month for them.

BEAN professionals come from a wide range of fields, from fashion and marketing to IT and engineering.

Some remarkable people have come out of the woodwork and played an active role in the charity.

A young man with a background in venture capital made a bicycle out of bamboo and demonstrated it at a migrant kids school during an educational event about recycling.

Those who at first seem unlikely to do charity work are stepping outside the expat bubble.

BEAN is open to everyone who can volunteer their time as they please. For more information, visit


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