How I discovered the lifeblood of community

In 2011, I was living and working in Chengdu, China. I was rocked to my core with culture shock the first few months and sought out familiarity from the hutongs, the streams of scooters and smog at ‘Peter’s Tex Mex Grill’, a Western-style restaurant around the corner from my flat. 

The Chinese staff wore aprons with red chilies and the whole place was decked out with sombreros, wicker baskets, shelves full of cow ornaments, wagons other vaguely pastorale symbols. They served up tacos and pizza and burgers with Garth Brooks on a continuous loop. 

I spent hours a day hooked into the wifi, picking at a bowl of chips, madly writing or emailing or catching up on Aussie TV shows. It was the go-to-meeting point for any local ex-pats and a place to meet new ones. 

It was the ultimate third place. 

My current work supervisor will talk your ear off about third places. 

He’s set up a program within the company for people with intellectual disabilities to access these places they wouldn’t usually without support.

A third place ‘hosts the regular, voluntary, informal, and happily anticipated gatherings of individuals beyond the realms of home and work’ (Ray Oldenburg). Places such as libraries, gyms, the pub, cafes ‘are at the heart of a community’s social vitality’. 

Generally someone with an intellectual disability gets ferried from home to program and back again, the taxi drivers being the extent of their community exposure. Or the lady at the bowling arcade who takes their money on a Friday. 

In this new program, the participants meet staff in their local community and spend the day in these third places making natural connections, from the library to cafes to community kitchens and men’s shed groups. 

One guy goes fishing in the same spot every week and has made friends with two retirees who also fish there. 

It’s the next step in inclusion, breaking down the barriers for these people who otherwise wouldn’t have the same access that you or I do to go to these public spaces and mingle with others rather than being grouped away in one building. 

After moving from Sydney to Torquay in 2017 and feeling overwhelmed by the prospect of making friends again, I realised just how critical these places are. 

I began working in this program taking people into third places around Torquay and have gotten to know the baristas in the local cafes, the gym-goers and community house volunteers. I feel like I have my finger on the pulse of the community, that I’ve become a part of this naturally evolving organism. 

Perhaps it’s the difference of small-town life too. Sydney is growing at an astonishing rate. Apartments are being packed in like sardines and loneliness is epidemic. I can’t even recall how many people I’ve met who migrated to Sydney bemoaning how difficult it is to meet people.

Third places create opportunities to look at another human face, smile and practice small talk. To come in contact with people whose politics, religion, lifestyle might be polar opposite of our own. 

My small talk skills were rusty when I started but now I feel gradual improvements. I’m more open and make eye contact with people. I actively look for opportunities to initiate conversation. 

It’s not always easy and people often fob you off but I decided I would rather be the person who tries than the person sitting in the corner with closed off body language trying to connect to virtual people on my phone or laptop. 

I’ve seen how much value it adds to the lives of people with disabilities to be included in these spaces so how much more should I embrace them having unencumbered access myself? 

Cherie Lee is a writer living in the surfing capital of Australia: Torquay, Victoria. She still can’t surf.
Cherie Lee is a writer living in the surfing capital of Australia: Torquay, Victoria. She still can’t surf.

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