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'Solomons' sort out barking dogs, wild parties, leaking pipes

PETS pooping. Dogs barking. Loud TV. Wild parties. These nuisances trigger disputes between neighbors everywhere. There are accusations, counter-accusations and the blame game is on. Often trifling disputes can escalate and require the wisdom of Solomon to slice through them.

However, when disputes occur between expats and locals, Solomon needs to be very culturally attuned and savvy, and speak some Chinese.

In the Zhangjiazhai Community in Jing'an District, the Solomons is a group of 23 expats from 12 countries and regions. Ten languages are spoken to help sort out disputes, sometimes expat-Chinese, sometimes expat-expat.

It was set up last December by the Shimen No. 2 Road Judicial Office. It offers free mediation to resolve minor disputes in the community that is more than 50 percent expat.

During the past six months, the Solomons has sorted out more than 30 disputes over noise, property, parenting, money, pets, behavior and relationships. There are complaints about landlords, leaking pipes, teen behavior.

Mediation is much simpler than complicated, time-consuming and costly litigation. It only covers disputes that do not involve possible police intervention or crimes.

And while Westerners, especially Americans, tend to be litigious, there's a tradition in much of Asia to sort things out without recourse to authorities.

All team members attend regular lectures on Chinese laws, regulations and local customs to facilitate mediation between locals and expats.

"It's wonderful to be a volunteer mediator," says Vivian (who asks that her surname not be used) from Ladoll International City.

The 39-year-old Spanish senior manager in a trade company has been living in Shanghai for three years. She is nicknamed "Big Sister" and was one of the first to join the Solomons team.

Once an expat resident complained that his American neighbor often threw late parties that were noisy and kept him from sleeping.

Vivian visited the noise-maker several times but was always rebuffed.

"Being turned away is a common occurrence when tackling such disputes," she says. "You have to think smarter."

She visited a common neighbor who was willing to help as a go-between. He suggested to the party boy that he invite the neighbors next time, and if they cannot attend, or don't want to, he should tell them the exact time and ask for their understanding.

"It worked. The American said 'sorry' and promised to notify his neighbors each time he was to throw a party," says Vivian. "Going head-on is not the best way. Sometimes we have to do things indirectly to get a good result."

But in some cases, a mediator's good attitude and communication skills are not enough.

For some cases, they need to have a basic knowledge of Chinese laws and city rules and regulations.

"The residents are foreigners but they are living in Chinese society. No matter how their cultures differ, they have to obey Chinese laws and regulations," says Zhang Hui, a Chinese-Australian bilingual volunteer mediator in the Zhangjiazhai Community.

This February Chinese and expats complained to their residents' committee that they were often terrified by a man-sized Husky owned by a Frenchman.

The enthusiastic dog would jump people from behind to show its friendliness, but it frightened residents, especially children and elderly people.

Zhang asked the owner to walk the dog on a leash but the man refused and retorted that the dog has a right to freedom and the leash would make it uncomfortable.

Then Zhang researched animal control laws and regulations in Shanghai and translated them into English. Again she visited the pet owner, telling him that dogs may be man's best friend and have animal rights, but if dogs threaten anyone's safety, the owner bears legal responsibility.

"Most of the expats are reasonable and if you explain the facts and reasons to them, they respond rationally," says Zhang.

The Frenchman agreed to walk his dog on a leash and promised to control it.

Mediator Zhang later suggested the residence committee put up notices in English and Chinese to remind pet owners to walk their dogs properly on a leash and to clean up after them.

As expats in the community come from different countries with different customs, cultural tension is inevitable.

Gray-haired Japanese resident Mahasa Kane is a volunteer mediator in Ladoll International City, but his desire to resolve conflicts stems from his own experience.

Kane says his Chinese neighbor downstairs complained to the residence committee that the Japanese family above often made weird annoying sounds.

"Japanese wear clogs at home," says 60-year-old Kana. "My wife and I didn't know the sound would annoy our neighbor."

After mediation, he and his wife changed to soft cotton slippers.

Months later, the committee received another letter of complaint, saying a newly arrived Japanese couple was making strange noises. The clogs, again.

The committee visited the family many times but they insisted they had done nothing wrong. Mediator Kana then was asked to speak with the couple.

After they chatted and relaxed, the newly arrived couple realized that their small habit, though common at home, was very annoying to neighbors in China. They switched to soft slippers too.

There's always room for another good mediator, given the ebb and flow of the expat population.

"Not everybody can become a mediator, but we encourage applications from those who speak conversational Chinese and are motivated, community oriented, and flexible in their time," says Chen Yuejun, deputy director of Shimen No. 2 Road Judicial Office.

"Our mediation team members are all elites. They have been living in Shanghai for years and have a clear idea about the city's rules, regulations and customs," Chen says.

Mediators come from all walks of life. They're business people and professionals, office workers and others with more time. Some are overseas Chinese.

They bring together neighbors, landlords, tenants, friends, parents and their children, who are experiencing conflicts (but do not involve police or criminal charges) to find answers to their problems.

"Patience, patience and patience," says Zhang. "I've been rejected many times. But with a little patience, smile and communication skills, residents can finally reach an understanding."

One of the Solomons' biggest problems is the ebb and flow of its members, a mostly transient population.

"Many expats stay in Shanghai for a few years and then move on," says Chinese-Australian Zhang. "It's quite hard to find a qualified mediator in a short time."


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