American Diversity

I was climbing up the stairs when I saw her outside her door, always kind, delicate, looking great.

“Are you coming from the gym?”

My leggings and sneakers, plus my disheveled grey hair pulled back with a black plastic clip, made that obvious, fortunately.

“I am. Do you want to go there?”

She’s new in our building, so I figured she wouldn’t know where the gym was, and immediately entered the “helpful mode.” But she seemed pretty self-assured as she answered in perfect English, perfect at least to my foreign ears:

“No. I’m going to check the mail.”

My new neighbor is Chinese. At least she looks Chinese, and the language she speaks on her iPhone sounds Chinese as well.

Our relationship did not have a particularly good start. The Bostonian designer who had lived next door for a couple of months had left a few weeks earlier, a real gentleman. Coincidentally, when I met him for the first time, I was also disheveled, coming back from my daily run — don’t jump to the conclusion that I spend my whole time running, or that I’m always disheveled, though the latter is not very far from the truth. Although we had only exchanged a couple of words on a few occasions, his tall, charming self decided not to leave without a thoughtful gesture, knocking on our door to say goodbye. As I said, a perfect gentleman, and for the purpose of this chronicle I must add that he was black, and handsome, and highly sophisticated. I’m not sure if you remember, but I mentioned him once, when I argued that I had not witnessed any trace of racism in this country, at least not anywhere near me, thank God.

Now back to the Chinese. I didn’t have the faintest idea of who had moved in next door after the designer left, but it didn’t look encouraging. My first problem was that the new neighbor left his or her (remember, I still didn’t know who the neighbor was) garbage piled up in stinking white bags every morning, before he or she left for work, and there it stayed, rotting the whole day, until my friend, the garbage man, came to collect it at 8 pm. Coming from the gym (once again), I could see the garbage bin provided by the “Valet Trash” service sitting untouched, pristine, on the apartment porch.

I complained to the management. To make my point, I photographed the white bag on one of its worst days, overflowing with organic garbage, leaning against the wall outside the unit door, and emailed the picture to the manager with an unfriendly note. I honestly felt I was entitled to both, pic and note. After all, although we moved here intending to stay less than six months, while our house was being built, this happened a year and a half ago, making us one of the longest residents around, or so I was led to believe, thanks to the high local rotation rate. I went even further with my unpleasant diatribe, complaining about our outside lamp that had burned out long ago, resulting in total darkness when we arrived home at night:

“I’ve never realized that our bulb was burnt out… the previous neighbor always had his light on, which is not the case with this new one, who is not so generous.”

The next day, the trash bin was outside the apartment, the white trash bag appropriately inside it. Although I did not manage to teach my neighbor that the bin should only be out between 6 and 8 pm, when the trash man is supposed to come and get it, I was satisfied. Sort of.

Don’t get me wrong. This trash-collecting rules were something I had a hard time complying with when we first moved in, especially considering how “yeke” I am — a somewhat derogatory Yiddish term for a very strict German Jew, who demands everything to be done by the book (people don’t usually qualify themselves that way, they leave it to others). So it was only natural that I judged my new neighbor with such rigor.

As a matter of fact, I have never been good with neighbors. I’m quite an “isolationist” by nature, and I’m not very friendly by principle, kind of a loner, if you know what I mean. One of our neighbors back in Brazil had advised me that the easiest way to feel at home in the U.S. would be to join as many community groups as I could, especially the ones dedicated to “people my age”… the horror! But despite my best intentions, I have never been able to feel at ease with our real neighbors, in our real neighborhood, the one where we’re truly planning to invest in, up on Paris Mountain. My first encounters with them were cold and distant, to say the least. This included the threat of a lawsuit because of our “setback ambitions.”

Only recently, as our lot is finally cleared of the forest — sorry, environmentalists — and ready to build on, I have started to feel warmly welcomed, since anytime we go there to meditate about our future house, a friendly neighbor comes by to tell us how pleased he is to have us nearby. And so are we: What goes around, comes around.

Back to reality, to our 600-square-foot apartment, I mean. It was Friday evening, and I was coming from the supermarket carrying a bundle of bags. By the way, I must also add that there’s no trash collection in the apartment building on Friday and Saturday nights. And before I learned where the communal waste bin was, or that there was one, I had to cope with the foul smell inside the house over the weekend, a real hassle. But now, as an expert, every Friday evening, after I put away the groceries, I walk outside to throw away the trash, it’s already routine.

Now, as I left our apartment with my humble black bag, I could smell the fumes coming out of the overflowing trash bin by the neighbor’s door. I did not hesitate for a minute before grabbing the bag and leaving a note taped on the door:


Your trash was full, and quite smelly, by the way. So I took it to the waste bin for you. It was quite heavy!

Maybe you didn’t know that there is no trash collection on Fridays and Saturdays, so either you keep it inside, or you take it to the waste bin yourself.

In case you don’t know, the nearest bin is by the mailboxes, to the left.


Your neighbor

No more than five minutes later, I heard a soft knock at the door. I opened it up in my running outfit and… disheveled, for a change, since I had gone shopping straight from the gym and had had no time to change. There stood a young Chinese man in a dark-blue polo shirt with a company logo, smiling warmly, with my note on his hand:

“I hope you did not mind that I took your trash,” I said, apologetically.

“Not at all, I’m the one to apologize… I don’t know why they did not get our trash last night.”

“Ah, yes… maybe it’s because the trash man is really sensitive,” I said. “He usually does not touch the trash if the bin is overflowing.” I spoke like the class-A trash specialist I had become.

With half of her body stuck out of their door, I could see his wife, an elegant woman I had only heard until now, as she spoke Chinese on the phone. She was not wearing shoes (as is the custom in China, when you’re in the house), so I could see that she was very short. She was actually gorgeous, very well-dressed — all in black, lace tights and all — putting my everyday lack of elegance to shame.

Our neighbors were a nice, young Chinese couple, whose English, incidentally, was way better than mine. I felt immediately friendly towards them, understanding that in their homeland there might not exist a “Valet Trash” service. They both work all day, drive two huge American cars, and are often gone for the weekends. Yes, I started to pay attention.

My whole point here is how great American diversity really is, how inspiring it is that people from different backgrounds are able to live together, enjoying the civilized qualities of a first-world nation. In the case of foreigners, provided they are legal immigrants, residents, or visitors with work permits, of course.

Why not? After all, I invested quite a lot to get my permanent residency, and I’m on my way to citizenship, which will finally allow me to vote and influence the quality of life in the country of my choice. Which is quite different, by the way, from the place where I come from: It feels truly positive that this is a law-abiding country, where the rules have value and are supposed to be respected. And I hope it will remain this way for years to come.

About the Author
Noga Sklar was born in Tiberias, Israel, in 1952. She grew up in Belo Horizonte and lived for 30 years in Rio de Janeiro, a city she left behind to take refuge in a paradise among the mountains of Petropolis. Noga met her American husband Alan Sklar in 2004, through the American Jewish dating site JDate. This meeting gave new impetus to her life and literary career, inspiring her first novel, “No degrees of separation” (to be published in English in 2016. She now lives in Greenville, SC, US, where she moved with her husband in October 2014.
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