Meditations on what I’m being taught by spending a year away from my family and community on a professorial exchange between Avondale College and Southern Adventist University.
Last week I saw a python in the wild. To be fair, it wasn’t really in the “wild”—it was in downtown Brisbane, population 2.3 million. But it was not in a zoo, and it was not controlled or regulated in any manner. It was out exploring the city on its own recognizance. I took a picture, but it doesn’t do the size of the snake justice.
This is exactly what I thought Australia would be like. Full of wild and crazy (and scary!?) animals/insects/sea life at every turn. And yet, most Australians I’ve shared this story with tell me they’ve seen few, if any, snakes outside an animal park. My worries/expectations of the exotic and dangerous are outsized compared with the realities. Steve Irwin and Crocodile Hunting notwithstanding, most Australians are not contending with raw and venomous nature.
But it is the exotic and outlandish that we look for when we travel. The questions I get asked by my friends in the U.S. (as well as in Australia) have to do with the differences I’m seeing between the two places. This is part of the fun of having a new experience and living in another hemisphere. But noticing what is different can also skew what we are experiencing. And sometimes what we notice at first as different, as Other, aren’t the most important variations. Those may only show up after time.
I am enjoying the sometimes outlandish flora and fauna. The birds in Cooranbong are loud, large, and everywhere. The wallabies and kangaroos in the park down the road will eat from my hand. The tropical flowers bloom even in “winter.” The gum trees smell fantastic, and the stars appear closer and more dense than they do in most places I’ve ever lived. There is truly more than just the whiff of the exotic here for this North American. And I’m paying more attention to my surroundings because of it.
It would take much more than the word count of this column to expound on all the fabulous differences in the English language. Australians must be among the most creative users of our shared tongue, and many books have been published on this fun subject. For the first two or three months, I’m sure I only understood about 80% of what was being said to me. It is both amusing and intellectually stimulating to try to sort out the meanings behind the different slang and abbreviations. Some of my favorites (and this was hard, as there are so very many) are these: “stack” (falling/crashing, as in “he had a bad stack when he was mountain biking”), “sunnies” (for sunglasses), “tradies” (what anyone who is a craftsman or does construction work is called), and “rego” (pronounced “rejo” and is short for registration, as in “did you fill out the rego?”).
So many interesting cultural elements have only gradually unfolded—such as realizing that Australians walk visitors to their car when they say goodbye to them. And evening shopping happens once a week, in many places on Thursday nights. Public displays of religious piety are more fraught than they are in the States, where so many people are devout in some way or another. And the deep hospitality traditions are something I’ve written about in an earlier column. I’m trying to pay attention to these things so that I not only don’t appear rude, but so that I can think more carefully about what cultural traits I might want to include in my own life back home.
It is fun to learn new ways of being in the world, to feast our eyes on a different ecology, to think about how and why we communicate the way we do. But more than that, this sort of experience happening as it does for me in mid-life, can re-inspire me to be more intentional about how I organize my time and priorities at home. And I want to try to approach my own natural habitat, the diverse practices of hospitality and culture back in Chattanooga, with fresh and appreciative eyes. The practice of paying attention that we hone when we travel can help us enjoy and reflect on our home context.
Of course, most of the time, my friendships and work and life here in Cooranbong have many similarities with how I live in Chattanooga. To only emphasize the exotic and Other is to undermine the shared humanity, common spiritual commitments, and socio-economic similarities that the two environments both have for me. The exotic can be fun but also exhausting. Sometimes, we need to sink back into the familiar.
This describes in many ways how I read the Bible. I’m not a theologian, but as an historian, I can’t help but be aware of the foreign nature of our sacred text for twenty-first century readers. And sometimes I want to see it through fresh eyes, learning about the language and context and why the authors used the metaphors they did. It’s fun and exciting and perhaps a more accurate way to understand the meaning. But sometimes I want to just read it in a really straight-forward manner and use the simpler study tactics of a lay person, such as looking at a passage with no extra research and asking what it says to me about God and about myself. I hope I’m not distorting the sense of the words or taking things for granted. But to constantly focus on the exotic differences between that culture and mine can take too much concentration and expertise. Not everyone gets to travel to new places.
So we rely on the Holy Spirit to teach us even as we use our “common sense” (which is always culturally informed), parochial, and home-y skills to move forward integrating the Word into our lives. I count on the mercy of my hosts and Australian companions to guide me past the snakes and the slang and the new norms. And I won’t always read the foreign and often strange sacred texts of the Bible with scholarly resources. I will often rely on the familiar sign posts and ask it to tell me things about my ordinary twenty-first century life. I’m so grateful that our Scriptures and our Triune God (both immanent and transcendent) can work with such unsophisticated and confined tools.
Here’s to the exotic gradually becoming familiar and to the mundane occasionally taking on a tinge of the exciting and bizarre.
Lisa Clark Diller is Professor of Early Modern History at Southern Adventist University. She is currently enrolled in a year-long faculty exchange program at Avondale College of Higher Education. Learn more about the exchange here.
Image Credit: SpectrumMagazine.org
If you respond to this article, please:
Make sure your comments are germane to the topic; be concise in your reply; demonstrate respect for people and ideas whether you agree or disagree with them; and limit yourself to one comment per article, unless the author of the article directly engages you in further conversation. Comments that meet these criteria are welcome on the Spectrum Website. Comments that fail to meet these criteria will be removed.