It’s been six months since we moved to New York City and lately I’ve been thinking a lot about community, about building a local social network, you know, the real kind, where you actually meet and forge bonds with people in real life. I feel pretty fortunate that I haven’t had to do so from scratch because a couple of my closest friends from school just happen to be here already or have recently moved to the area but once in a while I think to myself that it’s kind of strange that I still don’t know the names of any of my neighbors or that I can’t really call myself a regular at any of my neighborhood restaurants.
Juxtapose this to the community that my parents have built for themselves back home. I am reminded of this every time I meet one of my husband’s relatives who attended our wedding in Kuala Lumpur because they never fail to remark upon how amazed they were by the social network that my parents have built for themselves at home. Not only is their community large, they’re incredibly willing and able to help at what seems to be the drop of a hat. Without them, we wouldn’t have been able to fold the 1000 origami cranes in the two days before the wedding or attended to the many other little details involved in the weeks leading up to our big day.
In Malaysia, there’s a term for this spirit of community and reciprocity that I can’t quite place in English. It’s called gotong royong. Back in the villages where my parents grew up, if one neighbor’s roof needed replacing, you could count on the men in the village to spend an entire weekend working together to replace the roof. If a young family just had a baby, you can rely on a steady stream of food appearing at your doorstep to help the couple cope with the first few weeks of their new addition. This is usually done without expectation of any kind of reward other than perhaps an understanding that one day perhaps the favor will be returned in kind. In modern day Kuala Lumpur, the spirit of gotong royong has evolved but it’s certainly still there. The army my parents marshaled to help out for our wedding is certainly proof of that.
Now, NYC is perhaps an extreme example. It takes time to build a community and six months is hardly a drop in the bucket in the grand scheme of things, especially in a city in constant transition. What I wonder is whether it’s really even possible, and if so, what are the necessary steps for getting there? Should I bring over a basket of muffins to my next door neighbor? Strike a conversation with the cooks at the pizza joint around the corner? Or, gasp, move to the suburbs? Seems kind of comical to me.