Stronger together: the unbreakable bonds of community

Emma Leaning Zhou Shengjie Sun Chao
If you've been to a festival, game or gig and felt electricity in your veins or a lump in your throat, then you've experienced what I'd put at the heart of community: connection.
Emma Leaning Zhou Shengjie Sun Chao

Recently I found myself staring down the barrel of a seemingly simple question: What is a community? The more I thought, the more elusive the answer became. Is 'community' a buzzword or does it encompass something more profound?

Last week, I went to a TEC Talk in collaboration with Shanghai International Mental Health Association, called "Growing Together Through Challenging Times." The premise was clear: By standing together, we can triumph over anything. Amid the discussions and reflections, some questions came up for me. Can we really overcome all that life throws at us? And more immediately, how do we define this concept of community?

Shot by Zhou Shengjie. Edited by Sun Chao. Reported by Emma Leaning. Subtitles by Wang Xinzhou.

Stronger together: the unbreakable bonds of community
Courtesy of The Expatriate Center

Emma (right) speaks with Linda Painan, chairwoman of The Expatriate Center.

The Internet will tell you that community is about shared attitudes, characteristics, interests and space. That's broad, and in the digital age, a community could be your neighbors or a bunch of people online you've never met. But, if you've been to a festival, game, support group or gig and felt electricity in your veins or a lump in your throat, then you've experienced what I'd put at the heart of community: connection. And there are plenty of examples around the world of people grouping together to plug in to theirs.

Holi, a Hindu festival, brings communities together in a riot of colors. Mardi Gras serves as an example of people uniting to celebrate culture, music and traditions. While harvest festivals such as Thanksgiving in the United States or the Mid-Autumn Festival in China promote sharing, gratitude and communal care.

When we talk about connection and community, things can feel fluffy. But history proves their life-saving power. During crises like Hurricane Katrina (2005) and the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami (2011), local communities united to provide shelter, food and aid. Similarly, in the face of terrorist attacks like the Boston Marathon bombing (2013) and the Manchester Arena bombing (2017), surrounding communities displayed remarkable solidarity and a refusal to be defined by tragedy.

Stronger together: the unbreakable bonds of community
Courtesy of The Expatriate Center

Panel speakers share their views on community at a TEC Talk, called "Growing Together Through Challenging Times," last week.

As with joy, grief is a collective experience that touches us all. Like death and taxes, nobody gets through life without challenges. Yet, we deceive ourselves about their true nature. Society tells us that setbacks are roadblocks, and trauma is nothing but pain. That's the black-and-white picture. But challenges – like life – are painted shades of gray. They coexist with change, and change stems from loss. Strangely enough, that loss can be an unexpected gateway to growth.

Picture a seed, unassuming but bursting with potential. Buried within soil, it undergoes a silent transformation, sending roots deep and leaves high. Then, somewhat annoyingly if you're a leaf, a caterpillar enthusiastically consumes everything you've painstakingly nurtured. It's a noticeable step back. But as the caterpillar feasts and evolves, changes unfold within its cocoon. From the same plant, a butterfly emerges – elegant, fragile and ready to fly.

As the seed needs the nurturing embrace of soil, the soft kiss of water and the warm wash of sunlight, individuals facing challenges thrive when cocooned within their community's support. The seed doesn't transform in isolation; its journey is nurtured by the very elements that sustain it.

Stronger together: the unbreakable bonds of community
Courtesy of The Expatriate Center

Group discussions included topics such as parenting, youth and the workplace.

Alongside struggle is a concept that defies the conventional narrative of trauma as an endpoint. Post-traumatic growth recognizes that in darkness, we have the capacity to adapt and develop resilience. Health challenges, career setbacks and relationship breakdowns are all examples where post-traumatic growth can occur. Cancer survivors sometimes develop a greater appreciation for life, a job loss may be an opportunity for a career change, and grieving a relationship could spark a journey of self-discovery.

While post-traumatic growth is neither easy nor obvious, it's undeniable, and Shanghai experienced this first hand in 2022. It was a challenging year, but one undeniable positive was the power of community.

Many of us have had conversations about how community played a pivotal role in helping us cope with the isolation of that year. People shared resources, created online groups and attended virtual events to support each other during the pandemic. Even in the often-harsh realm of social media, online communities mattered. After Shanghai reopened, I witnessed the strength of these communities. An X (then Twitter) party brought together over 40 individuals who had never met in person, and it was a beautiful experience. These people are a significant reason why I'm still here today. And by here, I mean alive. The coming together of individuals in the aftermath of trauma played a monumental role in my healing.

Community is not just essential; it's a life source.

Before I left the TEC Talk, I asked some of Shanghai's thought leaders about overcoming obstacles as a community. They all echoed the same message: The only way over is through. We can only overcome the challenges we face when we do so in synchronicity with others. We're often told to be ourselves, but I think that message is problematic in times of crises. So, when life throws you your next curveball, remember you are not alone. And instead of being you in all your youness, be us.

We are better, together.

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