Written by Dilber Shatursun
On a day-to-day basis, there seem to be less and less reminders of a pandemic. Walking into the Tzu Chi Center this summer though, something I’d missed suddenly became very clear: how warm it feels to be among community. Summer Fun Day, the Tzu Chi Center’s first major public event since 2020, brimmed with these feel-good vibes on July 31st, 2022.
For the past few years, much of the Tzu Chi Center for Compassionate Relief’s in-person activity had been closed off from the general public out of public health concerns. But, Summer Fun Day, which took place thanks to the efforts of a dedicated group of Tzu Ching (or Tzu Chi’s Collegiate Association) and Tzu Ching alumni, Tzu Chi New York volunteers, and local volunteers, sprung it back to life. Altogether, 56 volunteers helped make the effort happen, led by core team leader Cindy Tsou.
The Birth of Summer Fun Day
Cindy’s mother is a regular volunteer at the Tzu Chi Center who, along with her fellow volunteers, had been brainstorming ideas on how to draw in new visitors and volunteers to the Tzu Chi Center, located in Manhattan’s Upper East Side. “I suggested doing the Summer Fun Day event, incorporating both ideas and fun games, good food, and prizes to attract more young people,” explains Cindy. But, this time, younger volunteers would organize it themselves.
Alexander King, who joined the core team, explained:
The energetic team – consisting of Cindy, Alexander King, Joanna Zhang, Annie Chu, Enpu Kuo, and Sabrina Lin – quickly got to work, spending up to 8 hours each day planning and planning and planning. Cindy, who was coordinating abroad from Taiwan, explained, “we tried to write out every little detail about the event, including a detailed floor plan of how tables and materials should be set up, a script volunteers can use to explain the games… We had many meetings before the event, and I talked to Alex and Enpu daily to ensure that things went smoothly.” After three intense months of planning, they’d let Summer Fun Day finally set sail.
You Win Some, You Sip Some
Guests pose for photos at the photo booth. Photo/Peter Chu
After signing in and COVID-19 temperature checks, guests entered the Tzu Chi Center to a bustling scene filled with activities and games on every floor. By the entrance, they could pose for take-home polaroid photos at the Summer Fun photo booth. Sabrina helped guests, including families and children, pick out props and take photos. She remarked, “parents were typically interested in just taking pictures of their kids from the side, and I’d encourage them to get in and I’d offer to take a picture with their phone.” She also took polaroid shots and printed them on the spot for people to take home.
A variety of activities are available for guests to enjoy. Photo/Peter Cou
Visitors could then trail upstairs, where there were other games and activities, including Odd String Out, a Chinese calligraphy station, mystery boxes, and a photo exhibit of Tzu Chi’s relief work in Haiti. But, perhaps, most fascinating by contrast was the traditional Tzu Chi Jing Si tea ceremony, taking place on the third floor. At the top of every hour, guests were invited to step away from the energy and excitement of the lower levels and enter an atmosphere of calm, serenity, peace – and a tiny dose of caffeine.
Upon entering the third floor, they were guided to wash their hands, symbolizing the cleansing of the mind and purification of the heart. After being seated, Tzu Chi volunteers introduced the Jing Si Tea ceremony as one being combined with meditation practice, which “searches for the meaning for one’s virtue,” as Core Team Member Enpu explained. Each guest received a tiny cup of Jing Si black tea and was prompted to drink their tea in three sips and think of the following:
- First sip: think good thoughts with gratitude
- Second sip: speak good words with respect
- Third sip: bring good deeds with love
Trying this out myself, I was surprised at the intensity of the aroma of the tea. Having drank this tea before, had I just not noticed it until now? With a wide smile, Enpu explained that “sometimes we just drink tea in one sip, a very big sip. But, When we just sip in small amounts, we can really feel the aroma.” A one-minute silent meditation followed. The lights were switched off, and visitors were encouraged to clear their minds and focus on their breathing. What a relaxing experience.
Guests enjoy a traditional tea ceremony. Photo/Peter Chu
“I feel like this is a change from the second floor, it’s something different. There’s a sense of tranquility. Everyone is surprised because everyone is quiet and so involved in the tea ceremony, so I feel like it’s helped develop a calm, tranquil feeling,” Enpu gently elaborates. Volunteers then spent time with each table of guests, and introduced Tzu Chi’s mission of compassion and relief which currently spans 128 countries.
Of the whole experience, visitor and New Yorker Klara Paulker said that “the tea ceremony was really cool, and looking at all the pictures of the disaster relief they do and just how much humanitarian aid they provide… That’s just really cool to find out that that’s what’s happening here and that there are so many ways to get involved, too.” However, Klara was first drawn into Summer Fun Day at the Tzu Chi Center for a slightly different reason: the promise of incredible vegetarian food.
Come for the Food, Stay for the Rest
Vegetarian-friendly – and fun – foods at Summer Fun Day. Photo/Huai-Hsien Huang & Peter Chu
In the courtyard past the main floor, a mouthwatering variety of vegetarian foods was being served to guests throughout the event. Inspired by flavors from both the East and West, and prepared entirely by the volunteer team, some of the menu items included vegetarian sushi and kimbap, fan tuan (popularly known as onigiri), roasted chickpea wraps, as well as popular Asian desserts like bingsu (or sweetened shaved ice). Guests could even enjoy a refreshing bubble tea to cool down in the heat.
Exploring and tasting each of the dishes was a delight. Not only was the display beautiful and were the servers friendly, but each food item delivered on both substance and flavor. Guest and Brooklynite Elaine Chen agreed: “we’re really impressed. I’ve had vegetarian cuisine before, but this was really delicious.” Compared to more readily available vegetarian foods, the ‘homemade’ touch seemed to make a big difference. Alex was happy that I’d noticed it, too:
Yet, this was not without its challenges. Ally Yen, a local volunteer who helped prepare some of the dishes, explained that getting the recipes right, in terms of making them filling and tasty enough was a journey: “we were making the chickpea wraps. The other volunteers bought two different sauces but were supposed to get only one, so how they struggled and solved the problem [of which sauce to use], I think that was fun.”
A Family Affair
While many guests came on their own or with friends, families with young children were also in attendance. Winni Chiang, who came with her husband and their children, a six and one-year-old, said that she’d sought the event out specifically because of Tzu Chi’s Taiwanese roots. “we are from Taiwan originally, so I wanted to come here and support the event,” she explained. But, Winni says, what she saw during Summer Fun Day blew her away.
“I didn’t expect this to be such a well-organized event,” she remarked after partaking in every activity and visiting each floor of the Tzu Chi Center. Her and her children’s favorite part? “The calligraphy [station]. It’s very traditional, and I don’t think my children have ever seen that before, so it’s really great to connect them with the culture.” For many families, cultural events offer an important bridge to world heritage that reflect diversity and inclusion.
But, the real litmus test: if there was a Summer Fun Day 2023, would they be back?
A Team Effort
Volunteers gather after a job well done. Photos/Huai-Hsien Huang
Much like the familiar energy it gave off, Summer Fun Day was indeed organized by a ‘family’ of volunteers. Alex shared his admiration for all his peers who’d been part of it all: “I’m really proud of all our core team volunteers, and all of our younger volunteers who may be in high school right now or in college, and so them taking time out of their super busy days and setting aside such a large chunk of time… I really respect that.”
While she couldn’t be there in person, Cindy, seeing pictures of the event from all the way from Taiwan, said that “I was so happy that so many people showed up, and they seemed to be having a good time. It was great to see everything turn out the way I pictured it.” After all guests had left, Annie took a moment to acknowledge the contributions of a particularly cheerful and energetic set of volunteers:
Those who dropped in to volunteer for the day, too, who wore mustard yellow vests, didn’t miss out on the experience either. Ci-Yi Bei, a local volunteer based in Manhattan, said that she’d began volunteering at the Tzu Chi Center this year because she saw that Tzu Chi was “very dedicated to protecting the Earth through vegetarianism and trying not to waste anything, to save electricity.” Of Summer Fun Day in particular, she candidly said:
I couldn’t have agreed more.