Getting home from a long day of work or university and wanting to head straight inside is a universal feeling. Typically, we are so tired that we may not want to partake in a communal human experience. Personally, when my social battery is completely drained every so often, it needs recharging in total isolation. I’ll shut my bedroom door, turn off the lights, place a damp towel on my face, and attempt to hibernate for half an hour or thereabouts. But before I can get to my happy place, I typically come across an obstacle that stalls me in my recharging and triggers a sigh of guilt-ridden exhaustion: the neighbour.
My hands are full with my cardigan, my uni bag, the rubbish that has piled up in my car as I trundle towards the front door of my house. But before I can cross the safe threshold of my door, I hear the terrifying “hello” of an unknown voice. It is only when I turn around, petrified, that I realise what I have been sucked into — social interaction. To be fair, I’m a social butterfly. I want to speak to others. I want to meet new people. And I know that there are many out there who are exactly the same! But amidst the passionate desire of laying down like a corpse for as long as possible, the sudden “hello” of a neighbour can really send someone over the edge.
My lifelong fascination with the lives of my neighbours can be traced to an early memory from my childhood home, nestled in the area known as Crestwood, in the suburb of Baulkham Hills. I grew up sandwiched between unfriendly neighbours to our left and antisocial ones to our right. Across the road lived an interesting couple with their kids. Now, through the unseasoned eyes of a primary school kid, ‘interesting’ doesn’t require the same substance as when you are an adult. What interested me was that someone in the house across the road had died, and – even worse – the body was apparently still kept there. I’d always peep over my shoulder as I walked past that house. I’d be sceptical if my parents ever greeted the family. Once, I even tried to visit for some insignificant reason, but that was my first and last act of bravery with the neighbours. And so, whether or not the rumour about the body was true, my fascination with my neighbours began.
That is, until we moved houses. The dead neighbour would never be in my life again. I was now expected to live in a townhouse complex suffocated by neighbours on all sides. My family offered a quick hello in passing, or a slight eyebrow raise and nod, but I straggled behind, keeping my head low and running straight for the house. I was never close to my dead neighbour or their family, but I felt even more distant from the new so-called collective around me.
Alas, years passed, and more important things were on my mind as an angsty teenager trudging his way through high school. That is, until I discovered Lally Katz’s play, Neighbourhood Watch (2011), which quickly entrenched itself into my heart.
Lally Katz’s Neighbourhood Watch, in a nutshell, involved a twenty-something year old woman and a Hungarian war veteran striking an odd neighbourly friendship in which their individual pasts are reconciled together. This play made me think about myself as a neighbour, in a way I had never considered prior. What kind of person was I in my neighbourhood? Did my neighbours think poorly of me? Did I make a decent effort to be neighbourly, to speak to them, offer them a helping hand?
The answer to these questions were all a resounding ‘no’. With my burning hate for inaction and passivity, I decided to partner up with my neighbours and host an end of year party in the green patch of grass at the centre of our townhouse complex. I printed invites, went door-knocking, exchanged phone numbers, introduced myself over and over again.
Shockingly, at the end of the celebrations I walked away with a real sense of community. Close to fifteen years in our complex, and I finally knew what Terrence did for a living. I knew how old Ida was and why Calvin had so many plants lined up outside his home. I understood the barriers Pratika had faced to get her home, and I learnt a thing or two from Alvin, a mobile phone repairman.
While this story might seem like a moral lesson about forgoing first judgements, and expanding one’s social circle, I don’t think there is a rule book on how to be a good neighbour. While I don’t expect readers out there to throw neighbourhood parties every year, I hope I have highlighted my deep, newfound appreciation for those who co-inhabit the spaces around me, within this microcosm of life that we have created for ourselves. If even one reader chooses to initiate a quick conversation with a neighbour down the hall or across the street, I’m confident that the beginnings of a positive relationship and the potential for an evolving network will sprout.