I'm back in New York for April, and am experiencing the full throttle of "home" confusion. Familiar to any international student or diplomat children, I'm asking all the usual questions... Have I gone back home? Or do I have a new home? Where do I belong? But as my lovely friend Hannah Owens once said, I'm confused about my earthly home, but not my eternal one. But maybe my various earthly homes have something to say about the eternal one. In fact, I've been thinking a lot about why I love city-life, so here are some things that living in cities (both New York and London) have taught me about Heaven. In fear for making any specific theological claims about what Heaven physically (or spiritually is), I'll give you my basic thoughts and leave a lot open for interpretation.
One: Humans were created to live in community
As I get ready to leave my house for the day, I close the door behind me and am met with scenes from my childhood. I see me and my block friends, young and full of energy, running through the street to catch a baseball, riding our bicycles with one of the girls enforcing traffic, towering umbrellas over each other in the rain for a tent safe from the storm. Across the street from my house, a group of middle-aged men and women sit on one of the porches, drinking beer around a small barbecue. They’re loud, but we don’t mind. Their volume enables our own. The teenagers are walking down the block, on their way to practice for their Green Day cover band. My older brother walks to the end of the block to visit Angie and Rose, an elderly pair of sisters with whom he had become close.
I step out onto the sidewalk and walk to Metropolitan Avenue, the main street in this New York neighborhood that stretches across Brooklyn and Queens. I have my earbuds in (listening to some rockin' Chance the Rapper) but keep having to take them out when someone greets me with a hello. My friend Lisa’s dad Richard, he knows everyone in town. He’s surprised to see me, I guess Lisa didn’t tell him I was back for Easter. We have a short conversation, he updates me on the situation of the Queens’ drivers getting increasingly crazy, tells me to be careful on my way to the subway. I nod smiling, and continue my way. I barely have time to put back in my earbuds before I get a quick shout from the UPS driver. He pulls up next to me and drives slowly (annoying the other drivers on this busy road). Roland has been our UPS delivery guy for the longest time. He’s lived in New York for over a decade but still retains a strong German accent. He’s heard I went to Berlin while studying in England. He asks me how I liked it, asks me if I speak German now, and tells me to learn it if I can (will do Roland :) ). The drivers behind him are getting upset now, so he lets me along on my way. I’ll surely see him tomorrow when he delivers our amazon packages.
People have this picture of a busy New York. Surely it’s too busy and crowded to know anyone. People move here and leave with the impression that it’s a lonely place, but that’s mostly because they’re moving into a new place they didn’t grow up in. The real New York, or at least the one I grew up in, is basically a collection of real people in real neighbourhoods. People who are living densely on each other’s doorsteps. We know all of our neighbours for good or for worse. The walls are thin, if someone has a fight, we all know. This isn’t the hidden, private life of the suburbs, or even that perhaps of the Upper East Side. It’s real people living together, with access to people of all ages and backgrounds, living life together.
I live in a neighborhood, not a house. My room is where I sleep, but we play outside. Central Park is the backyard for everyone and the Greek diner down the road is the dining room. My life is not my own, and although I retain a lot of my own self and individuality, that individuality seeks ultimately to enhance the community around me. There’s a picture in a block party- all of our different interests and gifts coming together for something more. One family does a presentation in Mixed Martial Arts, another shows everyone how to salsa dance. The Green Day cover band does a live concert, the 5th graders show everyone how to do the East Coast Swing.
"In that way, the parts of the body will not takes sides. All of them will take care of one another. If one part suffers, every part suffers with it. If one part is honoured, every part shares in its joy. You are the body of Christ. Each one of you is a part of it." - 1 Corinthians 12:25-27
Two: Culture flows naturally out of creation
The first time recently 18-year old friend Katie ordered a beer, we went to Wetherspoons (of course we did). If you don't live in England, Wetherspoons (or just Spoons) is a chain of pubs throughout the country known for being relatively inexpensive. As we walked in, it was about 4pm on a Tuesday afternoon. I looked around. Gathered around tables were businessmen and construction worker alike; brokers on their break and students doing revision for exams. Everyone comes to the pub for a beer at the end of a hard day of work.
Art movements and ideological revolution alike all started in a similar place. This is where ideas flourish, this is where art is made. At the queue for the bar, everyone becomes equal in the fair exchange of ideas. It's where you can put forth your ideas, wait for someone to argue with them, and start cultural revolutions.
It doesn't matter where you live, humans were created to create. That creation will naturally come out no matter rural, suburb, or urban life. But there's something to be said for a group of densely populated individuals that creates an environment for the exchange of ideas and influence of people to become something greater than a Tuesday afternoon. In moments of communion, we realise what makes our minds different than the person next to us. We can build off each other and see what is missing from life. And we can create it, for the glory of something greater than our own selves.
"For we are God's handiwork, created in Christ Jesus to do good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do." - Ephesians 2:10 (NIV)
Three: The Good things of this life are only a small picture of the one to Come
But, I’m reminded that as much as I loved my childhood in New York and as much as I cherish my time in London, this life we live in and thus the cities we live in are inherently flawed. This isn't hard to see, so I'll keep the illustration short. Walking around New York or London can really feel like a Tale of Two Cities. Next to big buildings of enterprise, the homeless hope for enough for a place to stay for the night. You can walk from the Google Building to the Bowery Mission. On the streets of the Strand, the hungry line up for groceries near the embassy. If the idea of a perfect city is one where everyone is taken care of, we have failed, and I think we know this.
But in the good news of Christ is the knowledge and assurance that this life is only a small part of eternity. All of the good things of this life are merely shadows of the one to come; so we can look at Queens neighbourhoods and London pubs and rejoice in what they show about God and his Kingdom, but all of those earthly institutions are at least in part, corrupted by the greed and selfishness of man. The British broker may not listen to what the construction worker has to say, and as much as block parties are fun, the next day I still might hear neighbours fight through the thin walls of our home. Cities are great. But the Kingdom of God is a place the mind can only dream of.
Heaven is going to be awesome. There will be people living in wondrous community. There will be art being made and a continuation of perfect culture. But the most amazing thing about Heaven will be that we get to live in the presence of God himself, in his perfect loving kindness and grace.
"Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and there was no longer any sea. I saw the Holy City, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, "Look, God's dwelling place is now among the people, and he will dwell with them. They will be his people, and God himself will be with them and be their God. He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away."" - Revelations 21:1-4
For further reading:
Sidewalks in the Kingdom (Eric Jacobsen)
Culture Care: Reconnecting with Beauty for Our Common Life (Makoto Fujimura)
The Book of Revelation (The Bible LOL)
"Oh, you're from New York? You must be LOVING the tube!"
The amount of times I've heard this in the month that I've been living in London is unbelievable. And most of the time from Californians (might I remind them, L.A. barely has a transportation system, but I digress).
But is there any truth to it? In a battle of metro/subway systems, who comes out on top?
Here's my hot take.
*A quick sidenote, this has to do all with the actual experience of taking the train, rather than an analysis of the routes and effectiveness of the system. If you're looking for that, I'm sure it's somewhere online with loads of statistics.
1. The Tube has a shorter learning curve once you're underground.
I've lived in New York City for most of my life, and I still sometimes don't know where I'm supposed to go. But the Tube's signage is outstanding- there's always information for where each line takes you as you're waiting for the train, always signs telling you the "way out," where to catch another line, etc. There's the ease of contactless payment that avoids the awkward watching-tourists-swipe-twelve-times-in-a-row thing, and the speakers even tell you what side of the train (left/right) the next station will be on! (Although counterpoint, transfers may take longer because of the extensive corridors you may have to go through.)
That being said, the tube better have good signage, because
2. The Tube doesn't have Wifi or service in most stations and that is FRUSTRATING.
It's the 21st Century. We are more than capable in creating underground service. And yet, in London, unless you're on a line that operates in stations above ground, you probably won't ever have service.
Now, service on the subway in NYC is spotty and not perfect, but in recent years, I've had the assurance that at some point on my train ride, I'll have service at various points. So, I'm not usually stressed out about how to get to where I'm going because I can look it up again once I get closer. Ah, the wonders of Citimapper alerting me to get up before my stop.
3. They're both? Kind of? Gross?
The key point that most of these aforementioned people have queue'ed me in on, was that the subway is disgusting. I can't fully argue with this. Although I think Europeans take the pizza rat meme too seriously, there's a point to the image of a hairy rodent sliming along the stairway of a global cities' streets.
That having been said, the Tube isn't so great either. I will say, generally, I've found the NYC traincars to be cleaner. Most of them are fairly new, and made out of metal/plastic, which is easily cleaned. On the other hand, the tube's trains really depend on which line you're on. The Circle and District Lines are pretty clean, while the Picadally and Jubilee Line sort of break down. They're also pretty cramped and have fabric-lined seats, which I can't imagine are harsh to incoming germs in the area.
On the other hand, the tube's stations are much cleaner. It also depends where you are in London, but I haven't witnessed anything close to the unadulterated stench of the Lexington Avenue and 53rd street station.
4. The Subway is such a cultural experience.
There's a simultaineous annoyance and endurance about the street performers who enter the trains. I usually roll my eyes at the dancers flinging themselves over the metal bars, but there's a few singing groups on the F train I really appreciate and even take off my ear buds for. I've seen a few performers in the stations of London, but nothing close to the amount of performers in the NYC subway. Entering Union Square will surely have you in awe at the level of talent that is so clearly apparant in this city.
Some of you may see this as a negative, but I love it. Point to NYC for me.
5. The Subway is FLOODED with delays.
You knew this. I knew this. Bill DeBlasio knows this (or has at least, been told). And yes, the Brits seem to be on strike every few days, which causes more crowds on the working trains, but that only turns into a slighly longer commute than usual. One time in New York delays turned a 20 minute journey into an hour one. That's miserable (I'm looking at you, 1 train).
So, which one's better?
In terms of getting you where you need to go, I might have to go with the Tube. It's seemingly more reliable and gets the job done. (I'm not even including double decker buses in this analysis, those are really where it's at, excitement-wise).
But NYC is my home, and there's a certain weight of culture and iconicity that would seem to boost up the subway's rep. If you're in for an experience, the subway's music and access to wifi might be a better option
So, I guess the anwer is it depends. Do you prize a metro-system for its effectiveness or its other more 'fun' qualities. Or do you just care about how clean it is? In that case, which one is 'less-worse' may actually be a better question.
And here's an extra flick of me on the subway with my bestie just for fun.
Across the United States, I hear choirs of juniors and seniors (maybe even a few anxious sophomores) groaning in union about the dreaded college process. Between SATs that seem to determine the future, college essays that seem to make no sense, and trauamtic stories about perfect 4.0, 1600 students getting rejected by Harvard or Stanford, the country seems united under their preparatory grief. How did I avoid the anxiety? I turned on my laptop and hopped across the pond.
Granted, this is an over simplified explanation of what actually happened when I decided to apply to university (Brits don't say college to speak about undergraduate years) in the UK. Any process includes a certain amount of stress and applying to Oxbridge (the term used to designate Oxford and Cambridge) brings with it an added layer of stress. But, having applied to schools both in the US and the UK, I feel as if I have a pretty solid understanding of the differences between the two, and possibly which one is better (read until the end to find out).
1. Everything's a lot more transparent.
In the US, it has become pretty commonplace to hear of a student with extremely high grades and SAT scores to get rejected from an elite school or for a mediocre student with insignificant grades to get wholeheartedly accepted. This is because of the focus most schools have on a so-called "wholistic application." In theory, this means admissions officers consider not only your grades, but also all of the context surrounding them, including your family background, extra-curriculars, common app essay, supplemental essays, and more. This sounds great! Even if you don't have the best grades, it is possible that the rest of your application could make up for that!
In practice, however, I believe it causes a lot of unnecessary stress for students. In the UK (and most of Europe, I believe), universities publish the scores a student must get in order to be considered for their program. Students are encouraged to only apply to universities within the range of the grades they accept and the grades (or predicted scores) they have received. (I should note that there is still a way for students from underprivileged schools to be viewed in the context of their school, just like in America). When I applied to 5 British universities, I had strong confidence I would get accepted into 4 out of 5 of them because my scores were at the level or greater than the ones called for in that particular university (the 5th was Oxford, which has a more complicated process). When looking at my American list, I could only say with confidence that I would make two of the schools, even though the range of my scores fit into the 'averages' of many of the other schools as well.
Furthermore, I believe the wholistic process leaves opportunity for more individual prejudice in the application process. A friend told me a story of how a Stanford student found out they only got accepted because they mentioned a book that was a favorite of the particular admissions officer that read their college essay. That's terrific for that student, but I think of how the wholistic process can easily become an excuse in the opposite direction to accept a student based on their beliefs, convictions, or trivial interests on the premise that they did not have a good 'wholistic' application.
2. You have to know what you want.
On the UCAS application form, you can only apply to 5 schools in the UK. You also have to apply for a certain degree (such as "Asian Studies" or "Mathematics") and have some level of interest and experience demonstrated in that particular field. This is in stark contrast to the American process which doesn't require you to pick a major until often your second year of school unless attempting to be in specialized departments like engineering. Some schools ask for your intended majors, but you are not accepted based on your fulfillment of experience for those majors.
This is a controversial point of divide. For students like me, who have known for a long time what they wanted to study, the British system is favorable, since I can be awarded for my focused time reading and creating with respect to that particular course. Most American students, however, have not been trained to choose an area of study in their high school careers and thus would not be ready to switch to a system where they could only study one subject. British students have an advantage here, since they have selected only three or four subjects to study during 6th form (the last two years of high school).
3. You may not have to decide now.
From my experience in the US, the term 'gap year' is usually saved for the children of wealthy parents who choose to defer their enrollment and travel the world and find themselves. In the UK, gap years are much more common. Although university enrollment is looked favorably upon, many students know ahead of time they are going to take a year for a particular program or internship or even to work in order to pay for university tuition. Many students even take a few extra years to retake A Level exams until they receive the scores they need to attend a particular university. I haven't seen much of this in America. Even though tuition is extraordinarily higher in the US, most students are encouraged to enter right into college and use a combination of working during the four years and private loans to make up the difference. I'm not sure which system is better since I have only experienced one, but I do think this is something worth considering.
So, which system is better? Should you drop your star-spangled flags now, exit chrome without saving your Common App, and book the next flight to Great Britain? Or should you keep chanting, buy more SAT prep books, and find the best moment to define your life for your college essay?
I would perhaps suggest neither. Both systems have their pros and cons, and much of it depends entirely on the student. However, I do highly recommend Americans (and Brits for that matter) take some time to look at the other system and see if it might be the right fit. Applying to 5 schools on the UCAS form only costs about $30 after all, which is less than half of the cost to apply to just Harvard. After all, this is a big life decision, and you might as well have some extra biscuits on the platter to choose from. (That was my attempt at a metaphor).
If you like this kind of blog post, let me know! I'm extremely interested in comparing different cultures and systems and may soon have the opportunity to do more of it. :)