Looking for excuses for neighbors to get together

We really do need to belong somewhere.

As someone born in the 1990s, I was brought up in material abundance with amenities undreamed of by my father when he was young.

However, my father insists that something is missing in my life.

Born in a small city in Jiangsu Province in the 1960s, my father used to live in a neighborhood when “neighborhood” meant more than just physical proximity. He went to school with neighbors’ children, and they played together in the alley after school. Home was less fortified then: Neighbors would drop by uninvited, borrow things or just exchange gossip. Cooking was an exhibitionist art then — several families shared a single kitchen.

He later settled in a large city, in a storied building where the neighborhood “public space” was little more than a parking lot. He would often wax nostalgic about the intimate relationship between neighbors in the old-style communities of his childhood. This kind of sentiment is probably not restricted to the Chinese. I recently interviewed Kirsten Reinders, a German activist for community building, who is around the same age as my father. She is similarly puzzled by the downgrading of public space, where primary social contacts no longer happen.

At the sponsorship of Stiftung Asienhaus, Reinders from Cologne, Germany, spent six weeks conducting research in Shanghai’s Dinghaiqiao Mutual-Aid Community as part of an EU-China NGO twinning program. As a former management trainer in telecommunication, Reinders was a highflier, always on the go with no time to chat with her neighbors.

Last year, as her grown-up children moved out, with more time to reflect on the purpose of life, she felt something was missing, and decided to take a sabbatical to explore new possibilities. Then a kiosk in Nikolaus Square in Sülz, Cologne, sparked her interest. Taken over and refurbished by a resident in early 2016, the kiosk became a meeting point where residents could chat over a cup of coffee or exchange books. Since its inception the kiosk has been run by nine volunteers including Reinders.

Reinders said that the nine kiosk operators sought to bring together neighbors of mixed backgrounds and ages. They tapped into their artistic talent when they were each given a brush and invited to paint on canvas outside the kiosk.

Senior folks who used to feel imprisoned watching TV all day have come out of their homes to appreciate the photo wall near the kiosk where people stick personal photos and share moments of their lives.

A Syrian refugee said he felt at home there, practicing German with locals.

Despite initial misgivings, the neighbors have witnessed the kiosk evolve from a coffee shop into a cultural asset.

Proud of the changes the kiosk’s makeover brought, Reinders exchanged ideas about social cohesion and community regeneration with her Chinese counterparts.

The mutual-aid society that brought her to Shanghai is active in Dinghaiqiao, an old neighborhood in Yangpu District with rundown housing built for factory workers and migrants from Jiangsu Province in the 1950s.

The group rented an three-story house where they offered after-school childcare and had a professional photographer in residence for a month, taking pictures for free for anyone who wanted them.

“The core idea is to create a public space accessible to all,” Reinders said,“to create a place for people to catch up, just like the kiosk.”

The good news is that many urban communities in China are making up creative “excuses” for residents to gather.

In September, Zhuanqiao town in Shanghai’s Minhang District made a successful attempt to break the ice. A rice-collecting “game” was organized with contestants asked to collect a spoonful of rice from their neighbors. Over 230 participants collected 125 kilograms of rice from 845 households within the scheduled time. At the end of the day, all players received porridge made from the rice they collected.

One of the contestants said, “I never even said ‘hi’ to my neighbors before. Now it seems easy to interact with people.”

As for myself, I also started to make “excuses” to mingle with people instead of confining myself to my small apartment in a high-rise in Shanghai.

Last month, a birthday party for all Virgos was held on the first floor of my building. I joined the crowd out of curiosity.

Amid a bunch of happy young souls who I wasn’t able to name, I realized that my father was right: We really do need to belong somewhere.

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