A Neighbor is Better Than a Distant Relative

By Eve Wee-Ang 2022-07-14 11:56:53

I have lived in my compound for nearly 5 years, but up till recently only knew a handful of neighbors vaguely, and mostly from my kid’s school which is just round the corner. Over the years I have been invited into the compound’s group chat several times, but I have always turned them down. I was haunted by horror stories from friends in other compounds about gossipy neighbors who publicly name-shamed each other over trivial matters. Besides, I am on an eternal quest to not be a slave to my phone and lesser group chats means lesser phone-sitting. In my social sphere, I feel most comfortable orbiting the same circle of friends I’ve known since arriving in Shanghai 14 years ago.


But all that changed since the lockdown. None of my friends lived in my compound except for one, but she isn’t in Shanghai. 10 days in, I started to panic when the fridge got worryingly brighter due to the freed-up space as we slowly ate up the provisions that Ayi had stocked for us. Up to this point, I have been creatively stretching our food and sustaining on blind faith that the lockdown would be lifted tomorrow. Now Ayi-less, Hema-less and Kuaidi-less, I was in crisis mode. I had a choice: Be thick-skinned and ask to be invited to the compound group chat, or have the entire family starve.


Being added into a group chat that’s been around for ages can feel like being the newbie in the office where everyone knows everyone except for you. Will my neighbors think I’m an opportunist, joining the chat after 5 years because there’s now no one to turn to except them? Will I be shunned and ignored? Turns out I wasn’t the only one. I had 2 minutes’ worth of embarrassing spotlight “Eve has been added into the group chat” before many others were added too. The administrator exclaimed that there had never been so many residents joining the chat before lockdown struck. What a relief to know I wasn’t alone! All that wasted energy spent on how others perceived us for nothing. Lockdown can be humbling.


My foray into my compound group chat has since spawned countless sub-group buy chats. I will never forget the day I was down to two eggs and confided in my neighbor, who swiftly added me into the eggs group buy chat. It was like stepping into a sacred space only the privileged few knew and being welcomed by a choir of angelic hens. You are safe now my dear, you can buy as many eggs as we can lay from this day forth. I almost wept in gratitude. During the lockdown, whenever a group purchase pops up with something I’ve been looking for, I cannot believe how blessed I am that the group buy leader could read my mind!


It was my birthday three weeks ago. Since my mother’s passing, birthdays have been a somber occasion for me. For anyone who lost their mother, birthdays are a day when you are painfully reminded that the woman who birthed you is no longer around. They have since been a bittersweet, melancholic day cushioned by my family and friend’s pampering efforts to keep me buoyant. I was spoiled by them in unimaginatively creative ways that only a birthday girl in lockdown will appreciate. The next day, my Chilean neighbors got wind about my birthday and showed up at my door bearing a gigantic homemade focaccia bread fresh from the oven, with a Happy Birthday topper and a bottle of wine. Under normal circumstances, we would have been busy getting on with our lives and minding our own business. But lockdown isn’t normal, and sometimes, it’s abnormal circumstances that bond people and birth a memorable birthday.

Homemade birthday focaccia gifted to me by my Chilean neighbors


The late TV host Fred Rogers once said that whenever there’s a crisis, his mother would ask him to look for the helpers as you will always find people helping. During this lockdown, I have witnessed the outpouring of kindness and selflessness in my compound as the community band together. When we learned that our security guards and cleaners needed aid for essentials, everyone donated money and supplies generously. A group of neighbors promptly set up a rotation of home cooks to prepare three meals for the staff the moment lockdown started. When food and necessities were scarce, a bartering group chat was swiftly created - at one point, garlic was so precious my husband traded for it with whiskey and vodka! Volunteers offered their time to deliver test kits, care packs and facilitate nucleic acid testing. There are boxes filled with free stuff donated by residents for people to help themselves. Items I purchased through group buys show up at my door because a kind neighbor helped to deliver them anonymously. Group buy leaders work tirelessly to procure supplies for their neighbors. The list can go on.


Residents’ volunteers who have been cooking three meals for the compound’s staff since 1 April.

Our compound’s volunteers and security guards all suited up for nucleic acid testing

Group buy leaders waiting for neighbors to collect their orders

Free stuff donated by residents for neighbors to help themselves


The Chinese have a saying, 远亲不如近邻, a neighbor is better than a distant relative. As foreigners, our families are far from us, and sometimes we would rather not burden them with the challenges we are facing here. But with neighbors, nothing needed to be said to be understood during the lockdown period - We were all sustaining each other unknowingly while making the best of our situation. As for my newfound neighbor friends, we have already made plans to hang out at nice cafes, as Shanghai slowly awakens from its long slumber.  


*This article is dedicated to my compound GC1 and all the selfless neighbors out there whose kindness has transcended this lockdown.