Almost 4 years have passed since the surreal whirlwind of being on a reality TV show, traveling to developing countries around the world and contributing a small helping hand to a wide array of humanitarian projects. While I was naked in the shower (so many good things happen when you’re naked in the shower), I realized I never really took the time to reflect on it holistically – especially after traveling on my own in some of the same areas. So, here goes.
In late 2011, I sent a written response to a casting call reminiscent of my college essays, ranging from my passions, my views on the world, my taste in music, my volunteer experience, and many more nitty-gritty details of my persona. I was newly funemployed after quitting my job, so I felt like I had nothing to lose even if I got rejected, and an amazing opportunity if I was accepted.
To my surprise, I got called into an interview at a casting agency in Beverly Hills, decked out with framed posters of other reality TV shows that I’d never watched before in my life. I sat in a room with a camera pointed at my face, and answered tons of intimate questions for what felt like years. I was sweating balls. (They said I lit up when I talked about dance and ACA, which I’m sure will be the case for the rest of my life. I did an arm wave for them on camera.) My interviewer and everyone else there was super nice and incredibly warm.
To my further surprise, I got called back for a larger interview at a swank hotel, also in Beverly Hills. I waited anxiously and uncomfortably in a (cold) room filled with at least 20 beautiful twenty-somethings who I was presumably vying for a spot with, and we weren’t allowed to talk to one another as we filled out another questionaire. They called us in one by one, and as my turn approached, I peeked into the room and realized there’d be an interview panel of 10-15 decision makers, producers, directors, and other VIPs. I shit my pants a bit. When it actually came time, my nerves and digestive system calmed down a bit, and I answered questions naturally. I felt like up til that point in time, my passions, personality, and interests had aligned with what I thought they might be looking for, but I was still not really expecting to get in.
I didn’t get in. The end. JK. I got in. I shit my pants again.
What followed was a frantic 2 week period to get all my shit together to leave the country. Shit got real, real quick. Strangely, I sat in a preparation meeting with what I figured would be my other castmates, but we weren’t allowed to talk to each other until we landed at our first destination: Haiti. I had never left the US before, so I rushed to get poked with needles and to get my passport and what not. I researched the shit out of Haiti and all the diseases I thought I might get, and my parents were legitimately angry that I would throw myself in the way of potential danger like going to Haiti. (Even though I’d only be gone for a week, my girlfriend and closest friends threw me a going-away party. My girlfriend cleverly made a reversible banner with “S-E-E-Y-O-U-S-O-O-N-!” on one side and “W-E-L-C-O-M-E-B-A-C-K” on the other. SHE’S A KEEPER.) For the longest time I was in semi-denial, wondering if it was too good to be true that people would pay you to travel around the world, imagining that some conniving thieves just made off with my social security number and framed me for murder. But, as soon as I boarded the shoddy 20 passenger plane headed to Haiti, the dream began.
For someone who had never traveled outside of the cushy American suburb-ubble before, Haiti was fucking intense for me. That’s an understatement. My bubble exploded immediately. It was SUCH a cultureshock even just driving from the airport to our hotel (which had a motorized gate and armed soldiers out front), having all five of your senses fully saturated and immersed in processing in a different culture. Bumpy roads, bustling marketplaces, lush green landscapes, vividly colorful pickup truck taxis (tuk-tuks) overpacked with 15 passengers, earthquake ruins, acres of tent slums and displaced families, the absence of western-style advertisements, fear, awe, wonder, a completely unique and beautiful way of life.
(I actually wailed and cried my eyes out after talking with a man outside of his 7×7′ tent home in the slums of Port au Prince, Haiti. After his house was rocked by the 2010 earthquakes, his new home is the size of my Camry. He couldn’t afford to send his two precious kids to school, which is something like $50 USD per year. For a million reasons, my empathy and sympathy overflowed in the form of gallons of tears as I wept in a corner, on camera.)
I finally got to talk to the rest of the cast, who all turned out to be eclectic and endearing. As it turns out, the production crew wanted to delay the bonding between us until they could capture it on camera, but it essentially happened immediately. Inevitable, especially when you’re stuck together in a van, driving for hours through foreign countries. Off-camera, we spent hours upon hours sharing stories, ambitions, insecurities, brainstorming group tattoos, churning out inside jokes, missing our significant others. It definitely wasn’t the stereotypical drama-ridden cast that I thought it might be, and I was thankful to be stuck with such an awesome group of people 24/7 (While I am pretty bad at keeping in touch, the people I got to share such a wild experience with have been cemented into aspecial place in my heart.)
When it came time to film, I was continually amazed at the grand scale of orchestration, at how much time and money went into every millisecond of the final product. We were all equipped with wireless microphones pinned under our clothes, and each of us had at least one guy dedicated to making sure our audio was sound (haha pun). Each cast member also had at least one camera guy following us around all day with a heavy ass shoulder-mounted camera, each with assistant camera men/women following THEM around making sure they didn’t fall or get impaled. Teams of people flew into each country weeks prior to coordinate everything on the ground before we arrived, from translators to visas to hotels to shooting locations to transportation to food. We were occasionally filmed by camera men whizzing above in helicopters. They even brought actual printers (!) to make sure that everyone had physical schedules every day. We had a cast “mom” who made sure our every need was met the whole entire time. Hundreds of people (many of whom I never saw physically) made it all possible. The crew assembled was astounding and must have been some of the best in the industry – we found out a lot of them film NBA games, National Geographic/PBS documentaries, the first Real World series, and other crazy shit. It was inspiring being introduced to an ecosystem of experts who make a living pursuing their creative passions – definitely off the beaten path for someone who comes from a cookie-cutter Asian family, graduating with a cookie-cutter Engineering degree.
(During a scene where we were weaving through the chaotic highways of New Delhi, India, one of our camera-women hung most of her body out of her window with her heavy ass camera in hand, risking her badass life and badass equipment to record our car ride. Badass.)
We witnessed and worked on an insane amount of projects in many different countries. We helped built solar-powered wells for people who otherwise walked hours miles to fetch their water for the day. We helped assemble portable toilets with privacy for people who otherwise risked stepping in disease in order to pee. We helped outfit a mobile school (on a bus) children could learn in areas without schools. We helped plant trees and crops, and built a silkworm farm so women could eventually make scarves and a living. We helped people fit donated hearing aids and got to witness people lose their shit (in happiness) after being able to hear for the first time in their lives.
However, I can wholeheartedly say that I personally did not solve any of the world’s major problems or end AIDS or poverty or sanitation issues, nor did I expect to. Personally spending only a few days is nowhere near the requisite time to sustainably address major underlying issues and inadequate infrastructure, but in the very least I got to help out and spread some smiles. Even some Peace Corps volunteers, who spend upwards of 1-2 years in the field, feel like they could still do more. For me, it was much more important to be able to help share the stories of the great people who are collaborating around the world to affect positive change, and to show that even despite the most arduous challenges, there are resilient, entrepreneurial people everywhere who aren’t just waiting to be saved. In my opinion, although the story occasionally dipped into self-promotional rhetoric with celebrity cameos and white-savior-y clichés, I think the show does an outstanding job at bringing attention to parts and problems of the world that would otherwise go less noticed, and to highlight how we can help the many high-impact organizations and people who are affecting change in the world.
Aside from the amazing locals and philanthropists that we met, filming in itself was a bit awkward at times. I’m sure due to the nature and requirements of having everything set up correctly to be filmed, there were many hours where we’d just be waiting around while there was actual volunteer work to be done and hands to be helped. Even though it was “reality”, there was an overall pre-arranged structure to the events, meetings, and conversations that panned out each day. Basically the whole time, I felt like everyone was in on a bunch of secrets that they couldn’t disclose (because they needed to capture my raw unprocessed reactions on camera). When you see people naturally enter a room and introduce themselves to each other on TV, they’ve probably already met and there’s already crew and cameras rolling from various angles in the room. When you see people on TV sharing their thoughts as the events are happening, they’re probably being interviewed about it hours or days later, but their responses have to be in the present-tense to be overlayed as a narrative to things that are currently happening on screen. There’s nothing wrong with this as I’m sure it’s all necessary to get the shots that they’ve spent loads of money and time preparing for, and doesn’t subtract from its epic proportions. I eventually got used to it, but it just felt awkward at first. Not to say that everything is fake, because there were DEFINITELY genuine and spontaneous moments.
All in all, over the course of a few months, I got the mindblowing chance to travel to Haiti, Madagascar, India, Mauritius, and South Africa (in that order). Some of which are places I probably otherwise would never have ventured in my life. We were in each country for about a week at a time, and we flew home everytime before we switched countries. In January 2012, after the South Africa leg, a few cast members and I individually got a very abrupt call from a lawyer saying that we were no longer a part of the show and offered no explanation whatsoever during the call or thereafter from the producers. It was a huge surprise – it’s not like the show was set up so that whoever planted the least amount of trees was kicked off or some shit like that. I was in shock. I was so dumbfounded, I actually replied to the lawyer “oh, okay” because no words came to mind quickly enough. We were all pretty hurt in the aftermath, and even though I’ve longgg since made peace with it, it was a pretty fucked up way of letting us go even if the reasons had nothing to do with us as cast members. Showbiz I ‘spose. I THOUGHT WE WAS FRIENDS! No but seriously I thought we were friends haha.
We actually all reunited at a launch party at a swanky rooftop bar in Beverly Hills a few months after they wrapped up all the post-production. It was fun to get drunk with old faces and friends again, as we did after we wrapped up filming in every country. Definitely a change of scenery to see everyone in a more luxurious environment. (It was also kinda weird but fun to talk to the post-production crew who already somewhat knows you after spending hours upon hours reviewing close-up footage of you.)
Though I never personally aired on TV (I think I might actually be in the background of a few shots), overall I’m VERY grateful to have had the experience and also grateful that things worked out the way they did. I would not change a thing. My career essentially picked up right where I left off, except I came back with a whole new set of eyes (shoutout to Marcel Proust: “The real voyage of discovery lies not in seeking new lands but in having new eyes.”) I think no matter how great of a job the producers/editors/camera crew/etc would have done portraying me on screen, I still would have been embarrassed no matter what if my face was actually shown front and center on TV. I think I’d probably prefer to share my story / leave my mark on the world in my own way anyway.
Having gone back to some of the same places (like India), it’s definitely different from traveling on your own, away the insulation of a team that figures out everything in advance for you and having cameras that follow you around everywhere. At least for me, it kinda forces you to internalize your experiences much more quickly, to process it in a way that will sound suitable on camera. Still, the experience remains surreal after all these years. I will never forget the people we met and the stories we experienced. There are incredibly wonderful, ambitious, resilient people in every corner of the planet. As dire and grueling as some living conditions are made out to be by the media, you will absolutely find people who are still happy and laughing. (It’s like the study where people who win multimillion lotto prizes are equally as happy as they were before they won – but on the reverse end of the spectrum.) It’s not to say that there aren’t real problems that need to be addressed, but it definitely made my world feel a lot smaller to see that everyone experiences the same core emotions regardless of status or skin or situation.
If you got to this point, sorry for the long read haha. I hope it was as pleasant to read as it was for me to relive. If anyone from the show happens to be reading, THANK YOU so much for making it all happen! Truly a life-changing experience.