I have a distinct childhood memory of one summer spent camping somewhere in Oregon on our family vacation. My sister and I pedaled about on our little bikes, befriending new kids in adjacent campsites, hurtling throughout the campground in a pack of small bicycles with no regard to the one-way arrows posted by some septuagenarian campground manager. One of the pleasures of camping is the freedom to unabashedly observe the possessions and paraphernalia of the campers around you, you smell each other’s food (for better or for worse), and you hear each other’s late night music and conversations. I remember the delight of that place; a space shared by so many families living out in the open together (if only for the weekend), me and my sister sailing about together on bikes with our new friends and me, thinking to myself, “can we just live like this forever?”
In my final year of university, a common lament shared among the other students who lived on campus was that we were nearing the end of “the best years of our lives.” Our apprehension about leaving life on campus was not helped by the fact that some recent graduates from previous would frequently come back to visit, and it was plain to see that they wished they still lived on campus, a place that was brimming with community, open doors, greetings shouted from windows at friends walking by, diverse people from all over the globe living in proximity to one another. There were only four people to each upperclassmen apartment unit, yet it felt like we lived with a hundred other people we hadn’t chosen as roommates, for the simple reason that we shared things like walls, halls, and late-night fire alarm evacuations when someone burned popcorn. It was good. Some of my friends pondered how they could rent a big place together so that they could continue living intentionally in a close community as they started their careers (and some of those friends were able to make it happen for a few years following graduation).
At the time, I was sympathetic, but also outwardly dismissive of my friends’ longings. I secretly fretted and hoped I would be okay, too, once this season of community in close proximity came to an end. But the pragmatist in me felt that I had to accept the impending reality: this lifestyle could not continue. The limited demographics and the educational privilege of university life is not very much like the real world; much of it is a bubble that eventually ought to pop for the betterment of all those within. But I think the heart of the lament for the ending of student life on campus was not a longing for exclusive privilege and demographics, it was a desire for an ongoing lifestyle of neighboring. An adult form of my childhood query, “can’t we live like this forever?” Deep down, we just didn’t want to live far apart.
When I visited Myanmar in 2013, I was impressed by all of the avid and unabashed people watching. When I rose in the morning and stepped out onto the balcony of the place where I was staying, two thirds of all the apartment balconies surrounding mine were occupied with folks casually leaning over their balconies, watching everything and everyone, shamelessly. If something went awry in the neighborhood, at least half the people would be the first to know, and they wouldn’t keep it to themselves.
I grew up in a rural setting. Whether it was explicitly stated, or just a conclusion I made on my own, my childhood assumption was that good folks live in the country, or at least the suburbs. Not much good could come from densely populated places like cities. Life lived closer to the outskirts, to farms and forests meant safety, purity, and ultimately, closeness to God. (I’ve since begun to wonder if Christians haven’t confused godliness with escapism.) “Neighbor” was not a word with overly positive connotations; in my family’s history, every neighbor fell somewhere along a spectrum; on one end of that spectrum a neighbor was an irritation and the subject of Sunday dinner chatter, on the other end a neighbor was someone you took to court.
Today I live in a city of six million. Our house is 16 feet wide, and from either side of our home we can reach out and touch our neighbors’ homes. The smells of whatever they are cooking waft into our open windows (for better or for worse), the smoke from their charcoal cooking fires sometimes fills our lean-to kitchen; on occasion used up chunks of lime or plastic wrapping come sailing out a window and into our backyard. They call our attention when the waterman comes by with a bill, they alert us to things like planned water outages; every day they talk to our kids across the fence or through the window. Daily, the neighbor kids are hollering for Lena from the front gate, or someone is asking me what I bought at the market that morning, and what I plan to cook. From the moment I leave my bedroom in the morning, till when I head to sleep at night, my habits, my parenting successes or failures, my daily activities are public domain. Jim and I joke that our lifestyle could be labeled, “Forever Camping.”
When we rented our home last year, the friend who helped us secure the lease told us this: “Look, I know some people say this is a bad neighborhood. But don’t worry, I know all the thieves in the area, and I told them not to rob you.” One year into our lease, and so far those thieves have proved that his words were not empty.
This summer we visited North America, and I was struck by the prevailing culture of loneliness, almost as if neighborhoods were meant to be lonely by design. Owning a home in a “good” neighborhood, within a “good” school district is an ideal prized by the average citizen. These neighborhoods are full of lovely houses, each one with a roomy backyard that seems to render the city park unnecessary. We kept looking at each other and marveling at the big homes, and wondering aloud, “why does it look like no one lives here?” There is an abundance of unused front yards, smooth streets and sturdy sidewalks (I notice this, coming from a place where sidewalks will unexpectedly give way to a four foot drop), playgrounds all over the place, and hardly anyone outside. Most lives are contained and kept secret within the house, the garage door opener serving as insulation from unwanted encounters with neighbors.
I’d been away from North American life for about two years before this past visit and my first impression upon seeing most neighborhoods was one of profound isolation and loneliness. On the heels of this, though, I was left with a sense of danger and vulnerability. The isolated, private nature of the suburban world didn’t seem worth the price tag, rather, it made me feel quite unsafe. We’ve all paid to live out of earshot of one another, but if someone with bad intentions entered a home, would anyone hear or notice? Perhaps privacy and safety are not actually the same thing? I’ve grown accustomed to a sense of security that comes from having a close community. After experiencing neighborhood life here in Yangon, the notion of settling in an American country home on an acreage strikes me as slightly terrifying.
Here in our neighborhood, people hang out together in the late hours of the afternoon. The heat of the day has begun to dissipate, and the sun’s intensity has faded enough to make it comfortable to sit outside. Folks emerge from their homes to sit outside in plastic chairs, walk with their small kids, or sit at the nearest noodle shop and slurp some broth with whoever else happens to be around. Lots of people congregate outside of our street’s betelnut shop, which happens to sit right across from our house, and they’ll linger there until evening, shooting the breeze, watching the kids play and hollering at them to move out of the way of oncoming motorcycles. Late this spring I was holding the baby and sitting with them when one of my neighbors asked me, “do people in America sit outside together like this?”
“No, not really,” I answered, explaining that many North Americans aren’t close with their neighbors, that very few of them live in multigenerational homes, and that people typically get in their cars and drive a little ways if they want to spend time with friends. (These sorts of things are not at all normal for the average folk here.)
My neighbors looked so surprised and disappointed; it was probably the first time (aside from off and on conversations about the latest U.S. school shooting) that I’d shared a piece of information about North America that left the hearers looking visibly disgusted. Community–neighborhood life—is the heartbeat of Myanmar culture, and I’d wager that it’s the thing resettled refugees miss the most when they find themselves in the West.
I’m aware that comparisons have their limits. I know that my position here as a white person makes for a uniquely positive living experience. I know that the warm climate lends itself to easy, year-round neighboring, that the lack of zoning laws here contributes to financial and ethnic diversity, and makes it easy to do much of my shopping and business on foot within my neighborhood (in contrast to a lot of North America).
I love where I get to live, and I’m grateful for all the people who are part of making it possible for me to live here with my family (i.e. many of you reading this). Living here is messy—figuratively and literally. Life as an introvert, especially as one who cannot blend in, is draining. It would be easier not knowing that my neighbors beat their kids after a few drinks, or being oblivious to the fact that a friend leased her twelve-year old daughter to work for strangers in the city. Some of my local friends have chided us for choosing to living in a place where there is so much swearing for our kids to overhear. Being involved means being aware of some of the ugly things. I am conflicted on a daily basis about my role here, I’m often overwhelmed at how much I have yet to learn, and I wring my hands on a daily basis wondering how to balance being an introvert, a mother, a language learner, and a neighbor.
I think back to my classmates in university, and their unspoken question, “can we just find a way to live together like this forever?” And I want those aching people to know that the hope of a community living in proximity is a good dream—in fact, in other parts of the world it is everyone’s reality. If you are lonely in North America, it doesn’t mean anything is wrong with you; it might just mean you’re hungry for community be part of your daily life, and not a supplement that can only be found by driving elsewhere. The poverty of social interaction that is inherent in North American communities is real; it’s okay to be frustrated and disturbed by this, and by the implications it has for our culture.
I’d like to go back in time to that Oregon campground and tell the wistful, nine-year-old Breanna that one day she’ll live in a place where it feels like everyone is camping, all the time. (Mostly I’d like to watch her reaction.) I’d like to tell my pragmatic, postgraduate self not to feel so resigned to an adulthood of suburban loneliness. I’ve since learned that there actually are communities where adults do share more of their daily lives together, where people live and shop and eat and send their kids to school within walking distance. There are places where neighbors are friends, and where it is the norm to linger together in common spaces late into the evenings (not unlike university life) before walking the few short steps home to sleep. There are places where the neighbors all sit down together in the street to share a communal meal, where “what are you doing for the holiday?” is a silly question, because most everyone celebrates the holiday with their neighbors. These communities aren’t perfect, they’re usually not manicured, and (as you may have noticed in the news) not everyone gets along all of the time.
If I had to hazard a guess about the kind of community God is building for his people, I think it looks less like suburban North America, and more like the lively, close-knit neighborhoods that surround me here in Yangon. These places are beautiful not by virtue of infrastructure, but because of the interdependence of the people who live there. They are beautiful because they are filled with the thing God loves most: people. Friends, the cities of the earth are bursting with that belovedness. It’s a beauty I wish for all of North America, too.
Endnote and some further thoughts:
It’s not my goal to communicate that my Southeast Asian neighborhood is objectively better than that of my North American counterparts (though I’ve not tried to hide my personal preferences, as you can see). I don’t intend to communicate that anyone reading this in North America is entirely responsible for the isolation and individualism that manifests itself in the American lifestyle.
But my time outside North America has helped me observe new things about its values, and I’ve come to question some of the motives behind the systems that shape the American lifestyle and neighborhoods. And the longer I observe, the more questions I have, especially for the Christians in the room.
I find myself wondering, is the individualism that led to the design of the North American neighborhood bad for our souls and bad for our communities?
What does it mean for the common good of the poor, of those who do not have resources to access this American dream, if the rest of us are sequestered in isolated living situations, or sending our kids to private institutions?
What if the things we think make us safe actually make us more vulnerable?
Is our desire for privacy actually just escapism, and if you’re a Christian reading this, do you believe that escapism is part of God’s blueprint for a Christian community?
When we talk about “good” and “bad” neighborhoods, what exactly are we referring to? Who are the people who live there, and why do you think they live there?
Does lack of neighborly proximity experienced by the average North American cause us to objectify and dehumanize those who are unlike us? Would proximity help us to be more aware of our shared humanity?
Could it be that choosing a “good” neighborhood for the sake of a better school district or sending your child to a private school/homeschool is a form of escapism?
Is it possible that privacy is the antithesis of neighborliness? (For the record, being private is the opposite of being neighborly here where I live, and if you are private, people notice and wonder why.) If you are a Christian reading this, what do you believe is more important? Privacy, or being a connected neighbor?