Foreign Film Fridays 04: El Secreto De Sus Ojos

Over the holiday season, some people watch ‘The Grinch’. Others opt for a classier feel, such as ‘It’s A Wonderful Life’. And then there’s my family, where the holidays wouldn’t be the holidays without a murder mystery marathon on Christmas Day…

elsecretodesusojos

Original Title: El Secreto De Sus Ojos
AKA: The Secret In Their Eyes
Year: 2009
Country: Argentina & Spain
Language: Spanish
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 58min
Availability: Amazon FireStick

What would you do if your wife’s rapist and murderer walked free? Ultimately, this is the question the audience will be forced to answer by the time the credits roll.

Meet Benjamin Esposito, a tired-of-life, former judicial investigator, who opens the first scene with a futile attempt at writing a novel. He doesn’t know why he’s so haunted but he’s trying to put to rest a case that refuses to die by writing about it. It’s not his wife who was brutally raped then murdered, but we come to that in due time. No, Benjamin is simply one of the many people whose life became irrevocably caught up in the sordid affair. On the fateful day when a formerly unknown housewife died, Benjamin’s life would also change and it would take him decades to sort through the mess. It’s through his eyes that we see this gritty yet bittersweet story about the human condition play out on the international screen.

Thus by slow degrees the audience is acquainted with the horrific details of Liliana Coloto’s death and the final disappearing act of the main suspect through flashbacks as a more mature Benjamin approaches with fresh eyes. The modern investigations in the present, lead him to a renewed acquaintance with his former boss (who happens to be the unrequited love of his life), Irene Menendez Hastings. Together the crime fighting duo pick up where they left off a lifetime ago, though Irene is at first reluctant to involve herself yet again in the case that nearly broke them.

Through flashbacks we see a much younger Benjamin and his alcoholic (certainly, under-achieving) field partner, Pablo Sandoval, embark on a cross country journey to catch a killer. We watch the characters grow alongside the building horror of the improbable likelihood that they will ever catch their man, because after all, they have no substantial leads. Eventually, with time, Liliana’s case is shelved in the cold case files and duly forgotten. Then just when they’ve properly moved on emotionally and psychologically… they find their first real break. And that’s when all hell breaks loose.

Sadly, for the more Criminal Minds expository-loving variety of murder mystery fans, the complexities surrounding the murderer’s motivations are only very briefly explored. They are not defined in so many words, partly because in defining them we lose the key method of this film’s story telling: through the careful observation of characters’ expressions and the conclusions we make from the safety of our sofas. The film is by first impressions more emotional than cerebral, but only because it does not condescend or patronize the viewer. Your are part of the team, you’re as much in the dark as they are, and you will most certainly be able to solve both mysteries using your own little grey cells. If you dare.

However, what is important, and thoroughly discussed, is that no system of justice is perfect… the inevitable consequences of which leave an entire investigation team and a widowed husband reeling in the wake of an executive decision to let the killer walk free. The question posited to viewers then becomes, not how to best fix the system, but how far would (or should) a citizen be willing to go to see justice meted out correctly? In other terms, how selfless (or obsessed) of a human being are you willing to be? Or as JFK once put it so brilliantly: “Ask not what your country can do for you. Ask what you can do for your country.”

In case many of you are cursing the computer screen for this “spoiler”, it’s not so much a spoiler (since it comes early in the film) as it is merely the foundation for what comes next in the story. And that, my lovelies, I will leave to you to watch.

That being said, I add only this: the ending. Oh, the ending. I did not expect the ending. I saw all the clues and I entertained the idea for a millisecond of a millisecond before shaking it off as absolutely crazy, because honestly: No one would ever, ever do that, I thought to myself, innocently drinking my coconut juice on the couch. It’s just crazy.

Because it was crazy, the kind of crazy the belongs either to the truly morally righteous or the truly twisted and sadistic of this world… or as this film shows: to someone who embodies the best and the worst of both. I couldn’t – wouldn’t – have done it. I certainly don’t have the mental strength to do it, much less the conviction… And when I came to that final truth, it dawned on me that everything I thought I believed in (my convictions in regards to morality and ethics) were only true in the face of theory at a safe distance. Once this film asked me to practice them… I just couldn’t bring myself to do it. Because I am that selfish and I would have done the opposite, anything really, to keep from wasting what was left of my life on ‘justice’. Let’s just say that this film’s ending turned out to be quite the humbling experience. It empowers yet disenfranchises your right to self and humanity at the same time.

This much more I can say about “The Secret In Their Eyes”: that it is a strong film with a low budget but you won’t even care because the script is that good. The seventies are back, baby, and they’re better than how you remembered them… or imagined them (depending on your age). It’s a tale of life gone by too fast, of regrets, and of the tragedies of a broken system. It will speak to a certain generation. I thoroughly enjoyed hearing Spanish accented differently than how I was taught (contrary to popular belief: no, not all Spanish speaking countries have the same culture; yes, Spanish is the same language around the world with the pillars of grammar, its rules, etc., that are easily recognizable to all native Spanish speakers worldwide; no, the accents aren’t all the same (Americans don’t sound like UK citizens either so…); and no, the slang is not all the same because slang is a cultural phenomena).

There is (was? Will be?) an American remake of this film from what I’ve heard, which I haven’t yet seen but hope to get my hands on sometime soon. I’m not sure how much more or what else an American director can add to this already twisted story, but it’s going to take a lot (in my opinion) to impress because “The Secret In Their Eyes” is to film what “Gone Girl” did for literature.

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Foreign Film Fridays 03: The Fall (2006)

We are, all of us, the story and the storyteller. We are the villain and the hero of our own making. But what if the lines between fantasy and reality blurred until it became impossible to tell one from the other?

the-fall

Original Title: The Fall
Year: 2006
Country: India & USA
Language: English/Romanian
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 58min
Availability: Amazon

The Fall is a fantasy epic, filmed over the span of four years, with all the magical realism of a Gabriel Garcia Marquez novel and the visual beauty of a living, breathing art piece.  But more than just an artistic statement, this film grapples with emotionally charged themes that by no means make it a simple or lighthearted tale of redemption. If viewers are willing to take the plunge into the realm of moral ambiguity, this film more than delivers a masterful blend of philosophical inquiry and fantastical storytelling.

The two main protagonists are as disparate as human beings can be: the ever hopeful five-year-old Alexandria (Catinca Untaru) is no stranger to personal tragedy – already in her short life she has had to witness much pain and suffering – yet she maintains her childlike innocence in the face of all adversity; by comparison, her new found friend is a convalescing film star turned stuntman named Roy (Lee Pace). Roy is intent on ending his life by any means necessary… even if it means manipulating the one person who has come to care for him with all the love that a child’s heart can possess. Theirs is a fateful encounter that is as intense as it is brief. The Fall will leave you wanting more long after the credits roll.

The story-within-a-story device takes viewers to a neutral middle-ground wrought of fantasy and child-like imagination. It is only there that the two protagonists can engage in an allegorical discourse via mutual storytelling. With each day that passes, their dramatic tale grows until it blossoms into a beautiful secret that keeps each of them alive – but for different reasons. Roy, desperate to end his life, lives day-to-day just to accumulate the pills that Alexandria sneaks from the dispensary, which she in turn exchanges for more stories. All the while, she is unaware that her beloved storyteller is planning the final act of of his tale to end in a real life tragedy. The ending of this film is nothing short of sublime, passionate, and intriguing.

But perhaps the greatest triumph of The Fall is the palpable father-daughter chemistry between Catinca’s and Lee’s characters. More than the vivid cinematography or the intricate layering of reality upon fantasy upon reality, these two actors work surprisingly well together. They make the perfect bandit duo in their fantasy world and affectionate friends in the real world. Lee couldn’t have done better to portray himself as her fictional “long lost” bandit-masked father than if he really had been.

For those who have a hard time placing Roy’s actor, it is the one and only: the Lee Pace. With a face that not only blends fluidly from emotion to emotion but can also shift with ease on the gender spectrum, his acting skills are on a level that I have never before encountered. I didn’t realize how many films I had seen him in until I consulted The Google Machine for proof of his existence outside of Pushing Daisies. Apparently, I’d seen him in many, many films but had never realized. He looks like someone new each time, which I attribute more to his unique ability to assume entirely new sets of mannerisms for each of his characters than to a wardrobe department, although they did a stand up, ovation worthy job on The Hobbit for his character. I sincerely believe that he deserves any role he wants.

And not to be outdone by her incredibly talented cast member, Catinca is also quite the actress herself despite being so young. Perhaps it’s her inexperience and vitality that help her shine in such a heavy role. There are no pretenses. Even as she sobs for Lee Pace’s character to choose life over death, I am hard pressed to find a single moment when she is not 100% convincing. She is honest and raw, realistically so. Her childlike optimism and ingenuity have lent this film the perfect amount of innocence to counterbalance the darkness. And if you’re perceptive enough, you can see her growing up with the film: her height adjusting, her English skills improving, her affectionate bond with Lee developing on level within and -out of the role – all of it that much more endearing. The Fall was an excellent debut into the film industry for her, though I am rather sad to see that she has not secured many more roles since then. Maybe, that is for the better – seeing how so many child stars end up like Shia LaBeouf or Amanda Bynes.

The film is not without its gaffes but it is cleverly scripted so that viewers will gain fresh insight each time they re-watch to catch missed moments, segues, and facial expressions. In all, it is incredible in its scope and breadth of creativity. The melding of cultures, the subtle unfolding of its subplots, and the breathtaking candor with which it grasps a harsh and terrifying reality… if you have two hours to devote to this film, it will be well spent.

WARNING: Best watched not alone. This is not a film for the faint of heart as it requires significant courage to delve into the dark recesses of depression, outright manipulation, and suicide. Many reviewers who have scored this film poorly seem to be divided into two camps: the first being, the film is too dark and complex for them to follow on an emotional/intellectual level, and the second side can’t seem to understand the little girl’s broken English. In the first case, be assured that the film ends well even if it may not be the ending you had in mind; however, like all good art it will take you on an emotional, sensory adventure first. It will make you think (as well as feel) long and hard about certain issues. Those are not comfortable emotions or thoughts for many people to grapple with for 2 hours. I would say that it is as dark, if not darker than, Pan’s Labyrinth. Also, many of the scenes are stories that will rewrite themselves to reflect either Roy’s or Alexandria’s interpretation of the tale. If you fall into the category of the second case: there are subtitles available for those who are not auditory or who have trouble understanding Catinca’s charmingly accented English.

I put off watching this film for almost a year, mainly because a friend warned me that although it ended very well – on a good psychological point, she emphasized – this wasn’t the kind of film that anyone could watch without first being made to experience the emotional equivalent of a roller coaster ride. Normally, I’m all for art that sparks an inspirational revolution within the soul, mind, and heart; but something about the way she said it gave me pause for concern. She was right to warn me. I saw it for the first time with a group of friends who had mostly already seen it before. Everyone, except for myself and one other, were in the know about the story line and exactly how it would end… and they all passed me tissue after tissue, and eventually the whole damned box, as I devolved into a sobbing mess of humanity right along with the plot. Friends are the best.

Foreign Film Fridays 02: The First Grader

Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world. -Nelson Mandela

first_grader_ver4_xlg

Original Title: The 1st Grader
Year: 2010
Country: Kenya & UK
Language: English/Kikuyu
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 38 min
Availability: Putlocker

A beautifully poignant biographical film, The First Grader touches the soul in ways so few films can ever hope to. Based on the life of Kimani Maruge (who at the age of 84 decided to enroll in elementary school) and his first teacher Mrs. Jane Obinchu, the movie touches upon a myriad of human issues: the worth of life, the sacrifices we make to survive, and the importance of free universal education.

Set in a village far from the comforts of modern city life,  the story follows Maruge on his journey to pursue an education, particularly in his desire to learn to read and write, and also focuses on the struggles of rural teachers to provide quality education for 200 plus students. The story is given additional depth as it is broken between Maruge’s memories of his time as a Mau Mau rebel and the relatively peaceful man he has become in the present but who has yet to fully let go of the past.

There are many beautiful scenes of Kenya in this film, rich and vibrant, and give the story a beautiful backdrop for the cinematographically inclined. More than scenes, which are truly inspiring, it’s the characters that will stay with you long after the credits have finished rolling.

Maruge is the representation of Kenya’s crossroads in history: he is the everyday man with the weight of a terrible past hanging across his shoulders. He can’t even sharpen a pencil, much less hold it correctly, but his desire to become literate enough to read a letter from the government is all he needs to keep him going. Even as he is barred from elementary school in the village and forced to walk to the nearest adult school in the city, you root for him to win but it breaks your heart to watch him continually turned away from opportunities and especially when his own village turns against him. A man his age, or so he is often told, should be resting in peace in preparation for his final exit from life. Maruge, however, heartily disagrees… And it makes you truly wonder when was the last time you pursued your dreams with such passion and unabashed shamelessness, much less when was the last time you felt so fired up to learn.

By comparison, Mrs. Obinchu is the modern woman: brave, educated, and unafraid to carve a place for herself in the world, but also unencumbered by the past. She is from a poor family and has worked to the bone to become who she is. For these reasons she can see a bit of herself in Maruge and the two form a quick and steady friendship, despite the generation gap and the opposing political sides of their families during the rebellion. Young, full of idealism, and an intellectual to the end, Mrs. Obinchu does everything in her power to keep Maruge in school.

We are nothing if we cannot read. We’re useless. -The First Grader

The First Grader is a rare glimpse into a whole new world that is far and away from anything that anyone born in a first world country will probably ever know. One would expect it to be either a campy film, with one dimensional characters full of good cheer and ready to battle illiteracy, or a very deep and disturbing look at the politics of the conflict that led to Kenya’s independence. But in reality, the breadth of human emotion is expressed in each character and situation. Even the patient and good-natured Mrs. Obinchu has her melt downs when past tribal tensions force her to confront the choices of her family’s past and when she must fight for the right of her oldest and most motivated pupil to remain in her school. She is a veritable storm of sheer will and force. I can barely manage a room of thirty-five screaming seven-year-old children for six straight periods, let alone 200 students from all ages and educational backgrounds for a whole day. All the respects were given as I watched this and began to wish that every last one of my teachers had been a Mrs. Obinchu.

For those too afraid to watch a movie saturated with political and military undertones, this film is the perfect balance between serious and idealism without losing the weight of its message. We, who live in societies that have been long removed from the fight for survival and freedom, have a responsibility to the rest of humankind to help in any way that we can. It brings home the truth that one society’s treasure can be a public ally funded institution that is taken for granted by another.

The true story of Kimani Maruge is equally inspiring but ends quite sadly in 2009, when Mr. Maruge died of stomach cancer.

 

Foreign Film Fridays 01: Mostly Martha

Because what’s not to love about watching films on Fridays about foreign worlds? A weekly series of posts to follow on all sorts of films: thriller, romance, action, mystery, and just down right quirky from all countries and languages. If you have any suggestions, by all means leave a comment! I would love to receive suggestions for more foreign films. Opening this weekly series we have…

mostlymartha

Original Title: Bella Martha
Year: 2001
Country: Germany
Language: German
Subtitles: English
Length: 1hr 45 minutes
Availability: Netflix

The film begins with a mouth-watering, epicurean description of food as the eponymous protagonist details to her therapist how she would go about preparing the perfect full course meal. DISCLAIMER: DO NOT WATCH ON AN EMPTY STOMACH. I did and regretted it within the first two minutes.

The plot is deceptively simple: Martha is a single, German woman with a passion for cuisine who must learn to reorient her life around a new Italian coworker and to care for her orphan niece after the untimely death of her sister.  For those who have seen the American version, No Reservations (2007) with Catherine Zeta-Jones and Aaron Eckhart, the German original will breathe new life and understanding into its American counterpart.

But while similar in the main plot, No Reservations features an all Caucasian main cast, which in turn renders Mostly Martha‘s original secondary plots useless in the remaking. Other differences include the pacing of the film. American films tend to be fast-paced, segue easily and fluidly from one scene to the next, and stitch themselves together into a false sense of artistic perfection.  I say false because in the seamless move from main scene to main scene you miss the little scenes, the imperfect little fillers that give a film its realistic essence. By comparison, Mostly Martha is shot to give the viewer as much background context as possible about who Martha is and life around her. There are main scenes, not so main scenes, and fillers shots of the characters at their most candid. None of the romance or her flaws are romanticized or glossed over; the story reveals itself gradually at a natural pace. When Martha and Mario kiss, they don’t go at it calmly or at just-the-right angle, they simply have a go at kissing like most of us do, however awkward it may be to watch.

Also of note, our alliterative culinary artiste duo have all the tension and chemistry that two people from vastly different background can possess. From language and culture to the way in which they run their kitchens and the food the make – everything, except their shared love for the art of cooking, is different. As they learn how to bridge their differences through their commonalities and how to accept each other as they are, Martha’s and Mario’s characters grow. The secondary plot issues, palpable between German-born Martha and Italian Mario, revolve around race and who is an insider versus an outsider.This in turn makes his food that much more exotic to Martha, who has never once been to Italy and can only experience it through Mario’s cooking. Indeed, this film feels as much a discovery of culture and intercultural interactions as it is about the food and the romance.

Unfortunately, No Reservations also has no underlying current of bridging cultures and worlds through food. It’s feels more like two people who have a different administrative approach and can’t seem to see eye to eye on the running of a kitchen. While Catherine Zeta-Jones’ character prefers French cuisine and Aaron Eckhart’s cooks Italian, different culinary tastes do not an intrinsic cultural battle make. Also her descriptions of the food fall flat with her calm and quiet demeanor, where Martina Gedeck’s take flight through use of sensual intonation and passionate  verbal caresses. While I love and prefer the modern cinematography of No Reservations (and Catherine and Aaron do have chemistry), I would rate Mostly Martha as the better of the two films for its diversity and for being more than just a romantic caper between two chefs.

Both films are wonderful (yes, I went there) and worth watching… just not on an empty stomach! Bon appetit!

The English Menu, or Why I Am A Horrible Human Being…

theenglishmenu

“Hello. Welcome. Table for two.” A hand shows the number two visually.

“はい、二人です。”

We are seated. We reach for menus and peruse while the waiter waits, watches us silently for a few moments. We’ve started speaking only to each other, unaware that he is still there, and are taking our time pointing out options to each other. This is mistaken as ineptitude.

“English menu?” he helpfully materializes an English version of the laminate copy. Any other time, I would be grateful. But this is the fifth time at the same restaurant with the same waiter and it’s been a long, long day. I glance across the table where stormy eyes concur with unsaid words. I turn suddenly to the waiter.

“ああ、大丈夫。読める。” I make an attempt at informal Japanese to show I actually can speak informally as well. Dark eyes blink back, slightly confused but the English menu spirited away from sight. Believing, I have established all information we needed to continue with dinner, we peruse at our leisure. We speak of silly things and serious things, we laugh at inside jokes, pointing out delicious options.

Five minutes pass in this way, until the waiter returns with a pitcher of water in one hand and…

…the English menu in another.

My mind screams in horror long before I’ve caught up with it. The pitcher of water is set down and the English menu dropped on the table where it cannot be ignored. To my very core, I am frozen, a mixture of emotions.

Shock. Laughter. Confusion. Fury. Despair. I want to cry. I want to laugh. Mostly I want to have dinner for once in my life, with the full comprehension that I know what I’m doing with a Japanese menu in my hand. Powder and sparks and consuming kisses, iambic pentameter, the sound of the atom bomb tests, Beethoven’s explosive fifth symphony… I think in sound, I think primarily in music. It’s all going through my head at the speed of light and anger wins before the rest of the emotions can catch up.

That all takes a millisecond to process. A fraction of a breath. I bend over across the table laughing into the hard wood surface, my arms encircling my head because I’m afraid of what I may do if he’s still around when I look up. I wait until I’m absolutely sure he is no longer near us. I surface for air.

“That’s it. I’m going to order in keigo.”

“What. No.”

We “argue”, my dinner partner and I, bantering about how we shall order in absolutely perfect Japanese keigo (or not order in such a way until we leave for our road trip and know for a fact that our passive aggressive actions will never negatively impact us).

“No, you’re right that’s just too rude. But still. I really want to order in keigo.” Internally, I tell myself that I might just wear my Waseda sweat shirt next time I go in. A sweat shirt made for autumn weather worn in the middle of summer is sure to illicit some response. Any response to the fact that I may not speak like a native but I can very well order at a restaurant.

Once we are quite sure that we know what we will order, we push the magic button that calls our waiter over and I speed speak through my order to show I’m not going to stumble through the conversation, I even give an explanation for why I can’t eat rice (allergy) and if it would alright to substitute it for naan. It’s not perfect, because I did slip up that last bit of grammar but I made myself more than intelligible.

Sadly, this isn’t the first time. It’s a performance piece we repeat ad nauseum, at every restaurant, and it eventually takes its toll on your self-confidence as a JSL (Japanese as a Second Language) speaker. Deep down inside you may know you’ve done it right, you’ve grammar-ed and words-ed your way through the linguistic minefield of what may be the exact opposite of how your native tongue works, and yet you will be rejected by looks alone.

He walks away even more confused than before. A different waiter comes to deliver the food. I’m unsure whether it’s worked or not, but we’re getting curry one last time before Kimmy leaves so, the fruits of our labor will be made known to us then. I feel like a horrible human being, relishing in the satisfaction of having pulled passive aggression on anyone. There are not buts to that sentence. I let it stand as is.

A Beginner’s Guide to Engrish

How the Japanese adapt English: Step one, can it be shortened? Step two, can it be forced to conform to the rules of Japanese pronunciation? Step three, can it confuse native speakers of English?

Check. Check. Check. 😀

Some days I’m the teacher. More often than not I’m the student relearning English. Welcome to the world of teaching English in a foreign country and the many adventures that come along with the territory.

Pants (n.) – 1. In America: trousers; 2. In Japan: underwear

Basket (n.) – 1. In America: a container made of twigs, rushes, thin strips of wood, or other flexible material woven together; 2. In Japan: shortened form of ‘basketball’

Hamburg (n.) – 1. In English: a German city; In Japanese: fancy hamburger patty and sauce with side of vegetable, rice, and miso soup.

Ice (n.) – 1. In English: the solid form of water, produced by freezing; 2. In Japanese: shortened form of ‘ice cream’.

Sand (n.) – 1. In English: loose grains of weathered rocks, primarily made of quartz; 2. In Japanese: shortened form of ‘sandwich’. An Ice Sand is… you guessed it, an ice cream sandwich!

 

Adapting to a Foreign Country

Oh my. You’re in for quite a ride… and the best part: there is nothing you can do to prepare before hand. When a person makes the commitment to live and work/study in a foreign country for the long-term things can get a little crazy.

Here is the break down of the four stages of adapting to a foreign country:

Honeymoon Stage

Culture Shock Stage

recoverystage

Recovery Stage

Adaptation Stage

These four well-known stages also closely resemble the “7 Stages of Grief and Loss”. Why? I have no idea but the part that is hardest to get through is the culture shock/recovery stage transition which I would associate as rough equivalents with stages 1 and 3-6 of the “7 Stages of Grief and Loss”.

Unlike the previous post, which I tried to keep light-hearted and humorous, I will go into a little more detail here on the positive and negative effects of adapting WELL or BADLY to a foreign country. I will use Japan as an example because that’s the topsy-turvy world I had to adapt to within a year for my study abroad experience in Tokyo for the 2011 to 2012 school year.

What I noticed happened to a lot of us as soon as we hit the end of the “Honeymoon Stage” is that we would begin to sink into a form of “WHY JAPAN, WHY?!” attitude anytime something absolutely shocked us – age of consent for sex (13 years old for females compared to 18 for males nationwide with each region having the right to choose any age between 13-20), extremely broad police powers, gender roles, weird pornography laws on what Japanese considered ‘acceptable’ and what not, etc. However, no matter how many times you ask yourself this… fact of the matter remains that there is nothing you can do to change it. Culture is culture and the sooner you accept certain norms as just that, norms, the sooner you can break away from the infinite loop of shock.

Because Japan is primarily (98%) Japanese and even Tokyo has relatively few foreigners compared to other countries’ capitals, any and all foreigners in Japan will be stared at wherever they go. It’s highly uncomfortable and annoying to the extreme. There would be days where I’m sure more than a few of us wanted to shout, “Why are you looking at me as if I’ve sprouted a second head?!” Another example on adapting well to a culture is that we would solve this problem by giving them a BIG SMILE. Traditionally, although looking anyone straight in the eyes is considered rude in Japan so if you find yourself in a situation where constant staring is making you uncomfortable just give them a steady gaze AND add a nice smile. It gets the point across without being ‘direct’ about what you want them to stop doing and it’s positive reinforcement that foreigners are not scary.

Here are some other things you can do (that I tried out) in order to help facilitate the whole ordeal of staying abroad long term:

1. Keep up a routine. Mine went straight out the window as I tried to adapt to a whole new style of living with my first host family and I quickly discovered just how dangerous that can be to your mental and physical health. I went six months without having any set goals to accomplish (like I had back home) and these were often times very simple little things for me such as playing with the dogs, starting/finishing an art/writing project, researching something within my major, reading, etc.

Whether you’re in the dorms, your own apartment, or in a host family, first set up some ground rules for yourself: the most important of which will be to not put yourself second or third. Your well-being is your first priority and if that means spending an entire day raiding the arts and craft shops in the Tokyu Hands building in Shinjuku then so be it. Just make sure you’re responsible about it and know when to put other situations above your immediate (not overall though) needs.

2. Eat your favorite foods. Okay so you’re on a tight budget and you’ve been rationing out the lunch money pretty carefully but one day you will pass by the super market window and it’s going to be there in all its glory: a dinky little 12 oz bin of extra chunky peanut butter. So long as you don’t go out of budget every single day it isn’t bad to treat yourself once a semester to something you really, really enjoyed back home but can’t have now because of the expense. I remember my first peanut butter and banana sandwich that I allowed myself to finally have back in December… I cried tears of joy… even though I used to hate bananas like they were the plague because I had to eat them all the time as a teenager (prone to leg cramps + member of swim team = fail)

3. Watch TV from your home country. No seriously. You’re already watching television shows from your host country. You’re also listening to their music, getting pummeled day past day with their entertainment media, advertisements, etc. and in the process you are losing touch with what’s going on in the other side of the world. One episode a night just before I went to bed is the route I took on the nights I wasn’t busy piecing together some essay or research project. Which is a big step for me if you know me at all (I do not watch TV or movies all that often).

I remember having skype sessions with my family and they would be talking about “so-and-so” movie just came out, “this-and-that” television show, “Senator Blah-Blah-Blah-Blarg-Blarg got re-elected” and I felt like a tiny little island in a wasteland of AKB48 and Prime Minsterialships gone wrong, unable to relate to anything my own family was talking about at all and vice-versa on their end as well.

4. And finally make lots of friends within your host and home culture. They’re the ones who will be able to best explain the new culture and will facilitate your transition while those from your home culture will keep your sanity grounded when it all becomes too much culture shock. They’ll also be going through similar experiences and often times sharing those with another person can make the experience that much more positive rather than negative because there will be lots of comedy involved.