By Chloe Sun
Most of us like the familiar and feel ambivalent about the foreign. When we experience something new, our brain tends to search our database to see if there is anything familiar about these new experiences. The new experiences are being interpreted in light of the old familiar experiences. Our brain seems to do this automatically as a way to process and to make sense with the foreign.
Having lived in China, Hong Kong and the US for decades and having visited a few other places, London is both a familiar and a foreign place to me. I have been visiting London for about two weeks now. There are many familiar scenes and experiences. For example, walking on the streets of London reminds me of walking on the streets of Hong Kong, New York and Paris. I see people walking, talking, laughing, and hurrying to work. The tourists are holding their cameras or cell phones, looking around, taking pictures and sometimes getting lost and asking for directions.
People here speak English with a British accent. They remind me of people in Hong Kong and my former professors at Fuller seminary who came from the UK. People smoke on the streets of London, just like the people in Hong Kong and Las Vegas. The underground subway system (the British call it “the tube”) reminds me of the subway in New York, the metro in Paris, and the MTR (Mass Transit Railway) in Hong Kong and the fast track in Taiwan. The doubledecker bus also recalls to mind my experience in Hong Kong when I was young. There are high-end shopping areas as well as Walmart-like shops. There are also homeless people on the streets, just like in the cities of Los Angeles, New York and Paris.
McDonalds, Starbucks, Pizza Huts are everywhere. They serve the same food, some with local twists (the McDonald’s in Hong Kong has red bean pie and taro pie. The McDonald’s in Israel has corn pie). There is also Chinatown in most major cities I have visited (Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, New York, Paris). They all share similar architecture with red-painted ancient-looking gates and door frames. The numerous museums remind me of the museums in DC and the admission is free in both places! The diversity in London brings to mind the diversity I have experienced in Sao Paolo, Brazil, where race does not seem like an issue.
According to the shared similarities between London and the places I have been to, London is a mixture of Paris, New York and Hong Kong. This sense of familiarity makes me feel at ease in London as if I am meeting an old friend.
There is also something unique about London. For example, the weather is unpredictable. It can have four seasons in one day! It can also rain at anytime of the day. This is unlike any place I have ever been to. Carrying an umbrella is like carrying a cell phone; it is a necessity. Also, as I walk on the streets, I can recognize different languages spoken by the local people and the tourists of London: British English, American English, Spanish, Mandarin from China, Mandarin from Taiwan, Cantonese, French, Korean, Japanese and Vietnamese, but there are also many other languages I cannot recognize. It is these unrecognizable languages that make London foreign to me.
There are also stairs to climb in subways and buildings but no elevators and ramps. This is not a friendly place for physically-challenged people. I realize that my mind tends to search for something familiar. Familiarity equates to safety. Unfamiliarity translates to threat. This may explain why many people tend to hang out with those who are similar to them. Meeting people who are different is perceived as a danger to one’s sense of familiarity and security.
Life is full of challenges and challenges come in different forms. Some are old and familiar. Others are new and foreign. How would God see the familiar and the foreign? On the one hand, God desires us to have a renewed mind (Rom 12:2), to sing a new song (Ps 96:1), to depend on His mercy which is new every morning (Lam 3:23). On the other hand, when God does new things, He is doing them based on something we are familiar with in the past. There is familiarity in the newness. When God brings the exiled Israel back from Babylon to Judah, God did a new thing (Isa 43:19). This new thing is built on the old experience of the Exodus and becomes the New Exodus. When God makes the New Heaven and New Earth, it is built on the idea of the old heaven and old earth that people are familiar with (Isa 65:17).
Whether we are starting a new job, becoming a new wife or mother, relocating to a new place, meeting new people or embarking on a new journey, God is present in the new and foreign. We do not need to be afraid of them. There is always something new in the familiar and something familiar in the new.
Chloe Sun, PhD., has been teaching Hebrew Scriptures at Logos Evangelical Seminary since 2004. Her research interests include culture, gender, and identity issues in the Old Testament, Asian American Interpretations of the Bible, and Wisdom Literature. She lives with her husband and son in Southern California.