My family and I have been living in my neighbourhood for about five years, but sadly, my relations with the neighbours go no further than murmuring rushed “good mornings” as I pass them along the corridor, and sharing tentative smiles as we wait for the lift together.
My father, on the other hand, is chummy with quite a few of them – despite having a hearing impairment.
He’s the one who found out that one of our elderly neighbours is a cardboard collector, and insists that we give our recyclable paper and tin cans to her. He’s also the one who made friends with a cat-loving former neighbour living one floor above, and sometimes kept our door open so his daughter could look in and play with our cat.
And they, in turn, have taken the phrase “love thy neighbour” to heart.
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When my mother suffered a severe gout attack and couldn’t walk, an elderly auntie living two doors down didn’t hesitate to let us borrow her wheelchair. Another neighbour, who owns and operates a zi char stall at the hawker centre below our block, would always greet my dad cheerfully and offer us a friend rate.
I’m not sure how my father, this quiet, soft-spoken man who has to make extra effort to navigate conversations with others managed to ease his way into the hearts of our neighbours. But it inspired me to want to forge better relations with them, too.
With that in mind, I set about doubling my neighbourly efforts, and here are some things I’ve learnt through getting to know my fellow residents.
Small talk makes a great future conversation-starter
Case in point: Just last month, a neighbour living one floor above me and I found ourselves waiting for the lift together. I had never spoken to her before and she was with a friend, so I didn’t feel a need to make small talk once we got into the lift.
I kept to myself, but could feel her eyes on me. When I looked up, she smiled and told me that she liked my hair colour, and asked how long I took to bleach it.
I can’t recall how our conversation moved on to other things – she shared that the friend who’s with her was visiting from abroad and they’re now going sightseeing, and I asked where they’d been so far. At the end of our ride, we waved goodbye and left.
About a week later, I ran into her again. We greeted each other like old acquaintances and fell into conversation naturally. I asked after her friend, who’d returned to Australia, and she, in turn, asked me some questions about myself.
When we parted company, it was with the feeling that our fledgling friendship would grow slowly, but steadily, with every interaction.
I’ve since had several lift conversations with her, and while we may not be kopi kakis yet, I’m happy to report that we’ve started talking about personal hobbies, travel plans, current affairs and, of course, the weather.
Some neighbours will take a long, long time to warm up
An elderly uncle who lives alone on our floor was observed by my mother to be pretty aloof. According to her, not a single smile muscle moves whenever she greets him, and even if he does respond, it’s with a nod so infinitesimal that she often wonders if she’d imagined it.
I figured he might just be introverted, so I decided to unleash the full force of my friendliness upon him. I noticed that Uncle waters his plants every morning between 8.45am and 9am. That’s around the time I leave for work and, as it happens, I have to walk past him on the way to the lift landing.
So, I launched my campaign with the hallmarks of a first-rate neighbour: a) bright smile, b) eye contact, and c) cheery voice ringing out “Uncle, zao an (good morning)!”
The first week, Uncle grunted reluctant acknowledgments of “hmm” and didn’t so much as look at me. But by the second week, I thought I detected a tiny movement that could pass as a nod, as well as a fraction of a smile.
I took it as a good sign that he was warming up to me, and made it a point to prevail at cracking his veneer. However, as with all relationships, I soon learnt that it takes two hands to clap.
Not everyone wants to progress beyond “hi” and “bye” – and that’s OK
Occasionally, you’ll find that even if you have the personality of a Golden Retriever, there will be people you can’t totally win over, no matter how friendly you are or how hard you try.
Over time, I began to get the feeling that my neighbourly relations with Uncle would likely stop at a daily greeting and smile. Not for a lack of trying though – before I came to see that, I’d tried to level up my interactions with him by attempting small talk.
But all I managed to get out of him when I told him how lovely his plants are was a mumbled “xie xie” (thank you) and nothing more. I followed up with some plant-related questions, but I could practically see him retreating into his shell. He began averting his eyes, and the awkwardness building up between us was palpable.
Afterwards, I resumed our fleeting morning greetings and saw that Uncle had began to thaw again. Even so, I decided not to rock the boat, and we are now at a mutually comfortable level of neighbourliness.
One small act of kindness will go a long way
The first time a neighbour knocked on our door, my mother and I hesitated to open it, as is the common response of shy, cautious Singaporeans. However, we were curious to know what she wanted, so we opened the door a crack.
Turned out her refrigerator had broken down and she had perishables that needed to be stored. So, she’d taken to knocking on the doors on our floor to see if anyone would lend her some fridge space.
No problem, we said; her relief was evident. The next day, she came by to collect her items and thanked us profusely for the help.
Two days later, I came home from work to find a tub of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream in the freezer. Those who know me will know that I often lament the woeful lack of junk food at home. My parents aren’t fans of stocking up on snacks and ready-to-eat processed food to stave off the hunger pangs before proper meals.
So, imagine my surprise when I found this rare treat. My eyes widened in delight as I turned to my mum, thinking that finally, they’d seen the light. But she just looked at me placidly and said that it was a thank-you gift from our neighbour. Then, as if knowing what I was thinking, added: “Don’t get used to it ah.”
At least, we made a new friend. And I daresay if the tables were turned in future, we can count on her to loan us her fridge space, too.
Your neighbours (and their kids) can teach you about graciousness
Among the most memorable moments I’ve shared with my neighbours are the ones that have taught me more about graciousness and inspired me to want to be greater.
Some months ago, I was taking the lift with my neighbour and her kindergarten-age son. Upon reaching the first floor, he was about to get out before me, but his mother held him back and said: “No, ladies first.”
To my surprise, he immediately nodded, smiled and gestured adorably for me to go ahead.
In our previous lift encounters, I’d always thought that he was a well-behaved boy – he would refrain from jumping in the lift or pressing all the buttons mischievously. Now, I know why; and more importantly, it warmed the cockles of my heart to be at the receiving end of this courtesy from a pint-sized gentleman. Who said chivalry is dead?
In another similar incident, but with a different family, I had just entered the lift when I heard a little voice behind me yelling: “Wait, wait!”
I held the door for a girl, who looked about eight, and her mum and was rewarded with a sweet “thank you”.
I thought that would be it as she had already showed her appreciation. But then her mother said: “If you want someone to do something for you, you must always say ‘please’.”
Little girl replied: “But I said ‘thank you’.” To which her mum gently repeated: “You still have to say ‘please’ when you want someone to help you, you understand?”
This time, she nodded earnestly, and looked at me with a shy smile.
And that’s how I came to the interesting, but embarrassing, realisation that children are sometimes better at minding their manners than adults. It made me feel ashamed, and I resolved to always try to be polite and gracious to people I meet.
After all, isn’t that really all it takes to be a good neighbour?