In India, borrowing is deeply woven into the fabric of everyday life. So when Charmie Shah moved from Mumbai to New York City, she was struck by its absence.
As part of her work in Debbie Millman’s School of Visual Arts Masters in Branding program, Shah was tasked with developing and executing a 100 Day Project—a creative concept piloted by Michael Bierut, and later brought to Instagram by Elle Luna and friends in 2014.
“Debbie Millman asked us to choose a topic that is both personal and universal—something that could contribute to a larger dialogue rather than an insular experience,” Shah recalls.
Not long after, “Knock Knock, New York” was born.
Here, Shah, now a brand designer at Jones Knowles Ritchie, tells us more.
Why did you choose this concept?After moving to New York, I was feeling lonelier than ever, and I was not very good at making small talk with strangers. It was almost like building my social life again from scratch. But then during [a] visit [back home], I realized that I am very good at talking to my neighbors, even if I was speaking to them for the very first time since I would always go to them with an ask. I realized that it just takes one brave attempt to start a conversation, and even better when you have the perfect icebreaker. And hence I decided to take my learnings from Mumbai to try on my NYC neighbors.
Tell us about the importance of borrowing. Why does it matter?A recent Cigna Study revealed that nearly half of Americans feel they have no one they can talk to about their problems, a condition that has only worsened since the pandemic. But a simple act of borrowing leads to a conversation, leading to a connection that counteracts loneliness. Human beings are social creatures and these small connections make us happier and less lonely. We all want someone to have interesting conversations with on a random Tuesday afternoon, even in the middle of a pandemic. And in a crisis, your next-door neighbor is the first person you could run to asking for any kind of help.
Growing up in Mumbai, borrowing was a daily activity. Was it culture shock when you got to the states and realized how rare it is?
Having moved to New York three-and-a-half years ago, I've lived in five different apartments across two boroughs in the city and yet I’ve not known a single neighbor. Compare that to Mumbai, where I practically grew up in my neighbor's house. In India, our neighbors are just like our extended families that we see regularly. Growing up in Mumbai, and being the youngest kid in the family, it was my job to borrow that necessary cup of milk, sugar or curd from my neighbors. And hence, my first instinct when I needed something was to ask for my neighbor’s help. The times when it bothered me the most was when I had to buy single-use items like a screwdriver, or urgently run to Walgreens for a box of tampons. New Yorkers do find it strange when someone comes knocking on their door asking for help, and after doing that for 100 days I can definitely say that some of them wanted me to disappear and were not very happy to see me, while others welcomed me with open arms.