When a couple from India, with their three-year-old daughter, moved across the street from me last year, I did what I often do on my street: overcome any inhibitions or feelings of awkwardness and introduce myself. When I saw them outside their house, I walked over and said "Hello, and welcome to our neighborhood."
They smiled broadly and remembered our first names. They must have thought it more remarkable than I did at the time since, despite vast differences in our ages and cultures, we have become friends. My wife and I are now tending their garden while they visit family in India.
After my wife, Lynn Schiffhorst, gave the little girl one of her children's stories for her birthday, they reciprocated, at Christmas, with gifts of home-made vegetarian foods they had prepared. Another little story followed, then an invitation to be their guest at an Indian restaurant, where we could learn more about their life in southeastern India and share our fascination with their culture just as they can learn more from us about America. Food plays such a role in breaking down barriers.
So as they go to the Hindu temple and we go to church, we always wave. I will miss them when they leave (she, a physician, will be moving next year), and I feel that my wife and I, by a simple gesture of welcome, have bridged an important gap often left by busy, impersonal neighbors who remain strangers behind closed doors, especially in our large metropolitan areas. The result, sometimes, is hostility and suspicion of the newcomers as outsiders, potentially dangerous, in an age when terrorism in on many minds.
Although our Indian couple has never said so, we know they are grateful to feel less like foreigners, with dark skin, in our white neighborhood of strangers. It took very little effort for us to reduce whatever fears they might have had.