Ai xin zhou——a cup of loving heart porridge

From:Voice of Longquan     Author:David Ferguson     Time:2017-07-30 22:26:53
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If you should be walking the streets of one of China’s cities early one morning, and a smiling face beneath a black baseball cap and above an orange apron offers you a cup of ai xin zhou, don’t be a stranger. Don’t walk on by. Stop and accept the gift in the spirit that it is offered. You and the giver will both be the better for it. ——a foreign volunteer shared his experience to offer free cups of porridge to passers-by with other volunteers from Ren Ai Charity.

It was 06:30 when I made my bleary arrival at Amrta Shakhara (Honeydew), a restaurant in one of the alleyways behind Zhongguancun Haidian, not far from the Weigongcun subway station on Line 4. I was a little late, but this was inevitable, as I had had to ask for help, and got lost. One day I will finally accept that if you have to ask a Chinese lady for directions to somewhere, you should always head off in the opposite direction to wherever she tells you to go, and you will soon find yourself at your destination.

I had volunteered my services for the morning to theRen AiCharity, an operation set up by Longquan Monastery. It has a simple mission – to provide free cups of breakfastzhou (bean or rice, congee) to passers-by on the streets. It does not particularly target the poor, simply anyone who is happy to accept a gift from the heart.

The firstRen Aistand was set up in 2007, and there are now16around Beijing, more than47 dotted around China, all of them operating on a daily basis, and entirely staffed by volunteers. Although the charity was founded by the Venerable Master Xuecheng and is operated under the auspices of the volunteers, one core rule is that theRen Ai activity involves no religious or any other form of proselytising.

Its purpose is to allow the volunteers to appreciate the experience of giving, and its ‘customers’ the experience of receiving, and to create a little pocket of warmth in a busy city full of hard-pressed commuters where there is little time and opportunity for simple acts of kindness. In the charity’s own words:

The target of launching the Heart Stand charity project is to set up a platform for the public to experience and practice kindness. Through cups of warm porridge offered to strangers, we deliver care and a smile to the public in the hope that the word charity can convey a concrete and down to earth meaning…”

 Amrta Shakhara is a commercial restaurant, but the owner makes the promises available to the charity free of charge in the mornings, to allow them to prepare their food and set things up. When I arrived there were already a couple of dozen volunteers on site. I was offered a bowl ofzhou; mindful of previous experience, I made sure that none of it fell on the table, and finished everything I was given. Some of the volunteers – the cooks – had been there since four o’clock that morning. Some were enjoying their own breakfast; others were getting things ready for the activity - food, transport, uniforms, and everything else that was required. One group was engaged in alengthyThree-Character Classicchant.The overall impression I got was a remarkable spirit of cheerfulness.

When the preparations had been finalised, we all lined up to review the purpose of our mission, review the code of conduct, and receive our final instructions. New volunteers were reminded of the most important thing, which is not to feel hurt or slighted by passers-by who refused the gift, or who simply ignored them. We donned our uniforms – a bright orange apron, a black baseball cap, white protective sleeves and gloves, and a facemask.

I was asked if I wanted to do an ‘easy’ job – looking after the cart and ferrying cups ofzhou to the teams of ‘givers’ – or a ‘hard’ job, joining one of the teams themselves. It would have been a shameful cop-out to take on the ‘easy’ task, so I volunteered for one of the teams. As a reward for my boldness, I was assigned to a team that was to occupy a new location where passers-by would not be familiar with them, which would make the whole thing even more difficult.

The food and paraphernalia were all loaded up on the bicycle cart, and we set off in a tidy crocodile line. As we walked, we practiced our chant:“Zaoshang hao! Qing he yi bei ai xin zhou!” (Good morning! Please accept a cup of loving heart porridge!) It should probably be recorded for posterity that as far as I recall, this is the first time in all my years in China that someone has said nine words in Chinese to me and I knew and understood them all.

Before we split up into our teams, we lined up on the pavement and spent a few minutes doing a simple line sign languagedance to some gentle music; the purpose was to make sure that we were all in the ideal frame of mind for our activity. Reading these words may make the thing sound rather awkward or contrived, but at the time I had no such sense. It didn’t matter whether you were elegant or ungainly (I wasn’t the worst). Nobody cared about that. In any case, most people in China will be doing line dancing in a park somewhere when they pass the age of 40.

Then we formed into our smaller groups of five or six, following our leader who carried the cups ofzhou. On our way we passed one of the established pitches, and I was surprised to see that there was already a line of ‘customers’ waiting. I was told that this is quite common. Once passers-by become familiar with the pitch they will often wait to greet the volunteers and accept a cup ofzhou.

My team crossed the pedestrian bridge to the other side of Zhongguancun Street and set up our new pitch by the gates of the Beijing Institute of Technology. We lined up and began to offer our cups ofzhou. As expected, most people declined. But many of them responded with a smile or a greeting.

It wasn’t difficult for me. For one, I’m a reasonably outgoing person. But also, even behind my mask I was visibly awaiguoren (foreigner). Which meant that it was easier for me to attract people’s attention, and they were more likely to stop and listen to me than to some ‘normal’ Chinese person.

But it is worth considering things from a Chinese perspective. Chinese people are generally shy by Western standards, less outgoing, more modest, more reserved, more self-effacing. So I can appreciate that for many Chinese, to stand by the side of the road offering a cup ofzhou to complete strangers, particularly when you are consistently rejected or ignored, must pose a real emotional and psychological challenge. At the beginning it must be a bit of an ordeal.

We manned our pitch for half an hour, and I managed to dispose of four or five cups ofzhou, which I think was quite a good performance. Actually, that very thought demonstrates the shortcomings of my spiritual development – it’s not a competition; it’s not supposed to be about ‘performance’.

Afterwards, we all returned to the restaurant, and cleaned and tidied up after our morning’s efforts. We then spent a bit of time sharing our feelings about the experience; some people spoke; some even sang a song. One lady talked of having visited a stand inGuangdongwhere an old man in his eighties was a regular volunteer. It was a bit like a self-help group, all the more so because of the uplifting sense of positivity. It clearly means a great deal to the participants.

I enjoyed the experience, and I will certainly do it again. It was another small sign to me that China’s spiritual heritage has not been overwhelmed by the onslaught of modernity; the flame still burns bright.

So if you should be walking the streets of one of China’s cities early one morning, and a smiling face beneath a black baseball cap and above an orange apron offers you a cup ofai xin zhou, don’t be a stranger. Don’t walk on by. Stop and accept the gift in the spirit that it is offered. You and the giver will both be the better for it.

Tags:ai xin zhou, foreign volunteer, Ren Ai Charity, kindness

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