Neighbourhood Welcome

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.

New Zealand Neighbourhood
Our new neighbourhood in New Zealand as seen from our driveway.

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’.

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Welcome card from my Japanese neighbour

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.’

Sabah and his family in Adelaide.

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:

  1. If in doubt, give fruit.
  2. 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.)
  3. 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.)
  4. Once out of sight, write those names down in a safe place.
  5. 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).

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Parenting 101: Babies Grow Up

 

Honeydew Seeds

Once, I cut open a honeydew, scooped out the seeds and thought it looked too good for the food scrap bin. So I buried it in my vegetable patch. If nothing else, microorganisms would feed on the pulp and the seeds would be good for my soil.

The Accidental Seedling
An Accidental Seedling

A few days later, seedlings started to emerge. They were strong and vigorous. I separated and replanted them, and they thrived. In some ways, the ball of sweet pulp and seed hidden inside the honeydew reminds me of a mother’s womb, a secret place, safe and insular, primed for new life.

When I was pregnant, I watched my diet, refrained from alcohol, and fled cigarette smoke. I alone controlled what influences reached my child. The first few years of motherhood were physically exhausting, but emotionally rewarding. There were times when only I could quiet the baby. The baby didn’t want that toy, that book, that person; the baby wanted me.

But babies grow up and I was amazed at how quickly I was knocked off my pedestal. When they were toddlers, they happily allowed me to choose their library books. Now my literary recommendations to my teenagers are practically deterrents.

They have started to think for themselves and make independent choices. At first, it was alarming. This might be so for all parents, perhaps, but especially for the migrant parent, because apart from the generational gap, there is the culture gap, and it feels as if the child is venturing very far away.

But I quiet my fears and remind myself that they are children, not clones. Besides, I hope they will one day go beyond anything I ever dreamt of achieving. And to do that, they have to find their own way in the world and think their own independent thoughts.

It turned out that Adelaide weather is not suited to growing honeydew. Those promising seedlings shrivelled. But I had also started burying pumpkin seeds and two years ago harvested a bumper crop – around twenty pumpkins, no less!

pumpkin
My Pumpkin Patch

At the tail end of that pumpkin season, possums in my garden discovered that pumpkins are tasty, and that was the beginning of the end. I sprinkled chilli powder on a half eaten pumpkin, but that didn’t deter them, and might have enhanced their culinary experience instead.

And yet, I still work in my a small vegetable patch because nurturing new life makes me happy. While I cannot control the weather, and am constantly battling weeds and pests, I know that if I persist in creating a nurturing environment, good things will grow.

Never refuse chocolate

It was mid-morning and Kom saw other students giving me food. It was comical; my little haul was surely too much to consume during a fifteen-minute tea break. Kom rummaged through his bag, pulled out a chocolate bar and offered it to me with a wide smile.

‘Oh, no thank you,’ I laughed. ‘I’ll grow fat.’

‘Don’t say that, teacher,’ he said, his eyes downcast, as if a great sorrow had descended upon him.

I had met Kom on my first day in my new job as a teacher. I was sitting in to observe a more experience teacher, who had asked everyone to write down three numbers each and get someone else to guess what those numbers referred to.

Kom looked at my piece of paper and said, ‘Husband?’

‘No,’ I said, ‘everybody has one husband.’ I realise this is not true, but for some reason, we both burst out laughing.

When Kom re-entered my class about three years later, the carefree laughter had gone. Things were not going well at home. His wife came in for my computing class one day with her tiny daughter in tow, a little girl with large, large eyes and two tight ponytails. Childcare arrangements were not yet in place.

‘Please, I have been home nine years looking after the children. I want to learn. Please let me stay,’ she said. I understood her anguish. I had known what it was to stay at home with beautiful children you love so much, and at the same time feel that the world is passing you by.

But we could not let her stay; management had made it amply clear that our insurance did not cover children on the premises. My boss came and told her kindly, but firmly, that she could not attend class with a child. The little girl started swiping her chubby fingers at my boss’ knees, trying to protect her mother. Kom’s wife was aghast, ‘No, don’t do that.’ And then they both went away.

And so Kom taught me that I should not refuse gifts and goodness. When so many troubles beset us in this world, we should celebrate kindness, accept generosity and be thankful. Sometimes you need to keep your eyes on the small good things, especially when the larger more difficult problems are too difficult to solve, just yet.

I took the chocolate bar. And thanked him.

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Carter