We moved to our new home in Hong Kong a few years ago. Coming from Pakistan where neighbours are treated like family, it was a little awkward that our new neighbours in Hong Kong did not like to mingle as much.
As we were moving our belongings to the new place, I could feel the curiosity among the other residents.
In the lift one couple thought we did not know Cantonese so they started talking about us. The wife said, look at that huge cooking pot! And the husband said, yes South Asians have huge families so they cook in large quantities and their food is just delicious!
That got me the idea – why don’t we start building our relationship with neighbors through food? We don’t have a huge family but we sure have good food!
Being the only non-Chinese in our building (talking about a few thousand people in Hong Kong’s dense urban landscape), we started getting noticed right away.
Almost everyone would give us second looks out of curiosity and, taking full advantage of the newfound stardom, we started greeting them and giving smiles.
Soon we started making casual acquaintances and a few months later we started small talks.
During those talks, people expressed their love for South Asian food and one by one my parents started sending Chicken Biryani to their homes.
The goal was not to ask anything in return but to build a friendly relationship. It was a success Alhumdulilah. We made so many new friends who started reciprocating kindness.
On a daily basis, there were times when we would get stuck with our inability to read Chinese and our kind neighbours gladly helped. These are really small things that amount to big favors altogether.
I’m so glad that my parents took the initiative and started building a positive relationship, and went past the mindset of being different.
I thought I was the only Muslim at work, until something absolutely astonishing happened
I would like to urge everyone in Hong Kong and other countries to take the first step. It is not necessary to build your relationship with food (but trust me Hong Kong people and people in general are foodies so it works pretty well). This is also something Prophet Muhammad (peace be upon him) made a practice of for he said to one of the companions,
“Abu Dharr! If you cook some stew, make a lot of it and fulfil your duty to your neighbours (or divide it among your neighbours).”
[Al-Adab Al-Mufrad 114 | Sahih]
The key behind all of this is to start smiling and greeting people and being open to them. It is a Sunnah we often forget for he (peace be upon him) said,
“Every good is charity. Indeed among the good is to meet your brother with a smiling face…”
[Jami` at-Tirmidhi 1970 | Sahih]
And he (peace be upon him) also emphasized the point of building relationships, even with those who may not like you, as he said,
“Make things easy for the people, and do not make it difficult for them, and make them calm (with glad tidings) and do not repulse (them ).”
As mentioned, this is not about the poisonous us vs them mindset. To be honest, overwhelming majority of Hong Kong people are curious about immigrants and we need to take the first step as immigrants to make them feel comfortable with us, that could also include our food smell and our language – try to keep the smell and the chatter to a minimum.
Most importantly, we should not fall victim to the prevalent negativity in mainstream media and social media.
Yes, there are some negative instances here and there, but I believe they are happening because we have not invested in long term relationship development with our neighbours. Just imagine if we all built a good relationship with our neighbours, the next time they see a negative propaganda against Muslims or the ethnic minority, they would definitely think twice before believing it because they would know who we actually are.
And remember, neighbours are not just at homes, but also at our workplaces and our schools.
At the end of the day, this is what Islam is all about. As Muslims, we should be the ones building bridges and we should be the ones extending our hand first, knowing too well our neighbours have right upon us. Fittingly, the virtues of being good to your neighbours (regardless of being Muslim or not) are many, one of which as the Prophet (peace be upon him) said,
“The best of companions with Allah is the one who is best to his companions, and the best of neighbours to Allah is the one who is the best of them to his neighbour”.