I stood alone.
Well, not quite alone.
There were two cameramen and an entire crew behind me, but I wasn’t allowed to talk to them.
I was told to wait.
Well, no one said, “wait right here”. Rather, a man pointed at me, yelled some gibberish, and then pointed to the ground. Time to wait.
For what? For who? How long?
I had no idea.
I had already spent the last 24 hours being babysat by the producer of the show who spoke zero English.
But, now, the cameras were here.
I was ready.
I was waiting for the rest of the show to find me. I stood with a piece of paper with my name on it, “Gấu Cười”, which means “Smiling Bear”.
I remember seeing a few tourists walk passed me. Each one would give me an interesting glare, which was to be expected, but I didn’t talk to any of them.
Then, a cameraman and a group of Vietnamese people emerged.
HERE. WE. GO.
This show has been going on for seven years. There’s never been a foreigner on it, and I assume most people couldn’t even imagine having one. I don’t know anything about reality shows in the USA, so I can’t really compare, but let’s just say it was a big deal and I got a lot of attention.
Contrary to Vietnamese culture, I hugged everyone! I knew it wasn’t expected, but I was sure I could get away with it.
The other members were extremely nice to me, and I could tell they were excited. They all started asking me questions, but I could only understand a small percentage of what people were saying.
They each introduced themselves one at a time, but I couldn’t remember any of their names. So, I just smiled and did my best. The guys seemed gentle and nice, and the girls all looked cute.
We walked out as a group. Again, we passed by a few foreigners. This time, I really got some weird looks.
Imagine this on your trip in SE Asia: A white guy speaking the local language in a group with six others, plus three cameras and a film team following them.
I smiled and paid little attention to them. Little did I know, those would be the last white people I would see for weeks.
The other members chatted away and I tried to keep up. It didn’t matter that I couldn’t understand anything; it was still fun and exciting.
I was the cute four year-old cousin at a family reunion. I couldn’t understand what the “grown-ups” were talking about, but everyone liked me and tried to include me.
And then, there it was, “The Love Bus”. It was just as cheesy in real life as it was on TV.
We stopped for lunch, but I don’t remember understanding a single word.
I just sat there, looked around, smiled, and ate.
Then, I’d look around some more and try to listen, but I couldn’t understand a word. So, then I’d just smile.
Then eat more.
Repeat. Repeat. Repeat.
We got back on the bus and just drove out of the city. No one knew where we were going or what we were doing. Even if they did, they would have an extremely hard time explaining it to me. But, it was fun!
The bus was filled with energy. I got out my guitar and we sang. One of the guys played his wooden flute. We sang songs, we cheered, and we laughed. It was great. I tried to learn everyone’s name, but still failed to do so. I felt like I was back in summer camp. But, this time with a Vietnamese twist. And a lot of cameras!
We drove through the sunset and the bus grew silent. But, you could still feel the excitement. It was like those days where you get very little sleep, yet you’re still filled with energy. You know you should take a nap, but you can’t sleep and just want to stay awake. Then, eventually, your body catches up to you and you pass out harder than ever.
The bus stopped. “xuống đi!”.
I wasn’t sure what that meant, but everyone got off the bus, so I followed them.
“Finally, we’re at our hotel”, I thought.
Nope! Just dinner. This would not be the last time I would assume incorrectly.
During dinner, I struggled to keep up with the conversations. So, I just ate a lot. I kept going for meat and vegetables, but they forced me to eat rice instead.
Then, we got back on the bus and drove for another hour or so. We stopped and split up into teams to go searching for the cheapest hotel possible. I didn't really know what was going on so I just followed one of the groups.
After about 30 minutes, we found the cheapest hotel possible and checked in.
We had a group meeting with all the participants and the staff members. They discussed the rules, expectations, etc.
But, I didn’t understand anything, so...NONE OF THAT APPLIED TO ME!
I knew we weren’t supposed to keep any money, but I didn’t care. I kept a stash of $200 USD for emergency purposes. I promised my family I would come back alive.
I was getting tired of never understanding anything, but I was still excited to be there.
We were given our dairies. Every night we must write in it. We had to write about our thoughts, who we like, who we hate, and all that dramatic stuff.
The director pulled me aside to make sure everything was okay. This was a relief and made me feel safe. Up until then, I wasn’t really sure whom to believe.
I understand how TV works. I know the directors and producers want what’s best for the show, and not necessarily the token foreigner. But, this was the first sign that the director actually cared about me. And it was a great feeling.
After much debate, I finally handed him my passport.
With that, I said goodbye to the Jeremy Ginsburg I thought I knew and understood. A new personality, Gấu Cười (smiling bear). replaced him.
Nobody knew what Gấu Cười would be like, especially myself.
At this point, there was no turning back. They had my phone, my wallet, and my passport. I had no idea where I was, at least 6 hours from Hà Nội, the capital of Vietnam.
Every second was a challenge, but I was so excited that it didn’t matter.
I got a lot of attention. One of the guys had told me that he had never met a foreigner before and has been waiting his entire life to talk to one. Now, he was with me for at least the next 21 days.
Can you imagine?
But, before long, I wouldn’t be the ‘new’ and ‘cool' foreigner anymore.
I scribbled some notes in my diary and got ready for bed. I could barely write full sentences.
Translation: “Today was fun. I am happy. The girls are cute. Everyone is nice. I don’t understand. My Vietnamese not good. So tired. Write again tomorrow.”
That night, for the first time in my life, I shared a bed with a guy I didn’t know. We had no covers, no windows, and no air conditioning. I used a towel for my blanket and a shirt as a pillow. The bed was rock solid.
I couldn’t sleep. I lied in bed and allowed my thoughts to race.
Sooner or later, the excitement would wear off, and I’d be introduced to a whole new “reality”.
That’s the same question I was asking myself.
To be continued next week...
HERE'S EPISODE #1:
I'm adding English subtitles ASAP. Enter your e-mail below if you want to understand what you see!
Did you miss the first post of this blog series? Read it here.
See you next Tuesday as the story continues!
Any questions? Leave a comment!