Looks like y’all aren’t from around here

Living abroad for almost two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer has taught me a lot about having and being a good neighbor.

Our neighborhood in Quba, Azerbaijan.

Living abroad in a small Azerbaijani town for nearly two years as a Peace Corps Volunteer has taught me a lot about how having and being a good neighbor makes you feel. My husband and I have talked extensively about what type of neighborhood we’d like to live in upon our return, since our neighbors here have become our lifeline: on winter days when all the water was frozen and we didn’t know what to do, when the electricity went out for no apparent reason, or when something important in our community was happening.

Our neighbors have taught me about local canning methods in the summer. The neighborhood kids have especially brought us joy even on those crummy days when we wondered why we were living here. When I consider what I’ve accomplished in my service, I really think about the kids who live on my street, the same kids who come to my conversation clubs and genuinely seem happy to see me — they see me as an adult who knows their name and takes the effort to get to know them. We’re foreigners in a post-Soviet country that is slightly wary of outsiders; but as we’ve become active in our community, our neighbors have been the ones to vouch for us, to speak up when we didn’t understand the questions, to have our backs when we didn’t even know they needed protecting, to show us the way to the unfrozen water spigot in February.

In our experience, we’ve found that Azerbaijan is populated mostly with Azerbaijani people.  But in American neighborhoods, there is far more diversity in many places and far more opportunities to be a good neighbor to people who “aren’t from around here.”  This maybe means they’re not from your city, your state, your country. Likewise, maybe they can speak your language, but maybe not. My husband Joey and I have compiled a list of items that we’ve found helpful during our time as the people who aren’t from around here. We understand this is specific to our situation, but we do think that many of these suggestions might push you in the direction to meet your neighbor who just moved in, or the neighbor who has lived next door for ten years but you just didn’t know where to begin. You might be exactly what your neighbor has been waiting for!

Our crazy neighbor boys

  • Smile and wave.  This is a really good starting point. A generally harmless technique, but it might allow you or them to spark up a conversation.
  • Send your children to meet them when you’re on the porch or in the yard. Obviously, you know the safety of your neighborhood best, but we’ve had the biggest success with meeting the neighbor kids first, since their parents wanted to know about us but didn’t know how to approach the foreigners. Kids can do this very well, and then they report home! (Our language skills are also about on par with seven to ten year olds.  Also, they like to be silly, so they’re the people who don’t look down upon our efforts at their language.) We’ve gotten several birthday dinner invitations because of this technique! You could also try this method by walking by with your dog, but this might scare some folks, as different cultures have a much different/much scarier relationship with dogs. Give it a try; you’ll know in about 10 seconds if this is a good method. If they run into their house every time they see you and your gigantic dog, it is most likely not you they are running from!

Neighborhood clean up day (an American idea)

  • Be patient – learning about another culture can take some time. For example, you might not understand why they do certain things like throw rocks at owls, but if you’re patient and non-aggressive, you might be able to learn about their culture and the meaning behind owls.   Then you could share how throwing rocks at animals in America is not usually supported or encouraged. Mutual learning! (Here in Azerbaijan, we have these types of conversations more often with teenage boys about cows and dogs.)
  • Don’t be afraid to ask about cultural differences, especially with food.  Maybe you smell interesting aromas coming from their house — ask what they’re cooking. This might give you an opportunity to learn how to cook or at least eat a traditional meal from their culture.  You can then return the favor by sharing a favorite recipe or sending over some of your family’s own traditional food. I love going to people’s homes because I can enjoy authentic Azerbaijani cuisine. I generally cook American food with local ingredients, because I don’t know how to cook traditional Azerbaijani foods. Perhaps it’s the same all over the world: people cooking what’s familiar to them.

Tea with our Azeri colleagues

  • Invite them over.  Especially over the holidays, even religious ones, extend your table to your neighbors or to people who don’t have family locally. Even though I am not Muslim, I’ve really enjoyed being invited to people’s homes to break the fast during Ramadan. We’ve eaten really well at birthday dinners, and have loved the simplicity of having a cup of tea. If you have a family member who can speak even a little of your neighbor’s native language, it could be a huge comfort, but it’s not totally necessary. If you have a great attitude and try to engage your guests, my guess is that they’ll loosen up and have a great time too!
  • Ask if they need any help.  Once I got to know people in my town, they began to understand the words that I knew, and I could understand the words they used with me. This might allow you to help a non-native speaker to better understand a form, a job application or a bill because you can explain it in English they can understand. For us, it’s been really comforting to know that our neighbors will help us if we need it! Recently, Joey borrowed a pair of pliers to fix our toilet drain, and looking back I don’t think we had ever asked a neighbor for anything like that in America.

Hauling water (what they do when the pipes freeze)

Snowball fight (what we do when cabin fever strikes)

  • Take time to explain your local customs – what seems like second nature to you might be a mystery to your neighbors (like Trick or Treating). As a woman living in Azerbaijan, I had to learn quickly to adjust the way I greet people. I’m from North Carolina, so I make eye contact, and with a smile I might nod my head or even say hello to a complete stranger on the street. Here that type of behavior might label me as a “bad woman” (i.e. a prostitute), and then I would have difficulty getting students to attend my courses. If you see your neighbor doing something inappropriate, it likely means that they don’t realize it is inappropriate where you live. If you’ve started building your relationship, they’ll likely be relieved to know you’re helping them understand.
  • Adjust your speaking.  If your neighbors are learning English or not native English speakers, speak a little more slowly, enunciate your words and avoid using complex words/slang – this is key! I have a really hard time understanding small kids and older people who mumble and/or don’t really have many teeth. (Generally, I stare at their mouths because I have to hear the words, see the words, think about them and then understand.) It’s so much easier for Joey and I to speak English because we don’t really have to think in order to listen. If you take these steps, your neighbors will be more likely to understand you the first time, feel more comfortable asking you to repeat yourself, or even make their own speaking mistakes with you.

Neighbor kids play a matching game on our front porch

  • Be gentle when they make mistakes — learning a language is a tricky thing.  For example, even though you might not have put these words together, it’s easy to mix up “house” and “horse” since they sound so similar to foreign speakers. I still get mixed up between “ache,” “cry,” “hungry,” “spicy,” and “angry” in the Azeri language because they sound so similar. Luckily, I’ve grown a thicker skin when I speak and people look at me like I’m an idiot, shake their heads and can’t even begin to understand what I’m trying to say. My wish is that your neighbor won’t need thicker skin with you!
  • Definitely don’t laugh at their accent.  Give it some time, and your ear will get used to what they are saying. It’s not very often that you have to work hard to understand English, but your neighbors are trying so hard to speak your language that you should meet them half way in the effort. Really focus on what they are saying, and don’t get distracted and then laugh at them. It’s not nice to laugh at someone who is trying to learn your language – it can really discourage their efforts to continue learning.

The kids and “Mister Joey”

A lot of what I have learned can be utilized once my husband and I return back to North Carolina and put down our neighborhood roots! We’re really looking forward to finding a home that embraces diversity and celebrates a variety of customs so that we can continue to be surrounded by good neighbors.  We’re counting down the days to a home with running water, consistent electricity, and effective plumbing… even more so, we’re looking forward to opportunity to build relationships with our neighbors – just like we’ve done here.

Comments (2) Add yours ↓
  1. Elizabeth Sappenfield

    Now you’re wondering where the heck is Quba, AZ? Here: http://goo.gl/maps/ZEMZj

    July 23, 2012 Reply
  2. Melissa Scales

    Excellent posting. I have found that since I have had a child, the neighborhood has opened up. Everyone wants to talk about the new baby or what the toddler is up to and we have gotten out of the house more and actually met our neighbors through walking and waving. I also have started a tradition of giving holiday cookies to the neighbors (when I have time to bake multiple dozens). We end up reaping the benefits of people giving us holiday food as well.

    July 23, 2012 Reply

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