Tag Archives: Japan

If You Follow Me, Would You Go?

Marina is adrift in her life. She runs from the numbness of her father’s suicide to Japan. She is in Shika, Japan for one year to be an English teacher. She thought she could escape her past, but in Japan her past found her.

In Malena Watrous’s If You Follow Me, she presents Marina, a young woman of 22 who follows her lover to Japan to teach English. In the book, the character references going to Japan because she wasn’t sure what else to do with her life. Marina is this raw, emotional character who leaps from the pages of the book and sucks in the reader.

Marina lives in Shika, an equivalence to rural Georgia, with Carolyn in a small disastrous flat that was occupied by American missionaries before them. The two inherit random junk from past inhabitants – including a monstrous refrigerator called an Amana that reeks of rotten beef. Among having to adjust to culture polar opposite to American culture, Marina receives almost daily letters from her supervisor Hiroshi Miyosh about their gomi, or trash. In Japan, there are very strict rules about the disposal of any type of trash. Only on certain days, certain parts of trash can be thrown away and must be placed in a special bin. Soon, Marina is convinced all of the neighbors watch her waiting for her to make a “gomi trash mistake”.

Soon, she begins teaching English at the local schools. She finds the students difficult to connect with because, at first, she only teaches the secretarial students. The students are all female, except for one male student Haruki, who locked himself in his room for four years. She tries creating worksheets to teach the students, but they are all disinterested. Frustrated, she tries to reach out to her Japanese colleagues to curb her loneliness, but she only feels isolation because of the language and culture gap.

Faced with more challenges, Marina begins teaching at the local elementary school that helps to find other people besides Carolyn. The art teacher allows her pupils to draw Marina while Marina gets to know the other students. Particularly, one Korean student who barely speaks Japanese attracts her attention because her inability to speak to the language. There is something about the girl Marina can’t shake – her loneliness, her connection to another foreigner or her inability to fit into Japanese society. Either way, Marina begins to really question why she went to Japan: Was it because of Carolyn? Was it her running from her dad’s suicide? Or was it something else?

At this point in the book, Marina really begins to ask herself what she is going to do with her future. After a shared kiss with her supervisor, she begins to doubt her relationship with Carolyn and the two begin drift apart. Marina flip-flops between teaching the elementary students and a class of teen-aged boys who work in the local power plant. They challenge her every day because no matter what lessons she presents in English the boys don’t care. They drove another female teacher from the school because they sexually harrassed her. After an interesting lesson about sexual education and a slip up with a banana, Marina realizes she must stop being timid and stand up for herself in a very loud way.

I skimmed a shelves of books looking for something new to read when this one leaped out. I looked at the back expecting to have another easy chick lit book to break up the endless science fiction novels I’ve been reading for a literature class. After getting 50 pages in, I couldn’t put the book down. There was something raw and clingy about Marina throughout the book. The “gomi trash” mistakes are a humorous part of the novel, but it was more about the themes of finding one’s self and the attraction of a foreign country. Marina is 22, and so am I. She turns 23 in the book and I am on the cusp of turning 23. Marina has an anxiety about the future and what she is going to do with the rest of her life, and so do I.

Watrous addresses the fear of being at a strange in between age that doesn’t seem to have much significance in American society. In one passage, Marina and Carolyn are talking about being 23. Carolyn begins, “At age 25 for some reason, lovers in Japan get together to eat sponge cake on Christmas Even. These sponge cakes go half off on December 25, when no one wants them anymore. At twenty-five, an unmarried woman is referred to as a Christmas cake.” Who wants to be known as a Christmas cake by the age of 25?!

I won’t ruin the ending for the readers, but it was refreshingly new and pleasant to read besides the umpteenth science fiction book.

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It’s all about the Girl and her Ramen obsession

After a really stressful week, I decided to browse Netflix’s recommendation list. One movie poster I noticed was for “The Ramen Girl” starring Brittany Murphy dressed in a kimono sitting in a very awkward position. This film has been rotating in my queue for quite a while, so I thought I would give it a shot. What’s with the name “Ramen Girl?” It has everything to do with the movie: Girl + Ramen.

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Before I get into the movie review, here’s a brief history of ramen noodles and the introduction of the dish into Japan.

Ramen (ラーメン, らーめん, 拉麺 ) is a Japanese noodle dish that originated in China. From the research I’ve done, there wasn’t an exact time period when this dish was introduced in Japan. Ramen is served in meat or fish-based broth flavored with miso or soy sauce. Some of the ingredients include kombu (kelp), katsuobushi (skipjack tuna flakes) niboshi (dried baby sardines), beef bones, shiitake mushrooms, onions and sometimes corn.

ramensoup

Ramen became increasingly popular in Japan during the early 20th century. In 1958 instant noodles was invented by Momofuku Ando, the Taiwanese-Japanese founder of Nissin Foods. There’s even a ramen museum in Yokohama called the Shin-Yokohama Ramen Museum. It’s used in the film as a place where Brittany Murphy’s love interest takes her. In Japan, high-end ramen restaurants are called izakayas (ramen-ya). These are popular places where there can be 10-20 seats at a bar or three tables.

ramen

“The Ramen Girl” is about, Abby, a spoiled American who rushes to live in Tokyo with her boyfriend. He leaves her alone in Tokyo because he’s a “traveller and he’s not feeling the relationship.” Not sure what to do next, Abby finds solace in a neighborhood ramen shop, unable to speak any Japanese. She works in a law firm as a copywriter and she is barely given any work to do. She sees the ramen shop as her sign to begin her long journey as a ramen chef.

She begs the old chef to train her, but he is not a delight to work with. He makes her clean everything, including the barely non-existent toilet in the restaurant. The two are complete opposites, which make for hilarious moments during the film. She stomps her feet and yells at him while he calls her an “idiotic girl” in Japanese. Eventually, she works her way up to learning how to make broth (boiled with a pig’s head) and chop ingredients.

abbyramen

Like all typical romantic comedies, Abby is not going to be left alone. She meets a Japanese-Korean businessman played by Sohee Park. He’s very attractive and helps play off some of the more ridiculous moments of the film.

I thought the film was worth watching and perfect for wanting something light. It’s very predictable, but what chick flicks aren’t? There were a few times when I wondered why the director included specific scenes in the film. For example, Abby is letting customers take sips of her ramen soup. She was told by the chef’s mother she needs to “feel the ramen” and to “let the spirit guide her.” (It sounds like something out of “Star Wars.”) Abby uses her sadness and tears as her spirit guide to making the perfect bowl of ramen. Everyone at the table begins to burst out in tears because one probably will never get married and an older woman is upset due to her husband not having sexual relations with her for 15 years. (That’s a bummer.) This entire scene seemed out-of-place and strange.

Overall, it was a very simplistic chick flick, but worth the watch. It’s funny to watch the chef yell at Abby in Japanese and her trying to cope with her minor linguistic skills. Personally, I’ve never been a fan of ramen because I’ve only had the instant noodles one can buy in the supermarket. After watching Brittany Murphy prepare it in the film, I’ll have to give it a second try.

♥ – Erin

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