Be Our Guest
I was a recipient of generous hospitality. And I needed that welcome, if I ever hoped to be a neighbour myself.
I inspected my invitation again. 1:00 pm. A faded wreath with pink flowers hung on the door beyond which I heard only muffled voices and muted shuffling. I knocked, and moments later, the door opened.
A petite middle-aged Filipino woman waved me in whom I recognized as Ira’s mother. Her hair hung just above the shoulders, her eyes were wide and bright. As if I were a friend from a distant country she’d been waiting to see all day, she smiled widely to greet me.
“Come in! Put your shoes here,” she said, indicating the front entrance where boots, basketball shoes, and chinelas, or slippers, were piled together in some semblance of order. “You can call me Tina.”
I had moved to St. James Town in April 2006 after being hired by Toronto City Mission to build relationships with families in the community through afterschool programs and youth drop-ins. Shortly after starting my role, I began to receive invitations from the mothers. Today, we were celebrating the birthday of one of our quieter teens, Ira. Because he had started coming to our programs in junior high through the invitation of friends and was never picked up by his parents, I had not been formally introduced to his family, having only seen them from a distance once or twice at big community events. And yet somehow, I was generously invited to his birthday.
I followed Tina into the living room where two couches—and the boys who populated them— faced each other. On this hot summer afternoon, a small A/C unit by the window chugged while Ira and his friends, many of whom attended our programs, were busy deciding whether to watch a horror film. The aroma of fried foods lingered in the apartment, and a quick glance revealed that right next to the living room, on a dining table covered with a plastic tablecloth, numerous giant aluminum pans were already set out. A sneak peek into the crowded kitchen led to the conclusion that there was plenty more food to come. Pancit noodles and stews, traditional dishes, would be favoured by the adults, while the chicken wings and pizza would be popular with the kids. Rice, however, was everyone’s favourite. No meal was complete without it.
“How long have you been cooking?” I asked Tina. The boys, who had been happy to greet me, left the real work of conversation to the two of us. “Since last night,” she said smiling, despite the mountain of tasks behind her and before. “We’ve cooked lunch, and Ira’s invited all his friends, but tonight our family friends are coming here.”
I suddenly realized that I had arrived terribly early. Being a generally punctual person, I have still to accustom myself to Filipino time. When Filipino families say a party starts at 1pm, most guests really show up closer to 2:30, and the whole event lasts until 6 or even 7.
“Where do you live?” Tina asked, bustling about the kitchen.
“Just across the street,” I answered, trying to orient myself to figure out where my apartment would be in relation to their building.
A friend had once remarked that she felt like she had been transported to Hong Kong while walking through St. James Town. It is a neighbourhood of towering high rises, a handful of them named after great cities of Canada—Halifax, Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver—each lined with balconies, each distinct with its own collection of bicycles, cardboard boxes, clothes, plastic flowers, and blue tarps—as if rebelling against the uniform layout of the buildings.
From the outside, St. James Town just looks like a wall of buildings, but the few who venture through this small block in the city of Toronto, especially on a summer day, will see it teeming with life. At the centre of the neighbourhood, a fruit stand is typically on display—bright purple eggplants, boxes of fire hydrant yellow mangos, long green beans, all showing off and fighting for attention. Later in the evening, after the produce has disappeared, a group of men will be found hanging around the picnic tables nearby, barbecuing on a small round charcoal grill, the smell of cigarettes and meat wafting in the air as they play cards. A few metres further, a middle-aged woman will be cleaning up her mat, which had served to display the shoes, the old lamp, and the black kettle she’d tried to sell to passersby since the morning. Her neighbour on the street, a gentleman with retro DVDs and VHS tapes ready to be picked up by the carton, will also be closing up shop, and in front of them, a man on a scooter will be talking with more neighbourhood residents, espousing the virtues and vices of city politicians.
Tina took a break from the cooking and showed me around their apartment, bringing me first to Ira’s room, which was painted blue and covered with posters. A particularly big poster of a hockey player hung on the wall.
“I didn’t know he liked hockey!” I said. “Usually all the boys here love basketball.”
“Yes, he loves basketball,” Tina agreed, “but he also likes to watch hockey.” I thought of the boys on the couch, every single one of them basketball players, and yet, each one still having their own unique interests and personalities.
I glanced out the window, noting the street level view. Even from my apartment on the eighth floor, I had heard on countless summer nights the sound of glass bottles shattering against the asphalt, arguments among neighbours, and firetrucks roaring down the street and pulling into our neighbourhood. Occasionally in the summer, there were also community events held at the Nike-sponsored basketball court, outdoor speakers on full blast, the tiny space bustling with families. Even without a scheduled event, countless kids and teens could be found there, sitting around, laughing with each other, headphones hanging from their ears, the sound of their bright orange basketballs bouncing along the pavement, echoing and reverberating throughout the neighbourhood.
“How do you like living on the first floor?” I asked Tina. I knew that there had been a shooting nearby last summer in the evening, an incident that many of us residents heard, the unmistakable pop of multiple gunshots echoing in the corridors of our streets. She told me that miraculously, Ira had slept over that night at his older brother’s place. She went on to tell me about her family, about her two sons, Ira and his older brother. She spoke with pride that her sons had overcome the often destructive influences in the neighbourhood. She recalled with gratitude the times they were protected from danger.
We heard the door open and close as others began to join the party. Some of them were teens I knew; some I had never met. The boys gathered out in the living room, tearing down chicken wings and pizza while roughhousing on the couches. The girls, as if by habit, went straight to the bedroom where they giggled about boys, turned up their noses at the mention of their siblings, and laughed hysterically about things that happened at recess —a personal world that existed only in the confines of the walls of apartments and of which, for that day, I had the privilege of being a part.
I regretted that I would soon have to leave. “Tina, it’s almost time for me to go,” I announced as we made our way back to the kitchen and stood together around the table she had heaped with feast. Many more friends and family of all ages would be coming in and out, and for the hours that stretched ahead, there would be no shortage of generous food and good conversation.
“Already? Well at least take some food with you!”
I knew the drill. Every Filipino gathering I had attended involved taking leftovers. It was as if they had purposefully estimated double the amount of food for each person. Before she saw me to the door, Tina whipped out sandwich-sized Ziploc bags, and when it appeared that I was being too conservative in packing, she came and took over, stuffing each bag with noodles, meat, sweets, fruit. Her zealous packing made it difficult to seal the plastic zipper.
Whenever I hear Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, I am filled with dread. I seem to resemble only the hypocritical characters; I am never the hero. Yet the day of Ira’s party, I was not the unloving religious elite who walked by, nor was I the incomparably compassionate Samaritan who stopped. Instead, I was the beaten man on the road, who had been shown generous grace. Having grown up in a reserved suburb in a private semi-detached house, neighbourliness had never come easily to me. But as Ira and Tina welcomed me with opened arms, as they shared food that they had spent hours preparing, as they shared their lives and stories with me, they had also, ever so slightly, dislodged sequestered parts of my soul and opened the door to relationships. I had been the recipient of their hospitality, and I needed it if I had any hope of being a neighbour myself.
Leaving the party, I walked down the hall to the front lobby of their building. Behind other apartment doors came the sounds of Saturday afternoon TV shows blaring. Further on, a baby was crying. Outside there were metal benches, the paint chipping as if to signal disrepair. Residents were sitting and chatting while a slow, but a steady stream of traffic came in and out of the front doors. Crossing the street, I approached my own building where I crammed into the elevator with a family of three, a man with a dog, and a lady with a bicycle. Every time the elevator doors opened at another floor, we caught a whiff of various world cuisines. Finally, I reached my own floor and stepped into my apartment.
Closing the door behind me, I was, in this neighbourhood of feast and famine, finally home.
Text: Elita Fung
Photography: Hang-Kit Wong