Chinese Hungry Ghosts Festival

The following post was written by our fellow AFSer, Suyin Chia. Find out who she is and enjoy her post:

I am the current ICL Responsible and Training Coordinator for AFS Malaysia who is happily tucked away in her mini cubicle dreaming up methods for social change and increased cultural awareness within the AFS network. I have been involved with AFS for 9 years now since my student exchange year to Japan. I am also an Intercultural Link Learning Program International Qualified Trainer candidate. Nothing delights me more than the sight of tail wagging puppies, a good read, the sound of ocean waves and interesting conversations. I believe that we need to learn to cut the cake differently.

* * *

In the month of August when I was 12 years old, there was a Chinese opera night show right opposite my family’s house held by the local temple’s association. As these performances are open to public my sibling and I -giddy with excitement – innocently seated ourselves at the empty front rows. A couple of hours later we noticed there were more people arriving, our neighbors who strangely enough, all gathered at the back of the open hall despite the plethora of empty seats in the front few rows with us. Being children, we thought little of it and continued being mesmerized by the colorfully garbed actors on stage and their swordsmanship until late into the night.

We later found out that the opera was put together for a very different kind of audience, as those seats were reserved for ‘wandering spirits’, and that August was the month of the Hungry Ghost Festival. Our father would chide us not to sit in the front rows ever again, as we may have offended some spirits for taking their best seats. Needless to say, we barely slept properly for the rest of the week.

Not unlike October’s Halloween, the Hungry Ghost Festival is a Chinese belief that for a month every year ghosts and spirits of deceased ancestors are released to the living world to visit their kin. The festival falls on the 7th moon, 15th day of the Chinese Lunar Calendar, which is somewhere in August every Gregorian year. It is a time to not only pay homage to deceased ancestors but also to pacify all the neglected souls, ghosts of strangers and the uncared-for dead roaming between the two worlds.

If you are planning to visit Malaysia (or China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, Thailand.. really just anywhere with a majority Chinese population) during this time of the year, here is a quick guide to all things you need to know about the Hungry Ghost Festival:

  • There is going to be a lot of burning of things.

The festival originates from the belief that the Chinese spirit world is parallel with the living world, hence the spirits have the same basic needs such as food, clothing and material comforts once enjoyed in the living world. So people burn “hell notes” and gold ingots made from joss paper to ensure the spirits won’t come back and ask you for money. Traditionally, chariots, horses and harvest were buried or burned together with the dead. Today, modernization has changed what is perceive as material comforts for the dead, which is recreated in paper and burned to materialize in the netherworld for the spirits to consume. According to this logic, this year my deceased grandparents should be enjoying a wonderful new car, a bungalow, iPads, the latest cellphones, fashionable clothes and the biggest paper flat screen television set I have ever seen.

  • It is not uncommon to see food, rice wine, incense and other offerings placed on roadsides and in front of establishments.

Just like the living world, there also exist homeless and hungry souls, ancestors of those who forgot to pay tribute after their deaths, or those who were never given a proper ritual send-off. During this month, the gates of hell are opened up and ghosts are free to roam the earth where they seek food and entertainment. The roadside offerings is to appease the wandering spirits from causing mischief. Do not step on or kick the offerings. Naturally, do not take the offerings for yourself either as you may just incur the wrath of the intended ghosts.

Eating and the exchange of food are socially significant acts in Chinese culture. The family is commonly defined as “those who eat together,” and it is often in terms of food that a family expresses its relations with other people. The only people invited to eat a meal as guests are family, relatives, friends or people of equal social status. Eating together thus implies intimacy and a certain degree of social equality. While food is given to beggars by a family, they will never be invited inside for a meal. The same goes for stranger ghosts.

  • Stay indoors after dark.

Not a year goes by without my mother calling to remind me of this very important advice. Stay indoors or risk getting whisked away by a ghost, or at least bumping into one and bringing ‘it’ home. In fact there is a whole list of taboos about nighttime. Don’t pee on the trees, avoid turning around if you feel someone calling from behind or tapping your shoulder, don’t swim, don’t take major public transport (i.e. planes and boats), don’t leave your main door open, don’t go into the jungle, don’t leave an umbrella open. Basically, just about everything you do at night may get you impaled, possessed, dragged into bad luck, whisked away, tricked and other not so nice things happening. Best if you consult a friendly expert before planning evening activities (my mother, for instance).

The classification of ghosts, ancestors and deities also reflects a specific social hierarchy that is so intricately woven in traditional Chinese society: First, there was the kin, the most important social nucleus for every individual. They are the ancestors that protect the family body even after death. Secondly, the imperial hierarchy, which was, in terms of power and influence, superior to the family is represented as deities of various powers and control. Lastly there were the strangers, outsiders. Mutual animosity of various racial and ethnic groups in traditional China and Taiwan saw a world beyond the bamboo walls encircling each community as dangerous because it was inhabited by strangers, and strangers were feared because they were represented in experience by bandits and beggars. The bad, hungry ghosts are the product of this experience.

  • Big feasts with live shows until early morning everywhere.

Families also pay tribute to other unknown wandering ghosts so that these homeless souls do not intrude on their lives and bring misfortune. A big feast of compassion is held for the ghosts on the 15th day of the 7th month, where people bring samples of food and place them on the offering table to please the ghosts and ward off bad luck. Prayer ceremonies are held by priests of various temples to alleviate the pain of these wandering ghosts, while helping to fulfill their unmet desires when still alive. Live shows are also put on where everyone is invited to attend. The first row of seats is always empty as this is where the ghosts are supposed to sit to better enjoy the live entertainment. The shows are always put on at night and at high volumes, so that the sound attracts and pleases the ghosts enough to ward off their wrath. These acts were better known as “Merry-making”. Talk about empathy across spiritual realms!

  • Sending our ancestors home.

14 days after the festival people float lotus flower-shaped lanterns on a paper boat and set them outside their houses. The lanterns are used to make sure all the lost and hungry ghosts find their way back to the underworld, so unless you want them to find their way back to your house for a happy haunting, avoid collecting the “but they’re so pretty!” lanterns.

Originally a day to honor ancestors, the Hungry Ghost Festival builds an invincible cultural bridge between people and ancestors tied through cultural perspectives that are highly valued by the Chinese community. With the dialogue with the ancestors, people speak out their wishes for happy family and escape of disasters, pray for good harvest and good fortune in the coming year. In Chinese tradition, value on loss of life, respect for ancestors, and worship is the concrete expression of filial piety, the core traditional Chinese thought.

Global Citizenship at the 100 Years Young! AFS Youth Workshop and Symposium

This November AFS will become 100 years old, and to commemorate its centennial a myriad of activities around the world have been and will be organized. One of the events is the 100 Years Young! AFS Youth Workshop and Symposium which will gather over 100 youth representatives. Including preparatory team members and facilitators, we come from 39 different countries from all parts of the world! Even though many participants are AFSers, in total we represent 30 different organizations.10649108_1545954475635626_401122695777048525_o.jpgThe 100 Years Young! project is divided in two phases: first, a virtual phase which started a month ago, and second, an in-person phase, when more than half of the virtual participants will come together in Paris for a two-day Youth Workshop and Symposium at the UNESCO headquarters.

Over the first month of the virtual phase we have been reflecting on what global citizenship means for us. Using an online learning tool that incorporates social networking features participants were divided in small groups, in which everyone shared their own opinion, leading the group to a collective definition of Global Citizenship.

Here are some of the outcomes from the groups:

We believe the word ‘global’ refers to something way wider than just ‘different countries’. Global is like general, it involves ‘everything’ and ‘everyone’. Being a global citizen means a lot more than just understanding and respecting the culture of someone from another country. There might be many different cultures in your own country, city or even neighborhood. Being a global citizen means respecting and understanding people in a global and individual sphere. If we want to be global citizens, we have also to think about local problems which stop us from going ahead. When thinking about global citizenship, it’s important to consider that some people are denied even the privilege of being a CITIZEN for their religion, gender, ethnic differences, sexual orientation, socio-economic class. Global citizenship is about a lot more than just different countries. It’s about understanding and respecting all sorts of differences.

Global citizenship is the responsibility and sense of empathy for fair and just global development, as well as education for human rights, for sustainable solutions for the environment, prevention in order to stay out of conflict and keep peace in the world and finally increasing the level of intercultural education as well as diversity education. Also, Global citizenship evokes values in its participants that are of openness, pride, motivation and future oriented mindset.

After reflecting on what Global Citizenship means for us, we decided to explore this concept among the people around us. For the next part of the virtual activities participants were asked to interview someone from their communities.

Check out this great interview Lise-Maria and Kyrre from Norway did!

In the upcoming weeks participants will be divided in 4 different tracks, each focusing on a different stakeholder and discussing their role in education of global citizens. Participants will be able to share their own perspectives, but also learn about the experiences and thoughts of others. The final outcomes will be presented at the AFS Youth Symposium at UNESCO.


This post has been contributed by Guillermo Bril of AFS Argentina & Uruguay.

Fourth Annual AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program Regional Events

For a fourth year in a row, from 25-28 September, the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program held events in the Asia-Pacific and Caribe regions for AFS staff and volunteers. 22 participants from Australia, China, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Thailand participated in Levels 1 and 2 in Jakarta, Indonesia. 22 participants from Colombia, Dominican Republic, Mexico and Panama participated in all three Levels of the Program in Punta Cana, Dominican Republic.

“All three groups had a same goal,” stated Qualified Trainer Mónica Wittman from AFS Costa Rica. “Increasing their own intercultural competences, gaining knowledge and developing skills toward sensitizing others about intercultural differences and how best to approach them.”

Both events were led by experienced Learning Program Qualified Trainers who dedicated weeks of planning to make the events unforgettable for the participants, finding unique and fun ways to deliver Intercultural Learning content. “The participants particularly commented positively on the several activities that allowed them to easily understand complex concepts and theories, as opposed to the usual delivery of lectures,” said Mae Ayob, Qualified Trainer from AFS Philippines. “They are all excited for the next Level!”

Qualified Trainer Fran Baxter from AFS Australia agreed, “The experiential nature of the learning we were engaged in – both learning about the topics, and each other’s culture – therefore actually experiencing Intercultural Learning while learning was very valuable.”

The in-person event is just the beginning for these 44 Learning Program participants. All will be supported with various distance learning activities that build upon the foundations that were laid during the workshops.

A big thanks goes out to AFS Indonesia, Bina Antarbudaya, and AFS Dominican Republic for hosting these very successful regional events! We look forward to the participants finishing the distance portions of their respective levels and to the next regional events in 2015!

AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium: Learning to Live Together – from Ideas to Action


This November 8th, AFS Intercultural Programs will celebrate its 100th Anniversary and prepare to ring in the next hundred years of education for peace and intercultural cooperation at the AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium.

The general theme of our Symposium has been inspired by Jacques Delors’ Report on Education (UNESCO, 1996): “The main challenge facing lifelong education involves our capabilities to learn to live together by developing an understanding of others and their histories, traditions and spiritual values and, on this basis, creating a new spirit which, guided by a recognition of our growing interdependence and a common analysis of the risks and challenges of the future, would induce people to implement common projects or to manage the inevitable conflicts in an intelligent and peaceful way.”

We believe that by providing intercultural learning opportunities to young people and adults through well-facilitated exchanges, by promoting citizen commitment through meaningful volunteering, and by proposing educational methods that complement those of state education systems, the AFS program may be one valuable way of meeting this challenge. We welcome this symposium as an opportunity to challenge AFS to take action for the next 100 years of intercultural learning.

Oscar Arias

Against this backdrop, we will conduct an educational symposium and round-table discussion featuring eminent thinkers and agents for peace from diverse geographies and perspectives. We are honored to be joined by Oscar Arias, Nobel Peace Prize laureate and former president of Costa Rica, as one of the keynote speakers at the symposium. Together, we will explore the responsibilities of individuals versus institutions in the co-construction of the “new spirit” as called for by Delors, and whether in so doing, we are endorsing a universal code of ethics.

The Symposium is organized under the patronage of UNESCO and is a part of the Centennial celebrations will take place in Paris, because it was in Paris that in 1914 A. Piatt Andrew set up the American Ambulance Field Service (AAFS, later AFS) to rescue as many human lives as possible on the battlefields of World War I. The war experience triggered AFS to launch an experiment of peace education in the 1940s, again on a totally voluntary basis. Former drivers and their friends from all over the world started to exchange individual teenagers for an entire school year, hosting them in families and in secondary schools so that they could all learn (students, host-families, schools and communities) the difficult art of living with differences and of seeing themselves through the eyes of another culture.

This experiment has grown into the largest high school student exchange movement in the world with over 12000 participants every year and managed by 43000 volunteers. AFS has grown and extended its exchanges all over the world, but the purpose and the spirit have remained the same: to challenge a young individuals to leave the safety boundaries of home and to take a look at themselves from another perspective – and to stimulate host families, schools and communities to reconsider their approaches to life and education as they try to incorporate into their daily lives a young person who has been raised within other memories, world-views and values.


The AFS Effect: Daring to Create Change

Since its beginning, AFS has been a vehicle for committed individuals who dare to make a difference. Courage, volunteerism and learning have been constants throughout our history. A century ago they resulted in thousands of lives saved. Then, in inventing the intercultural exchange programs that still transform lives today.

Creating change is what AFSers do, and we call it the AFS Effect.

AFS has impacted many lives throughout our history and with the #AFSeffect campaign we hope to learn about the impact AFS has had on individuals—what the #AFSeffect means to them and what intercultural learning in action looks like to them. Everyone who would like to contribute can share a post about their own experience on their social media platforms using the hashtag #AFSeffect.

Until the AFS Centennial celebrations in Paris, we will post several questions online with and ask everyone to react and contribute to the campaign using #AFSeffect to tag their posts. The first question was already shared as a part of the 100 days, 100 stories campaign on the official AFS Intercultural Programs Facebook page and others will follow soon.

Many AFSers are already participating in the campaign and you can easily follow contributions on the campaign microsite

Curiosity, Difficulty and Reflection

Experiential learning is at the core of AFS’s programs and activities: Whether you participate in one of the exchange programs, volunteer trainings or activities, you will learn most by doing and reflecting on your experiences.

Years of research and anecdotal evidence have shown that personal crises have a special value for such learning. For example, during their time abroad, exchange students are continuously compelled to act and react in the absence of familiar cues. When they remain manageable, such crises become productive bases for intercultural learning because they force the participant to challenge old assumptions, to think creatively, and to acquire new knowledge, attitudes and skills. Because of the emotional security provided by the host family and the local community, and because of the network of support available from AFS volunteers and staff these crises are valuable learning experiences.

Another view on this issue is offered by brain researchers. Brain is often compared to a muscle: That the more you use it, the more it grows. Studies have found that neural connections form and deepen most when we make mistakes doing difficult tasks rather than repeatedly having success with easy ones. Pushing yourself out of your comfort zone and embracing challenges – such as a year of intercultural student exchange – can produce much more of personal development than avoiding struggle and failure.

Reinforcing tenacity and perseverance is especially valuable in adolescence: This period of multiple opportunities and vulnerabilities is also a time during which the brain is highly influenced by experiences.This is when much is learned, especially about the social world, and it is the best time to turning stressful events into learning opportunities. As we leave adolescence, the brain becomes less adaptable and sensitive to experiential influences. Many studies find a decline in novelty-seeking as we move through our 20s, which may suggest that deliberate exposure to challenging experiences will keep our brains “younger” for longer.

There is no fixed formula for successful learning with no bumps on the road. Yet, encouraging curiosity, embracing difficulties and fostering reflection are a good setting for personal development.

Are you ready for intercultural dialogue?

Multicultural education, intercultural education, nonracial education, antiracist education, culturally responsive pedagogy, ethnic studies, peace studies, global education, social justice education, bilingual education, mother tongue education, integration – these and more are the terms used to describe different aspects of diversity education around the world. Although it may go by different names and speak to stunningly different conditions in a variety of sociopolitical contexts, diversity education attempts to address such issues as racial and social class segregation, the disproportionate achievement of students of various backgrounds, and the structural inequality in both schools and society.
(Quote from Diversity Education: Lessons For A Just World by Sonia Nieto)

Diversity education is the topic of this year’s Intercultural Dialogue Day (IDD), a grassroots initiative organized by volunteers in AFS local chapters all over Europe since 2008. On 25 September 2014 these AFS volunteers will be exploring new ideas and perspectives for the events organized at a local level related to diversity education.

In preparation for this special date, you can check out the Intercultural Dialogue Day Facebook page and its 100 days challenge. During the countdown to IDD, IDDA (the project’s mascot) asks you different questions, offers resources and food for thought related to diversity education every day. For example, IDDA has already helped us discover a database of intercultural films, educational resources on cultural diversity and made us reflect on gender roles. Even outside of Europe, you can also download the promotional materials developed for this year’s IDD or the IDD Toolkits where different formats of local events from previous years are described.

The Intercultural Dialogue Day project was initiated in 2008, the European Year of Intercultural Dialogue, by the European Federation for Intercultural Learning (EFIL), the AFS European umbrella organization. Today, IDD takes place each year on the last Thursday of September. The main IDD idea is to raise awareness and visibility of intercultural dialogue in local communities. IDD events are originated by AFS volunteers and supported by AFS offices. Some AFSers outside of Europe are already marking IDD with their own events initiatives this year and AFS is exploring pursuing IDD globally.

AFS believes in dialogue and cooperation across languages, cultures and organizations. This is also one of the focus points of Intercultural Dialogue Day. Collaboration with different audiences in the local community does not only raise the visibility of the message we try to promote through IDD, but it also strengthens the AFS volunteer networks, giving volunteers a sense of ownership and responsibility while encouraging innovation.

Learning Styles for AFS & Friends

We are very happy to share with you the latest edition of the educational series ICL for AFS & Friends. This document focuses on Learning Styles as defined by David Kolb, and their relevance for AFS. As facilitators of learning, it is helpful for AFS volunteers and staff to understand the unique characteristics of each learning style, which will ensure a more integrated approach to workshop design to support learners’ preferences. This document ensues from the previous edition of ICL for AFSers and Friends, which focused on David Kolb’s experiential learning cycle.

The ICL for AFS & Friends is a concise, approachable series of documents on intercultural topics that are directly related to the AFS experience, written by and for the AFS community, educators and all others who either are or would like to become involved with the AFS mission.

Unity in Diversity: Celebrating Diversity for Common and Shared Values

We would like to thank Guillermo Bril of AFS Argentina & Uruguay for contributing the following text to our blog:

Bali – Indonesia, 28-30 August 2014

Under the overarching theme “Unity in Diversity: Celebrating Diversity for Common and Shared Values”, the Sixth Global Forum of the UNAOC brought together over 1,500 participants, including political leaders, representatives of international and regional organizations, the private sector, civil society, academia, youth, arts and the media, as well as donor agencies and foundations, to explore new ways of promoting cross-cultural dialogue and understanding and to spark new partnerships and commitments.

Out of more than 3,000 applicants worldwide, only 100 participants from 43 countries qualified to convene for the Youth Event in August 2014 with the objective of supporting the mainstreaming of young people’s voices into the Forum’s main themes.

The AFS network was represented in Bali by Guille Bril, of AFS Argentina & Uruguay, who met with another 99 youth representatives from diverse cultural and religions backgrounds, with outstanding track record in intercultural dialogue and youth work.

In line with the mission of AFS, the UNAOC aspires to the ideal of a culture of peace and dialogue among all civilizations on the assumption that “differences within and between societies should be neither feared nor repressed, but cherished as a precious asset of humanity”.

The Youth Event looked at the main topic through four themes: education, media, migration, and entrepreneurship/employment, which resulted in the creation of Youth Recommendations. They represent what we, young people, need from world leaders in order to fully leverage their unique contribution to fostering Unity in Diversity. Youth Recommendations for education push for more inclusive national education and foster meaningful and diverse youth participation in education policy-making. They also insist on integrating global citizenship into the curriculum at all levels of education with a specific focus on cross cultural understanding, problem solving, conflict resolution and peace building. All of these are a part of the AFS Educational Goals and will be addressed at our upcoming Centennial Celebrations, and the Learning to Live Together – AFS Global Intercultural Education Symposium.

This event was a great opportunity for AFS to share its expertise in the field of youth work and global education, and we were happy to collaborate with other youth representatives from around the world. We are glad to continue our relationship with the UNAOC, which started with our representatives attending the UNAOC Global Forums since 2008, as well as the establishment of the AFS Intercultural Prize at the Plural+ Youth Video Contest.

AFS India and AFS Philippines Strengthen Foundations of Intercultural Learning

From 24-27 August, three key volunteers from AFS India and two key volunteers from AFS Philippines took part in a National Qualified Trainers (NQT) workshop for the AFS Intercultural Link Learning Program in Gurgaon, Haryana, India.

This marks the fourth NQT workshop done this year throughout the AFS network. Previous workshops were done in Egypt, Brazil, and Costa Rica. Like the other workshops, the candidates dove deep into training techniques and the Learning Program Curriculum. Once they complete all three steps of certification, they can implement the program locally according to the National Strategies of their AFS organizations.

“My favorite part of the training was when the candidates realized that they had to change their approach and start thinking as trainers instead of volunteers,” said Sujatha Shyamsundar, International Qualified Trainer of the Learning Program and one the workshop trainers. She continued, “I also enjoyed connecting activities and theory to practical knowledge that participants will carry back with them.”

One candidate said, “It [the workshop] went beyond my expectations. I just thought it will just be a simple training but it wasn’t. It demanded full attention and time (…) everything was very essential and I learned a lot.”

We congratulate the five NQT candidates and wish them luck with the rest of their certification!