Exchanges Down Under Part 3: Reflections on the Exotic

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 US (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: “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 a 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.

See also: Exchanges Down Under Part 1: Hospitality and Exchanges Down Under Part 2: Communities of Grace and Celebration

Image Credit: SpectrumMagazine.org

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This is a companion discussion topic for the original entry at http://spectrummagazine.org/node/8090
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Sharing your experiences in this way is almost magical. One feels drawn into the place and the moments. Thank you for devoting so much energy to this effort!!

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Thanks, Jim–doing this writing has definitely made me more intentional about what I’m experiencing. It’s really a privilege–both the exchange and the getting to process it in public. Thanks for being friendly enough to pay attention to these musings!

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Oh lisa, thank you for this series! I especially loved this:

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.

Aren’t we all just desiring something more straightforward and simple? It seems like our society does so often focus on differences (mainly just for difference sake) and not on similarities. We are all so similar. We are all so much alike. Hope your snake encounters remain at a distance and you adventure with wonderful people continues!

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Good on ya, Lisa! The tension between liberation and belonging, the fresh and the familiar, will remain with us throughout eternity. I remember being covered in lorakeets one afternoon in the bush.

Keep growing in grace. (Aussies are fair dinkum, aren’t they?)

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Lisa,

Being a native of Avondale from age 7 to age 24, and a class-mate of Daniel’s on many occasions, I have great interest in this series. One can certainly exaggerate the difference between Aussie’s and Americans.

Most Australians have never seen a snake of any description, let alone a poisonous one. Most snakes leave when they hear people approach. They only become agressive and strike out when disturbed or trod upon. I used to enjoy camping and hiking in the Australian bush, and only on very rare occasions did I see any of these creeping creatures with forked tongue.

My favourite Australian animal is not the kanga or the koala but the platypus (pl. platypii). [Plural of octypus is octypii; plural of ibis (an Australian waterbird) must be ibii. Go figure]. Platypii are furry egg-laying amphibious mammals with a duck-like bill,

According to Wikipedia, “The unusual appearance of this egg-laying, duck-billed, beaver-tailed, otter-footed mammal baffled European naturalists when they first encountered it, with some considering it an elaborate hoax. It is one of the few species of venomous mammals: the male platypus has a spur on the hind foot that delivers a venom capable of causing severe pain to humans. The unique features of the platypus make it an important subject in the study of evolutionary biology and a recognisable and iconic symbol of Australia; it has appeared as a mascot at national events and is featured on the reverse of its 20-cent coin. The platypus is the animal emblem of the state of New South Wales.”

I saw my first platypus in a creek around Avondale when I was 7 or 8 years old. I believe there is a small colony of them in the upper reaches of Dora Creek. The scientific name is Ornithorhynchus.

@lisaclarkdiller
I think if you talk to knowledgeable locals you will discover that there is a colony on the bank of Dora Creek at the back of Alton Villas. I have never seen them there but heard from locals about it perhaps 10 years ago.

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Hi Peter, I walk over the swing bridge crossing Dora Creek every day–I’m looking out for a platypus! I have seen one in the wild before, in a pond near the ancient caves in the Blue Mountains. It is also my favorite Australian animal. But I’ve been told that Dora Creek has them, so more exploration is indeed needed. :slight_smile:

Thanks for reading these flawed reflections, Karah. It’s lovely to have my friends caring about this. We have lots in common as people–and plenty of real differences too. Learning to love through all of that is the task to life.

Thanks for the tip–it appears I am getting expert advice via online communication! I will arrange a few walks on that side of town