'I'll keep volunteering till I'm 70'

Fu Xiangdong, 63, a winner of this year's Shanghai Science Popularization Education Awards, has been doing volunteer work for 17 years. He wants to continue until he is 70.
Ti Gong

Fu Xiangdong disseminates medical and health knowledge in a lecture at Shanghai Science and Technology Museum.

"A spring silkworm produces its silk until the end of life, while a candle keeps burning until it turns to ash." 

The verse by Tang Dynasty (618-907) poet Li Shangyin might describe the spirit and personal sacrifices of people who do volunteer work in Shanghai with relentless commitment.

This year, the Shanghai Science Popularization Education Awards created a new section to honor volunteers. One of its first recipients is Fu Xiangdong, 63, a retired educator who has been doing volunteer work in local museums for 17 years.

Fu is one among the 500-plus registered volunteers working at the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum and its downtown branch, the Shanghai Natural History Museum – two of the busiest museums in the city.

Sporting a green volunteer waistcoat, this former lecturer at the Shanghai University of Medicine and Health Sciences spends a day at each museum every week, explaining the structure of the human body and health-related issues to curious visitors in popular half-hour lectures.

His ties to the Shanghai Science and Technology Museum trace back to 2001, when the museum first opened to the public. At that point, the concept of museum volunteers was relatively new.

Fu applied to the museum to become a volunteer, telling officials that he wanted to help popularize science. His application was approved.

At the beginning, Fu found it challenging to go from the front of a classroom of students with academic qualifications to speaking to a group of people of varied backgrounds and education.

"It was a larger stage," he explained.

Many of the museum visitors he addressed were children. He adapted his style to try to find everyday imagery to get across his message. For example, when referring to the human stomach, he didn’t say it was part of the digestive tract but rather described it as a "washing machine."

"We never overload a washing machine or it may break down,” he told them. “Likewise, if you eat too much, your stomach will also be overloaded and could go wrong."

Fu's method of connecting with ordinary people paid off.

"Once, after I told museum visitors about scientific research on transplanting a human ear on the back of a rat, a teenage boy came up and eagerly asked more questions about that,” Fu said. “Years later, when I met him again, he was an undergraduate at Fudan University majoring in genetics."

Ti Gong

Fu Xiangdong disseminates medical and health knowledge in a lecture at Shanghai Science and Technology Museum.

The role of scientific museum volunteers changes with the times. Volunteers at the beginning were asked only to guide visitors and make brief introductions to exhibits. But that wasn’t enough for everyone.

“People nowadays crave more knowledge and information about exhibits,” he said. "I have to keep abreast of scientific innovation, learn new things and expand my knowledge into wider fields.”

Beyond just serving as a guide and information source, Fu also spends time urging young people to become volunteers.

"I think, for example, that it's helpful for medical students to work as volunteers because it gives them experience they will need later in communicating with patients," Fu said. "Volunteers learn how to make contact with different people.”

Anyway, too many students tend to be lazy and procrastinate, Fu said.

"It's possibly more meaningful to spend your leisure time helping others than wasting a full day playing games at home," he said.

He leads groups of young volunteers to remote rural areas several times a year to bring knowledge about science to people who would otherwise have no inkling about it. So far, the trips have covered poorer villages in Zhejiang, Anhui and Shandong provinces.

"Some parents told me their children are no longer 'little princes' and 'little princesses' at home,” Fu said. “In volunteering, they have become more independent and more interested in others. It's a lesson in how to be a good human being."

Fu volunteering work has extended beyond science. At the recently ended "A History of the World in 100 Objects from the British Museum," held at Shanghai Museum, he volunteered to explain the exhibits, even though they were out of his normal metier.

The 2010 Shanghai World Expo, Fu said, was a galvanizing event for volunteerism, attracting large number of residents to give up some of their free time. That led to the establishment of an official volunteer website.

The national government is promoting volunteer efforts. A guideline on volunteer services issued by the State Council, China’s cabinet, will take effect next month.

According to an annual report from the China Volunteer Service Federation, nearly 11 percent of Shanghai’s population was registered as volunteers at the end of last year. Each volunteer donated an average of about 73 hours to volunteer work.

"Some of the young science volunteers are students from other provinces, and the experience helps them enjoy life more in Shanghai,” Fu said. "We even have foreign students participating."

For his part, Fu said he plans to continue museum volunteer work until the mandatory age limit of 70.

"The most important thing for a volunteer is persistence," he said.

Hua Lan, an official with the Shanghai Natural History Museum can only wish she had more volunteers on par with Fu.

"We appreciate him not only for his own contribution to our museum, but for his influence in getting the younger generation to become volunteers," she said.

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