Even in time when everything is for sale, human connections will always be priceless

By Wan Lixin
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail Shanghai Daily, March 8, 2017
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Last week, my family discussed a school assignment about "doing a favor for one of your neighbors."

This was obviously in view of March 5, a day set aside for the memory of Lei Feng, a public-spirited icon always ready to help those in need.

The assignment proved more difficult than it seemed. My wife suggested sending a prepared dish to the next-door neighbor. My mother-in-law used to do this for her neighbors, even after they had been relocated and put up in storied flat.

But my son was horrified. "How can we trick them to open the door in the first place? They would take us for thieves!"

I assured him such worries were unnecessary. Just a couple of days ago, while waiting for the elevator, I saw the next-door gentleman. We were both heading down with bags of trash in our hands. I said hello, exchanged some civilities, and when we were on the first floor, the neighbor insisted on taking the garbage from my hand so that I did not have to make a detour to drop the trash.

It's easy enough to do something for your neighbor when you are not doing it as an obligation. But there is no denying that neighborhood social bonds are dissolving. Whether in cities or villages overtaken by progress, many children no longer grow up in familiar neighborhoods.

We used to live among people we know. A few decades ago, if I happened to find myself in a strange village, some villagers would stop me and demand an account of myself, which could easily lead to a discussion of my age, job, wages, parents, marital status, etc.

We have come to resent such curiosity. In modernized landscape, our home is more or less like a castle, fortified against intruders, and insulated from prying eyes.

Accidental communication

Communication among neighbors is more and more of an accident.

My son used to be a good ice-breaker. As a baby, he was often a topic for adults to start a conversation. As he got older, he used to smile at strangers. Seven years ago, some casual remarks he volunteered to a mother of another boy led to the friendship between the two children that lasts to this day.

Now older and wiser, he has grown out of this spontaneity, and when he uses an elevator, he has learnt to wear a remote, deadpan face that frankly ignores fellow riders. I've been told that with many other species, such proximity without some greeting would be immediately interpreted as an act of hostility. That's just one advantage of being civilized.

There was a time when we depended more on the charity of our neighbors or next of kin for vital support.

I remember our family coal-burning stove was built by some neighbors, and our furniture was painted by another. Our kitchen was built by relatives. Today we take greater pride in our independence, and depend on omnipotent delivery services.

A couple of weeks ago, we ordered a large LED lamp online. For extra 40 yuan (US$5.80), two support staff were sent to dismantle the older lamp and have the new one installed, all in about five minutes.

The multiplication of professional services enables us to be on the move, to travel light and at short notice.

We have learnt to become wary of becoming emotionally indebted to someone. According to some, this is even more expensive than market solutions.

There is a saying that a relative far off is less help than a neighbor close by. Today they are probably equally helpless. Many years ago, when migrants began pouring into cities in search of work, some believed that one of the benefits of urban living was escaping the network of ties and obligations so manifest in village life.

But clearly, we might still find ourselves in dilemmas that cannot be worked out by money alone. We might find ourselves in a crisis or emergency. We might in need of a sympathetic ear.

The realignment of our relationships along monetary terms leads to the quick turnover of anything, as befitting a disposal society where everything is possessed, admired, or consumed over the length of a contract, even relationships.

In time we learnt that cloakroom communities, carnival friends, or WeChat moments are poor substitutes for the kind of social solidarity naturally accrued from shared experience in a neighborhood. Hence the need for restoring the type of social bonds necessary for actualizing the sense of security and morality we once took for granted.

As my wife and son's experience suggests, in the challenge of executing that simple school assignment, there was a sudden realization of our loneliness in this urban jungle of concrete and steel. But with a little initiative, we can catalyze real change.

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