Look­ing for ex­cuses for neigh­bors to get to­gether

Shanghai Daily - - OPINION - Ying Tianyi CHI­NESE VIEWS

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 Mu­tu­alAid 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 three­story 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.

Kirsten Rein­ders

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from China

© PressReader. All rights reserved.