In a cold winter afternoon, I came home to find a gift bag sitting on my front lawn. To my surprise, there was a box of cookies inside, along with a card with a “thank you” letter. It was from the adult daughters of my next door neighbor, Yone.
Yone died of a heart attack two years ago at the age of 78. I didn’t know a lot more about Yone until after he died. From his funerals, I learned that he was an engineer, with decades of experience in an architectural firm; that he had two adult daughters who enjoyed successful careers; that he was a strong supporter of Conservative ideology; that he immigrated to Canada from Scotland at a young age but never intended to become a Canadian citizen.
Yone and I had formed a typical Canadian style neighbour relationship – distant but amicable, remote but comfortable. He had lived alone in his house after his wife died, and his daughters’ family was a few miles away. When we ran into each other on the street, we greeted warmly, put a big smile on our face, and sometimes struck up small talk. We would chat about a lot of things – from weather to dogs to children, but never anything sensitive or substantial.
This kind of neighbourhood life seemed a lot more different than what I experienced during my earlier years in China. Back then, neighbourhood was a very close knit family where neighbours looked after and relied on each other. We also shared every aspect of our personal lives with our neighbours – regardless of how sensitive or private they are.
I spent my childhood years living in a room in a courtyard house of Beijing, which was shared among four families. At the time when food became a daily struggle, privacy was of least concern. We knew everything about our neighbours – from their jobs to their salaries, and from their direct families to their distant relatives. We knew what they ate for three meals a day and how they spent their night with their families. On hot summer days, we would also know someone had sex at night – judging from the creaking and cracking noises from the camp bed they set up in the middle of the courtyard – to escape from the extreme heat in their room.
This type of communal lifestyle – rarely an ounce of privacy -- seems quite embarrassing in hind sight. It finds no place in a today’s civilized society like Canada. Taking privacy as a well-guarded treasure as a Canadian, we enjoy dignity and respect from our neighbours. But we also endure the community relations that lack strong neighbourly support.
I didn’t know that Yone suffered from serious heart conditions and died of seizures that night until the police cruiser pulled up in front of his house the next day. I was grappling with the guilt knowing he died so quietly and lonely, without any help from those who lived so close-by.
But I did find some solace from this card in the gift bag. Yone’s daughters expressed their gratitude to my family, for the bits and pieces of help we offered to their dad while he was alive: checking out on him during the 2013 ice storm; offering some translation assistance when Chinese strangers knocked on his door…
I want to write back to them about Yone’s unforgettable acts of kindness too – such as finding my run-away dog, offering suggestions for my kids’ college choices…
But I’m unable to send it out, as Yone’s house was sold to a new owner and the daughters left the neighbourhood without an address. But what forever remains are the sweet memories of Yone and the special bond I formed with him as my Canadian neighbour.
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