From 2001 to 2010, our young family moved ten times for my husband’s work. Twice we moved to different countries, four times to different cities, ten times to different neighbourhoods.
The first of these moves was from my husband’s hometown, where the same handful of families had lived for two or three generations. We moved to Hamilton, New Zealand, where we knew one Malaysian couple.
A Pakeha lady from a local church baked a batch of biscuits and gave them to us in a reusable plastic container, with a note. For some reason, the only thing that I remember about the note was that we could keep the container.
Perhaps it was because there is a kind of leanness to a new home. Every cup, pot, and plate has been brought over or acquired, not accumulated the way stuff naturally aggregates when you live in one place for a long time.
Our house was newly-built and unfenced. It was hard to keep the children penned in while I was hanging out the laundry. Once, when my back was turned, they stumbled on their chubby legs down the slope. Fortunately, our new neighbour, Maria, who had very short hair and very long nails spotted them and asked, ‘Does your mother know where you are?’
As a result of my husband’s work, we moved from Hamilton, to Tauranga, and back to Hamilton again. This time, we moved into an old log-cabin-styled home. Some time after we had settled in, we noticed a new family moving into the row of units to our right. Having grown up in multi-cultural Malaysia, I instinctively avoided any welcome gift containing pork or beef, and baked them a cake.
After knocking, I waited, anticipation laced with nervousness. The door opened and I saw a grey-haired lady in a kurtha, an old man in a turban, and, I think, young children. The parents of the children were out. When I left, the cake was still in my hands. They didn’t eat eggs.
Seven house moves later, we introduced ourselves to all our neighbours, bearing a gift of Bracegirdles handmade chocolates. The Japanese lady two doors from us exclaimed, ‘Oh, in Japan, the new people introduce themselves. You’re doing this Japanese style’.
A few days later, we retrieved this card from our letter box. Our Japanese neighbour had given us her phone number and the names of all the members of her family, in English and Japanese script. She also wrote these words: ‘I’m sure you’ve found the best Door to your life in Adelaide…If you need any help, we are here’.
We have now lived in this neighbourhood for over seven years. In this time, two neighbours have passed away, one has been involved in a motor accident and recovered, and one has had a baby. Our families have not known each other for generations, but we are not strangers either. We have some shared history, some shared memories. It’s sparse, but it’s something.
In my book, Island of Refuge, I interviewed Iraqi playwright, Sabah. He and his family fled Baqubah in 2003, applied for asylum in Jordan, and arrived in Adelaide in 2006. The family has lived here since. At the close of the last interview, he said,
‘Man belongs to his memories. Iraq was my home and I lived there a long time. My imagination is linked to those memories. I realise of course that if I had a chance to go back I will find that things have changed and I will have a shock. But still, this is the missing link in my life. In Iraq, I lived with people who shared my memories, people who knew us: Sabah the writer, Lamia, the actress; here, nobody knows us.’
Perhaps knowing and being known is the essence of belonging. It’s nice when neighbours reach out to the newcomer, but if they don’t, there’s nothing to stop the newcomer from reaching out.
After ten house moves, here is my checklist for the nurture of neighbourliness:
- If in doubt, give fruit.
- Give without expecting anything in return. (After all, I once received golden Anzacs without saying thank you properly. At various times, I have attributed this to the chaos of moving, the busyness of motherhood and the lack of knowledge of local etiquette; these are all excuses.)
- Concentrate when the new neighbours say their names. (Can’t count the number of times I’ve forgotten the crucial point of introductions. Might have something to do with the nervousness when meeting new people.)
- Once out of sight, write those names down in a safe place.
- In time, as opportunities present themselves, offer neighbourly courtesies: pick up the mail and wheel in the bin and water the plants when they go away, exchange phone numbers, return stray children.
I would love to hear about your neighbourhood: how you’ve been welcomed, or how you welcomed new neighbours. Feel free to leave a comment. Email address will not be posted or shared.
Next week: Laundry on Life (or where we hang our laundry says a lot about our attitudes to privacy).