My parents were born and raised in Mombasa, Kenya – a port city known for its beaches and history of trading.
My mom’s family lived in an apartment complex known as Makupa Flats.
Here in Canada, even decades after leaving Kenya, my parents would run into people from ‘back home’ and inevitably my mom would say to us kids, “This is so-and-so. He was my neighbour.”
Her face would light up in a big smile like she had just located her long-lost best friend.
After numerous introductions to random people as her ‘neighbour’ from Makupa, my brother and I told her – in our childish know-it-all-ness – that she couldn’t possibly have had all these neighbours. We secretly came to the conclusion that she didn’t really know what a neighbour was.
In my early 20s, I had a conversation with my mom that has never left me. She told me how homesick she had been for her hometown, while raising us here in Canada.
I knew that my parents’ initial adjustment to life in Canada had been difficult but that conversation helped me understand their challenge.
What was it my mom had missed the most about living in those flats? That “there was always someone around. And if we needed anything, we would just knock on each other’s doors.”
It struck me how very different our early life in the Lower Mainland had been from that scenario. Socializing looked very different.
It wasn’t as easy as walking out your front door and into your neighbour’s home. It was an effort to get to know people, and there wasn’t always a lot of energy left over after working a graveyard shift then taking your kids to school, then housework and cooking, then running your kids around to their activities, all the while learning the ways of a new land.
People often mistake the elusiveness of newcomers for an unwillingness to become a part of society. I can say from my parents’ experience that that isn’t always the case.
Sometimes the byproduct of survival mode is we don’t always get to know others.
Today, life is still full of work, home, kids and activities.
Thankfully, I am settled here, a part of the Canadian culture, my husband established in his business. But I’m like my mom; I need neighbours whom I can bug for anything from a spare lemon to a spare hour of babysitting.
In my single-family home neighbourhood, it’s not as easy as Makupa Flats to know people on a first-name basis.
It’s not always convenient for people to stop in for a cup of tea. But it’s necessary.
I encourage newcomers (to the country or to a neighbourhood) and established residents to enter a common space. Exchange names, at the very least.
As is the case with my neighbours, these people may end up being your friends – people whose doors you can knock on when you need them.
If it is you who recently moved into a new neighbourhood, you can certainly be the one to make the first move, too.
Connecting with the people who live around you is one way to build bridges, to dispel cultural myths, to foster the idea that we have far more in common than we might think. The common threads make themselves known when we engage in meaningful conversation with each other, and share our stories.
In a world aching for security and understanding, being a good neighbour cannot go out of style.
Taslim Jaffer writes monthly on multicultural connections.