“I’m even willing to pay for a dumpster for yard clippings and pay for some of the labor,” my neighbor—I’ll call her Anna—wrote in an email about the disastrous sight of the Chens’ home. “We had company from Southern California last weekend and they commented on their yard.”
Anna’s resentment had been growing. Her home looked onto the Chens. Every morning, as she drank coffee, the sight that greeted her was that of a home that showed little pride of ownership. When she complained to the city, the officials told her that nothing could be done if people did not care enough about curb appeal.
Anna was the opposite of the Chens. She returned home after a whole day’s work to tend the plants in her garden. She was always planting, pruning, weeding, deadheading and watering and since my home looked out into her manicured yard, I realized how lucky I was to have her as a neighbor.
In the meanwhile, on my walks, I watched the front yard of the Chen residence with horror every time I strode past it. The vegetation was the color of wheat. Wildflowers rose and died between bark and bramble. Chicken wires, plastic bins, chairs and cardboard boxes lay in disarray behind the bushes and undergrowth. I remember how on an evening many years ago, I’d worked up the courage to go over to talk to the Chens. I walked up the small path to their porch. Halfway, however, I retreated. I left a voicemail instead. Just as I expected, it went unanswered.
Years later, while I was away on one of my long trips to India, Anna’s husband decided to broach the topic of cleanup. Spotting one of the Chens outside their home, he walked over and offered to help them in finding a gardener to spruce up their yard. The Chens balked at the offer.
Anna told me how different things used to be when she was growing up in Saratoga. “It was our duty and in everyone’s best interest to keep our own yards in good shape out of respect to our neighbors.” I suspected that as neighborhoods morphed, Anna and many of the older residents on our street were increasingly anxious about how to deal with new neighbors who brought different values.
Often, first time immigrants moved from countries where the upkeep of the yard and surroundings were nonexistent or unimportant. In India, broadly speaking, civic sense outside one’s home mattered less than cleanliness inside. In the upscale parts of Indian metropolises or in the poorest villages, the sense of community was much stronger, owing to common values and peer pressure. But even in India, I rarely saw an unkempt home on a given road unless it was under litigation for a fight over property.
Last summer, during the heat of the drought, I sent an email to Mrs. Chen. “I came by,” I wrote. “I wished to talk to you about your front yard. I feel it’s a fire hazard. I’m nervous about it, especially owing to the water shortage. I’m happy to recommend gardeners who can give you a quote.”
I received a polite response by the end of the day with an explanation that they planned to clean up the yard and that many of the plants that were brown were “going through a natural part of their life cycle as California native plants.” She also mentioned that her life was further complicated by her mother’s chronic illness in the past year.
By email I commiserated with Mrs. Chen regarding her mother’s health. I let her know that I too had had a problem while my father lay dying in India. I mentioned that through the challenges of my own life, while I’d shuttled to and from India, my husband had supervised our home and yard. I told her that we all had a responsibility towards our neighbors when we belonged to a community.
I didn’t receive a reply to my last email but now the Chens began clearing their yard. When they were done, it wasn’t obvious which state was prettier—the before or the after. Anna felt, however, that it was an improvement.
At the block party, I said “hello” to the Chens even though I was annoyed that they didn’t follow the unwritten code of our neighborhood. Perhaps I could have tried a different approach. While I had got to know some of my other neighbors, I had never reached out to the Chens in the same way. Anna, some other neighbors and I helped one another out when we traveled. We talked when we met on the road, exchanged emails and texted, if needed.
Appearances were often the only barometers we used to judge neighbors when we first began the process of getting to know one another. The upkeep of a home reflected the attitude of the owners towards the rest of their street-mates and thus our relationships with neighbors were built on respect and mutual consideration. I saw how many of the world’s border disputes, too, often stemmed from a tangle of skirmishes and misunderstandings as mine with my neighbor.
At the party, Anna’s husband steered clear of the Chens. But the kids on the block played with one another. I heard peals of laughter. The food was almost gone. Some of us became friends on Facebook. At a superficial level, we were all friends, at least until the wildflowers went to seed.
Kalpana Mohan writes from California’s Silicon Valley. http://kalpanamohan.com