by Thuy Dung
Two weeks ago, the New York Times reported a story about George Bell, a 72-year-old man who died alone and unseen in his own apartment.
The smell of death, the untouched ticket for parking on the wrong side was the only signal to announce his departure from the world.
So many times I have read some news about somebody being found dead after a week or even a month, I cannot help questioning how we humans, living in an overcrowded city, could end up dying alone and no one ever noticed that they had not been around for a while?
There is an old Vietnamese saying, "Hang xom lang gieng toi lua tat den co nhau" (Neighbours have one another as a friend in wealth and woe). It might imply that neighbours will be by your side to help you if something dreadful happens.
Last week, images of neighbours gathering and having parties on the floor along the hallway in some apartments in Ha Noi, went viral. It then triggered a debate about whether we should support such parties because in some ways it could stimulate close relationships between neighbours.
The question comes down to the point on how close would neighbours become after such parties, or how willing would people be to help each other afterwards.
When I asked my American friend, who had been studying sociology for 4 years, he said, "It would be worse if they think that only parties can create a community. That they have been staying for so long in an apartment that only parties can connect them. Meals do not work like a magic wand that can change the whole relationship."
Thinking of Bell, I then wondered if it was compulsory for George, who was referred to as a loner, an introvert, to be involved with the party to receive help from his neighbours.
Of course, one's death or such a tragedy would not be the neighbour's fault. However, the key to the societal isolation cannot be blamed on fun, food or party. It is humanity, empathy and compassion that will provoke the urge to care for one's neighbours.
Some said that the habit of having parties on the floor, regardless of the place stemmed from the village culture. They associated it with mess, and unregulated behaviour. Such a habit was referred to as the somewhat derogatory Vietnamese term "nha que" (cloddiness).
However, according to Dr Nguyen Viet Chuc, director of the Thang Long Culture Research Centre, there is nothing superior or inferior between urban and rural culture.
"What we should take into consideration is the difference between the urban environment and the rural one. For example, what is appropriate in one place might be considered improper in another," he said while speaking to online newspaper Vietnamnet.
He also stressed that rather than the dinner gatherings on special occasions, the traditional values Vietnamese people should preserve were primarily dependent on their caring and generous behaviour every day.
Dr Nguyen Van Chinh, in Department of Social and Cultural Anthropology at Amsterdam University told HCM City's Law newspaper that since it was unlikely that all neighbours in an apartment would agree to a party, such activities might even create a negative influence on other people who do not attend.
"Vietnamese people still have yet to distinguish between public and private space," he said.
That can be traced back to the era of the "pavement economy" when public space appears to be understood as public resources that anyone can make use of.
Dr Nguyen Duc Thanh, an economist, head of the Viet Nam Economics and Policy Research Centre (VEPR), explained that to the Vietnamese, if one was trying to clarify too meticulously which property belonged to someone, or what was hers or his, she or he might be seen as a materialistic person. Therefore, they end up misunderstanding the use of public space.
Acknowledgement of public space use is one of the elements of urban culture. The civilisation manifests not only by not attending the parties with neighbours but by one's daily actions.
For example, some made use of public space where the residents are supposed to exercise, and cook on a wooden stove, which has been prohibited. Even children's playground is usually utilised as parking lots or street markets.
It can be a lot easier for people discuss whether they should hold a party on special occasions. However, when it comes to regulations or disputes, it is unlikely that they can be handled by merely what the residents want.
According to Dang Hung Vo, former deputy minister of Natural Resources and Environment, to create a better community along with improvising urban culture, Singapore raises the resident's awareness by building a large-scale strategy, starting from bringing it in the school curriculum for children.
What defines urban culture, to some extent is similar to what creates close relationships between neighbours. Rather a spontaneous decision or event, both require a long-term process. — VNS