“So you’re going for group therapy,” quipped a colleague when he heard that I would be joining an online gathering to connect with others in my neighbourhood.

“It’s just getting to know my neighbours,” I replied in amusement.

I’d chanced upon FriendzoneSG from an article on the rise of sharing sessions with strangers in promoting mental well-being during Covid-19, and was intrigued by its idea of recreating the kampung spirit online.

Having moved into my neighbourhood not long ago, I don’t know many residents. I do know neighbours living on my floor – we’d exchange friendly greetings when we see each other or food on occasion, but our interactions never went beyond casual conversation.

So, with a lot of free time on my hands, I thought why not sign up for a session?

I could get to know new neighbours who share similar interests, or at the very least, lend a listening ear to someone.

FriendzoneSG is a community-building organisation dedicated to creating a culture of connectedness and care through meaningful conversations. The founders believe everyone has something to give and receive, and that Singapore is full of diverse and interesting people that just haven’t met yet.

Co-founders Grace and Valencia told the Pride that when they were in university, they loved the vibrancy of campus life – there were invitations to play sports, neighbours surprising each other with fruits and bubble tea, or leaving encouraging notes during stressful times – but realised after graduating that there was a lack of a young adult community in their neighbourhoods.

FriendzoneSG was born out of an inspiration to recreate that connection and to give more opportunities for young people who live in the same area to connect meaningfully.

Their dream: A nation where friendliness is the norm and people don’t feel alone.

“It’s hard for people to care for their neighbours without first feeling some sense of belonging in their neighbourhoods. We see our role as creating the space for those friendships to be formed,” says Grace.

She adds that they hope to create communities beyond neighbourhoods and across generations. Part of this involves raising community connectors – people who care about deepening friendships and can share the passion, networks, resources, experiences and stories that people have with others.

Initially, gatherings were held at void decks adorned with fairy lights, fluffy carpets and cushions for a cosy ambience. But since Covid-19, all gatherings have been taken online.

 Kampung spirit evident in a previous FriendzoneSG neighbourhood gathering before the circuit breaker.
Image Credit: Facebook / FriendzoneSG / A previous FriendzoneSG neighbourhood gathering before the circuit breaker.

Connecting through meaningful conversations

On the day of the gathering, I logged on punctually at 1pm. By now, I’m used to Zoom meetings, so this was not a new experience. What was new perhaps was that in the virtual room of about 20 people, I didn’t know anyone.

However, Grace and Valencia quickly put us at ease by explaining how the session would work.

The purpose, they said, was to “Make new friends. Be yourself. Be open to listen to different perspectives.”

Those were the three things I tried to keep in mind as we broke out into smaller groups. Thankfully, there were guided questions to help steer and keep the conversation going, reducing any potential awkward silences which are part and parcel of meeting new people for the first time.

In the next half an hour, my group talked about experiences in our neighbourhood, what we have been doing during the circuit breaker and questions that are currently weighing on our minds.

Who knew that despite differences in ages and life stages – some are working, others studying; some are single, others in a relationship – we all had something to contribute and take away!

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Sharing personal experiences

I could see my group mates nodding their heads in agreement as I talked about the boredom of staying home and not doing anything meaningful to pass time; the struggle to maintain my sanity as circuit breaker days blur into weeks and months.

Amanda*, one of the participants, said: “I will set goals to avoid one day going to the next, for example fitness goals, or how many books I want to read, or courses I want to take. It helps jerk myself out of watching TV.”

Another participant, Diane, agreed that it is not healthy to keep scrolling through Instagram or binge-watching Netflix and shared that she has been cooking more since the circuit breaker began.

A third, Keith, suggested learning a new hobby. He had recently started playing the piano again after having not touched it for a long time.

One participant, Jade, admitted that she has been wanting to volunteer but never actively pursued it. She said that the conversations she had with the group inspired her to start volunteering!

Being one of the older ones in my group, I was more than happy to give advice and support regarding various topics on relationships and work.

I told an undergraduate who is now working as an intern not to worry about finding a dream job immediately after graduation as it takes time to figure out what you want to do. I told her, instead, to view the process as a learning experience. I also shared with the group that the people you work with is just as important as the work you do when looking for the right job.

Co-founders of FriendzoneSG reigniting the kampung spirit in the neighbourhood
Image Credit: Facebook / FriendzoneSG / (From left) FriendzoneSG co-founders Grace, Tham and Valencia

Building social capital and bridging social isolation

What was my biggest takeaway from the session?

I realised that we are social creatures with a need for connection. Acknowledging this is the first step to reaching out to our fellow friends and neighbours.

Knowing that we are all experiencing the same emotions, struggles and challenges in the new normal of Covid-19 helps me feel less alone.

Many people say the kampung spirit is dead. But I disagree.

Because I caught a glimpse of it during my group conversations. In a form I would not have expected.

Instead of sharing food like our grandparents did in the old kampung days, we shared ideas and knowledge that are just as, if not, more valuable.

As I reflect on Valencia’s final words: “Community is yours to create”, I realised that it is our choice to reach out to our friends and neighbours, even while keeping a safe physical distance. There are many ways and platforms to connect if we are willing to make the effort.

The FriendzoneSG team encourages participants to continue conversations on Telegram. In my group, we have been sharing food recommendations in our area and even photos of the beautiful sunset from our windows on the last day of the circuit breaker!

FriendzoneSG encourages participants to continue conversations on Telegram, keeping that kampung spirit alive
Image Credit: Serene Leong / #Nofilter view of the golden hour which I shared with my neighbourhood group on Telegram

The session made me wonder if there are friends whom I have neglected in the past few weeks and reminded me to check in on them or perhaps even surprise them with a special delivery.

Settling into the new normal has been difficult, but our shared experiences can help us to overcome these challenges together.

If you are interested in participating in your neighbourhood’s FriendzoneSG gathering, sign up here.

*Names are changed for privacy

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Top Image: FriendzoneSG