Relearning Proximity

I’ve never had a sustained conversation with anyone who lives on my block. I’m not sure if this is abnormal or not, but compared to my previous home where I lived from age three to 10, my current neighborhood–though much larger in size–is characterized by a strange silence. Scratch that–it was characterized by a strange silence. Or perhaps it was never quiet, I just never bothered to listen.

In my old neighborhood, we were the first of eventually three Chinese families, and everyone else was mostly white. Though this meant we formed close bonds with the other Chinese families, often having each other over for dinner, we were never isolated from the rest of the neighborhood. Here is just a glimpse of examples: my brother and I always played with two rowdy boys who wore shoes in their houses; I had several sleepovers with a girl who lived across the street and we always watched Strawberry Short Berry Merry Christmas; we attended lavish Halloween parties; our neighborhood held outside movie nights during the summer. I knew so many of my neighbors and their children by name.

Since moving to my current home more than seven years ago, I still only know the names of two people living on my block: my next door neighbor and a girl who happened to be my brother’s classmate. Yet, this stark contrast in ~neighborhood vibes~ never bothered me. I prefer the indoors on chilly, misty days (80% of the year), and I spent most of the rare warm days out of state for debate camp. I accepted that the personality of my neighborhood was just reserved. Introverted, like me. I sympathized with the desire to spend time alone.

In the past few months, as drizzling spring weather faded to sweet sunshine and the most soothing low-80s temperature, I extricated myself from the treadmill and opted for long afternoon walks around my neighborhood’s parks. Without an Asian drama to distract me, I soaked in the outside ambience–charming flower gardens, sweet wild blackberries, delightful bird calls. I discovered within walking distance: new streets and pathways, an affordable Vietnamese restaurant that sells delicious banh mi, and a new bougie Chipotle.

I finally saw people outside! Maybe I just hadn’t been here for summers before, and had never witnessed my neighborhood shed its autumn-winter-spring shell. Maybe a sudden urge to take long walks pulled the entire neighborhood out of their homes. Regardless of which is true, a sense of community enveloped these summer strolls.

There’s a couple which I had thought blatantly ignored quarantine laws and held playdates every day for their little children. I learned that they are Mormon and don’t need playdates; they have seven or so rowdy kids who keep each other entertained. They have one of those large navy vans that I’ve only ridden at airports to fit their entire family. Over the course of about four months, the dad built an impressive chicken coop from scratch.

Across the street from the Mormons resides a young and successful couple whose lives are seemingly picturesque. They have a beautiful house with a giant window, allowing a peek into their modern, plant-filled living room. They often open their garage to let their toddler children bike around. I never fail to notice their white Tesla and black Mercedes, shown off like trophies. At least they have a Black Lives Matter sign in their front yard. (Though, they also have an American flag. I can’t help but wonder whether this is a contradiction.)

Next to the successful couple is a hardworking retired woman who should win for the best neighborhood garden award. Her old age is no barrier to her intense gardening sessions. Several signs peak out amid the lush vegetation: “Pesticide Free Zone,” “Certified Wildlife Habitat,” “Black Lives Matter,” and one of those pro-immigrant signs in three languages. She also has a Biden and Harris campaign sticker on her car. While these signs are only symbolic, I believe they are a testament to her character, which I can verify is welcoming and caring.

As I was jogging around one of the nearby parks, I did a doubletake when I saw my middle school P.E. teacher biking by. I saw her several times within the next few weeks. Only later did I realize that she lives right across the park.

Ever since my brief two-month phase as a food courier, I picked up a distaste for driving. Instead, I opted to hang out with one of my neighborhood friends, someone from my middle and high school a year younger than me. We chatted while scooping up cat litter and watering the plants for our vacationing neighbor. Our afternoon and late-night walks could last up to two hours, both of us putting off schoolwork for just one more minute of gossip.

Of course, I’ve had a few negative experiences as well. A few weeks ago at a yard sale, the seller’s front door had a subtle “fraternal order of police active supporter” sticker. (Nonetheless, I’m proud of my purchases: a handful of acrylic paintbrushes, a box of washi tape, and a set of water-based brush pens–all for six dollars.) Just the other day, I witnessed someone using a paper towel to pick up a dead squirrel by the tail and toss it in a compost bin. On an evening walk with my parents, a fruit fly flew into my eye and my dad had to fetch its dead body out as I tried quelling my panic.

Aside from the police support sign, in retrospect, I’m glad for even these unpleasant encounters. They are reminders of proximity and everything it comes with, both the good and the bad. The pandemic has made me grounded, has given the time for my community to evolve from a reluctant acquaintance to a close friend. Like a friend, my neighborhood has its occasional character flaws. Like a friendship, I’ve learned that it takes both sides for emotional proximity to blossom.

2 thoughts on “Relearning Proximity

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