June 18 • 09:54 AM

The meaning of community

November 14, 2018
I always prefer to sleep with the street-facing window of my third-story apartment open, which means that, despite my earplugs, the increasing noise that arises each morning as Vietnam comes to life usually serves as my alarm clock.

I'll toss and turn, try to fall asleep again, but it's no use. I'll finally get up and open the curtain to gaze down upon the cluster of motorbikes that are coming to drop their kids off at the neighboring school. Across the street, parents sit with their children as they eat breakfast at one of the food stalls set up in front of the makeshift construction supply yard. During the autumn and winter, the sunlit air that wafts in has a refreshing quality to it.

Down below there somewhere is Nhung (which sounds like "Nyoom"), busy for the morning rush. She cooks up cheap bowls of crab noodle soup and lunchtime rice plates six days a week just across the street from my building. I always muse at the age differences in her family: at 34, she is twenty years younger than her husband, while her sisters that live with them are around 18 and 22. Her husband runs the simple café on the bottom floor of our building which, interestingly, they named after their six-year-old son.

By now, of course, most people on this leafy tree-lined street either know me or know of me. The electrical shop owner who sold me a fan early on (and thus whom I only know as "the Fan Man") greets me kindly whenever I pop in and does his best to understand what I'm looking for, despite our language barrier. The English-speaking tourism industry worker who's adding on to his house just down the street often catches me as I pass by and asks if I'd like to sit with him for a drink. The woman who owns the toy store right below me simply smiles when I walk in seeking the odd trinket to add to my teaching supplies.

One could say I've become a true member this neighborhood, more or less. I now have at least a faint conception of what it means to be an active participant of a community, to feel one has found his proper niche in society.

I say this because, although this is perhaps quite opposite to the lives of many of you small-town readers, I can't say that I've truly ever felt the close-knit bonds of community while growing up in my native Almont.

This is not to say that I feel like a stranger in my own hometown; far from it. But while many others in my town connect through churches and other social functions, my family never really did. My parents didn't associate much with those of my peers during my years of youth, either. Of all my old high school classmates, I maintain only one friend from those days. Living at university for three years, along with subsequently residing out-of-state and out-of-country, has undoubtedly contributed to this lack of association with those still there.

As I travel the world and occasionally find myself in villages where everybody knows everybody and helps each other out, I often wonder if my circumstances have robbed me of something important. Is that a bad thing? I don't know. I'm pretty happy right now, in any case. I've also discovered how easy it is—with a little curiosity, respect, and patience—to one way or another fit into any community one comes across.

I'm looking out my window in the dead of night now for the man who usually sets up his noodle stall in the evening on the curb across the street. He's not there tonight, but when he is, I'll sometimes opt to walk over to the glow of his one suspended lightbulb while he works within the spectral steam rising from his cart, me craving for a bowl of his tender noodles.

I couldn't even tell you what his name is, but he knows exactly how I like them.

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