As newcomers settle into their homes everywhere in Beijing this summer, one of the first experiences to seek out should be a walk into your neighborhood’s courtyard on a clear, clean summer evening. You’ll find grandmothers in loafers pushing babies around in strollers, toddlers in pigtails babbling and pointing at different insects, middle-aged women practicing their dance routines to blaring music, rowdy boys chasing each other on bikes, and old men setting up tables and stools for their favorite games.
These neighbors are the pulse of your community, and the first famous saying that should be taken to heart is 远亲不如近邻 (yuǎn qīn bù rú jìn lín). Translated into “neighbors are dearer than distant relatives,” this phrase will hopefully characterize this chapter of your life dedicated to China.
If you happen to be from North America, Australia, or the UK, you might want to take particular note to this article, as our societies have slowly lost the art of neighborliness. The Pew Research Center conducted a study in 2010 that revealed nearly half of Americans didn’t know their neighbors. Later research conducted by OnePoll revealed even more than half of American millennials cite busyness as the reason they have never spoken to neighbors, and instead sought out community online rather than next-door. This is despite their confession that they secretly crave greater local community involvement.
UK adults faired slightly better than Americans in having spoken to neighbors, though the relationships are mostly cold, keeping the other at arm’s length, with common knowledge such as full name, number of children, occupation, even length of living next door, often being basic topics which are never discussed (Churchill Home Insurance, 2017). And Australians perhaps have faired the worse, or perhaps have proven to be the most honest on their surveys, with the majority admitting to avoiding contact with those next door (Realestate.com.au, 2017).
But expats who live in Beijing will find that having good neighbor relations are essential to surviving in the first months and years, and these relationships will even be foundations for longer stays in the country.
Indian national Sarika Dhami has lived in Beijing for six years and feels particularly lucky to have found her current next-door neighbor Mischell. Previously based in Bangkok and a homemaker, Dhami has two children, an eight-year-old boy attending BCIS, and a three-and-half-year old girl attending a local Chinese kindergarten. Dhami has lived on the ground floor of her building for four years, after moving from an upper level in the same building.
For the first year living in the ground-level apartment, the then-pregnant Dhami didn’t know her neighbor was also expecting a girl. After she gave birth to her daughter Kaavya, Dhami spent the majority of time getting to know the ayi and caretaker of Mischell’s daughter Vivien. But as the relationship between Kaavya and Vivien blossomed, Dhami and Mischell began spending more and more time together.
“Whenever I need help with something she helps. She’ll explain flyers to me or anything else I don’t understand in Chinese. If she finds good deals she’ll tell me. She’ll help me with Taobao, calling someone, or booking help,” Dhami explained.
The neighborliness isn’t one-sided either. “Our daughters are like sisters. Our doors stay open so they can play in each other’s home. Her daughter eats in my home, and we treat her daughter like our own, and it’s the same for them,” Dhami shared.
When either neighbor returns to their hometowns, they’ll bring gifts back to share. Since the girls are like sisters, if one family buys something for their daughter, they’ll buy a second for their other daughter next door. “If she buys anything, she buys two, and if I buy something, I buy two. If she bought a lollipop, then my daughter would get one too.”
They of course language swap, with Dhami teaching Mischell a bit of English, and Mischell teaching Dhami a bit of Chinese, and as Dhami is more connected to expat groups, she has been able to expose Mischell to a wider variety of friends.
“We used to go to each and every playgroup together, and I used to ask for special permission to take her to expat-only groups. I would explain that she’s my good friend and neighbor as our daughters are so close.”
Now that their daughters are getting older, Mischell started to look into international schooling for her daughter; she has often sought Dhami’s advice as she makes choices about school since Dhami’s son already attends BCIS. “We really try to help each other from the heart.”
Dhami and Mischell have an exceptional experience in being neighbors, and though their relationship is sweet, it shouldn’t be the benchmark. Dhami explained it really depends on the Chinese neighbor’s attitude. “There are people who don’t like to get mixed up with foreign people, but we should always be nice to Chinese people.” Dhami believes Chinese language is essential to a good relationship, but even without it, she suggests using a translator or even Google translate.
The work you put into language will pay off, as most of your neighbors are willing to help. They’re also more likely to be in location-based WeChat groups, like secondhand buy and sells, neighborhood news and events, and parents and kids playgroups. Though similar expat groups are helpful, expats tend to be more spread out from one another than the location-based groups of your community. On top of that, neighbors are typically more knowledgeable of what type of parks, malls, and playgrounds are within short distances from your home.
To round out cultural perspectives, I asked three good Chinese neighbors for their opinions, how they have built relationships with their neighbors, and what their suggestions would be for fresh expats.
Name: Annie Wang
Occupation: Mercedes-Benz Finance Department
Children: 2 sons, 14 years old and 19 years old
Years in Beijing: 18 years
How long have you lived in your current apartment? 15 years
Number of foreign neighbors: Currently none, but she had a few in the past who stayed nearby for one or two years.
Summary of advice: Wang and her husband have made themselves available to give advice when neighbors ask about marriage and child rearing but they also share food they’ve cooked if its particularly tasty. Her neighbors in turn share vegetables they’ve grown. Wang described neighbor relationships that have evolved over time, as neighbors were closer in relation when children were younger. If an expat neighbor came by with the nostalgic plate of cookies, she would welcome the gesture, but mentioned she found it strange when expat neighbors gave their child the Chinese name Xiyangyang, the popular lamb cartoon.
Name: Marie Yuan
Children: 1 son, 12 years old
Years in Beijing: 22 years
How long have you lived in your current apartment? 4 years
Number of foreign neighbors: None
Summary of advice: Yuan pointed out that the closeness of neighbors depends on personalities, life stages and involvement with the property. Yuan was more involved in her community when she was an owner and when her son was younger, in a different neighborhood. In that neighborhood she was very involved, going out to eat and shopping together, forming playgroups, and participating in online forums where neighbors hashed out complaints about trash and parking. In her rental in her new neighborhood, she holds packages for her elderly neighbors during the day when they’re out, but due to their significant difference in age, due to cultural respect, she doesn’t know their names beyond calling them aunt and uncle. She expects expats would have difficulty with elderly neighbors without learning Chinese, as it would be awkward to elderly Chinese having such a significant barrier.
Name: Xiao Hong Zhao
Occupation: Worker at SMIC Company
Children: 3 girls, 9 years old, 5 years old, 3 years old
Years in Beijing: 15 years
How long have you lived in your current apartment? 8 years
Number of foreign neighbors: Six or seven have lived in her building, and even more in her neighborhood.
Summary of advice: Zhao is active in her community, and knows the majority of her neighbors. She frequently greets them. Her advice to expats is that they respect both their own and Chinese way of life. Chinese neighbors might find expat behaviors strange, such as owning large black dogs, but that expats should still greet their Chinese neighbors warmly. She would find it to be a surprise for foreigners to share a plate of cookies if she didn’t know them before, but she does welcome neighborly behavior.
This article appeared in the beijingkids June 2019 Home & Relocation Guide issue.
Photo: Vanessa Jencks