Stranger in a Strange Land

Stranger in a Strange Land

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Film theorists differ on just how many story structures there are, but most will agree that there are not very many. Stand By Me (1986) and Y Tu Mamá También (2001) fall under the typical ‘coming of age’ structure, while Terminator 2 (1991) is the classic ‘overcoming the monster’ story. Oftentimes, movies will combine two or more ideas into a single film; Aliens (1986), for example, follows both the ‘overcoming the monster’ and ‘stranger in a strange land’ structures. Right now, I’m in somewhat of a ‘stranger in a strange land’ story.Traditionally, this story is one of change.

Rule #1: The hero is put in a new situation:

I moved to America.

Rule #2: He does not know the local rules or customs:

When asked the time the other day I said ‘half three’, which resulted in a number of curious head tilts. I had to clarify the time was ‘three thirty’.

Rule #3: The character spends the majority of the story getting accustomed to his new surroundings or circumstances:

O’Farrell is no longer my surname, it is now my last name. A4 paper is called 8.5 x 11 paper. And, at the end of a sentence, what I have always known as a full-stop is known here as a period.

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Last week, I introduced business consultant & author Tom Kelley, by means of a guest lecture he gave at Stanford. In that lecture he also talked about travel.

Think like a traveler. Whatever part of your brain is super active when you’re traveling, try to turn up that part of your brain all the time… If you can do that, you have a higher state of awareness than most people around you have, you will spot more opportunities.

—Tom Kelley

I’m fortunate in that I’ve traveled quite a bit, and differences like those I’ve noticed here are found everywhere: the coffee is served differently in Australia; the coins are hard to understand in Africa; and yes, in the higher altitude of the Alps, you will get drunk much quicker. However, in order to ‘think like a traveler’, you don’t need to journey to different geographical locations—like French novelist Marcel Proust said, ‘the real act of discovery consists not in finding new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.’

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Granted, I lived here last year for five months, but this time it’s different. Last time, it was temporary. This time, I’m in it for the long haul: I’ve opened an American bank account; received a social security number; and, more recently, I’ve gotten a shiny Illinois state ID. This time around, I thought I’d have the majority of Americanisms down, but apparently not.

Though generally the ‘stranger in a strange land’ story tends to finish with the hero learning in the end that the so-called strange land wasn’t that strange after all, I hope for an alternate ending. Frustrating as it can be having to clarify what I mean for every raised eyebrow or having to ask some of my fellow producers what they mean (happens a lot with four aliens in the class), I just need to remind myself that for as long as these cultural differences continue to surface, us producers are all forced to see things somewhat differently, to think like travelers. Not a bad thing at all.