Social worker hopes to be a force for change

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 08 July, 2007, 12:00am

Liao Huanbiao , a 24-year-old social worker, knew almost nothing about the occupation and had no family support when he signed up for the major six years ago. But now he enjoys his job, his family are behind his career and he is embracing the challenge of an emerging field.

Why did you choose social work as your major?

To be honest, social work was not my first choice when I applied to Sun Yat-sen University in Guangzhou in 2001. I failed to get into my preferred department and so arranged to study social work.

The only thing I knew about it at that time was based on some Hong Kong soap operas in which the people were always told to ask the social workers for help. During my first two years at university, I just took some courses in sociology and had no idea about my future because I didn't know what I could do as a social work graduate. But everything changed after I met some professional social workers in Hong Kong.

What did you learn from those social workers?

In 2003 our department head, Yeung Law Koon-chui, who was from City University of Hong Kong, invited Ng Shui-lai, the executive director of the Hong Kong Christian Service, to give us a talk comparing the history of social work on the mainland and Hong Kong. Mr Ng said it was the beginning of social work on the mainland, just like Hong Kong in the 1950s. He said all of us should take the opportunity to create a brilliant future for it. It was the first time I realised I had such a great responsibility and I started to map out my professional future. In 2004, we went to Hong Kong to look into what the social workers really did. I was shocked to realise that they could help people so much. When I came back to Guangzhou, I asked myself: 'Could we do the same thing here?' It was then I decided it would be my responsibility to accomplish that goal.

What did you do after graduation?

I started working for the Guangdong Baiyun Voluntary Drug Rehabilitation Centre in 2005, where I had been an intern for more than a year. My job was to talk to the addicts who were willing to get clean and try to find out about their relationships. In most cases, addicts go back to drugs only because they do not have enough support from their families or friends. So I taught the addicts' family members how to communicate skilfully with them.

The families and the addicts did have enough time to talk with each other, but they just always choose the wrong vantage point in which to do it. We taught the families how to think about the situations from the addicts' perspective. The fundamental task of social work is to improve people's relationships.

Does your family support you in your line of work?

My parents live in Shenzhen and they did not like this subject at the beginning. None of their friends knew what social work was and they asked me to change to another department, just as some of my classmates had done.

Fortunately, since last year the Shenzhen government has been working hard to promote the image of social work and now my parents can proudly tell their friends what their son's occupation is.

After graduation, I told my father that I had to save money to finish a master's degree so I might not have chance to give them money to support them for the next five years. He said the only thing they wanted was for me to stay with them for five days a year, during the Spring Festival.

Have you ever wavered over your choice?

Yes. At a Christmas party in 2005, a patient in the rehabilitation centre slapped me in the face for refusing to give him the first prize in a game. Then he lied and told others that I bit him first. At the time, I felt strongly that I had been wronged and wanted to quit. I asked myself whether social workers always had to suffer this kind of misunderstanding. Finally the centre found out the truth and punished the troublemaker.

It was a good lesson for me to understand that a social worker must have a more patient and tolerant attitude towards misunderstandings.

What do you learn from your job?

Social work is an occupation in which you need to be able to skilfully understand and share warmth with those who need it. Of course, we also have our own unhappiness and pain, but we must be warm to the people we serve. It is not easy for us to stick to this job, but we can take comfort from colleagues standing firmly together.

I enjoy my job not only when the addicts and their families appreciate everything I have done for them, but also the warmth I get from my colleagues. I am working on an application to study social work at Chinese University of Hong Kong. There is a long way for social work on the mainland to go, and I believe I can help promote it in the future.