Last week, I came very close to becoming a movie star. My friend Nguyet sent me an email asking me to star in a film called “Life Under the Vinh Moc Tunnels.” I have always thought it would be cool to be famous, so I said yes. A few days later, I rode my bike down the mountain, through the rice patties and into the city. I arrived a day before the casting interview so I could take it all in, and spent the day in my hotel room watching the Office and meditating on John Krasinski.
After a dreamy eight hours and a hearty rice and fish breakfast, I straddled my bike and throttled away to 252 Huong Vong Street; all confidence, no nerves. Coincidentally, there are two different “252 Huong Vong Streets” in the city. I think the tricky Vietnamese government thought it would be a funny way to confuse tourists. Fortunately, a sympathetic little Vietnamese women sensed my confusion as I walked into her physical therapy center expecting a casting studio. She shouted some Vietnamese, pointed, grunted, and flailed her arms. I said I understood and thanked her.
They say that ninety percent of communication is non-verbal, which is pretty cool. But as I sped back across town, fifteen minutes late to my interview, all I could think about was blowing my one chance at stardom.
I think the acting gods were looking out for me, because Rebekah from Canada was still in her interview when I arrived at the real 252 Huong Vong Street. While I waited, one of the assistants, an English speaker named Nga, briefed me on the details. The movie was to be aired on state television, meaning there would be tens of millions of viewers. I’m not sure why they needed a westerner. It could be because they think white people are beautiful, or maybe the producers wanted comedic relief in the form of a giant, confused foreigner bumbling behind the graceful Vietnamese protagonists. Regardless, the premise was simple: three people were to live in the Vinh Moc Tunnels for one week straight. Every discussion, bathroom break, and minute of sleep would be filmed. Food would be provided. Two of the actors would be Vietnamese, the third would be from the West.
This is when I got really excited. You see, the Vinh Moc tunnels wouldn’t even exist if it weren’t for the U.S. In response to our bombing campaign, a community of Vietnamese people did something remarkably epitomic of the Vietnamese character: they built an underground city. For six years, 60 families lived underground, and not a single member of the village was wounded or killed. Seventeen babies were born in the tunnels, and the one bomb that managed to disrupt the community structure created a hole that became their ventilation shaft. I mused over the empathetic plot: a 22-year-old American man, the same breed that likely dropped the very bombs that inspired the tunnels, living underground alongside two new Vietnamese friends. Never mind that the Vietnamese people and their respective tunnel villages are hobbit-sized. Never mind that, for a week, the entire country would know every time I farted. This was a chance to be a part of a beautiful story of redemption.
Rebekah the Canadian finally finished her interview. Politely, she wished me luck. I thought that she might as well head back to Canada because she had no shot at the role. I handed the producer my resume. He saw that I had studied in Spain and said, in Spanish, that he had lived in Cuba for four years and was fluent. Thus, the interview proceeded in each of our second-languages. Unfortunately, he was a lot better at Spanish than I. He asked me about my hobbies, fears, and the war. I misunderstood one of his questions and told him that I am fearless. I’m actually afraid of many things, including tunnels.
Other than the lying, I thought I did very well – I thought I got the part.
Two days later, my rejection came in the form of a politely worded email. I think they gave the part to Rebekah from Canada. Maybe it was because I’m not a beautiful white girl. Maybe it’s because the Communist Party still isn’t crazy about Americans. Or, perhaps, a more qualified American beat me out for the job. Perhaps my lack of fear made me come off as an invulnerable narcissist. Perhaps, when you spend all day every day with 12-year-old students, you forget how to interact with adults. That could have been the problem.
After reconsidering my purpose in life, I returned home to some good news. Thanks to the Global Playground network, we are bringing over a thousand books to our school sites in Cambodia, Thailand, and Vietnam.
For a variety of reasons, English books are very difficult to come by in the rural areas of these three countries. The students, however, are hungry for some English literature of the Magic Treehouse flavor. To start off June, we asked our students to dream of one thing they wanted in their communities. The consensus dream was of books. Let the video below act as visual confirmation.
Three weeks later, we are well on our way. 800 books and over $2000 (44 million Vietnamese dong) have been donated. The fundraiser is open for about one more week before we will begin to ship books over, which is my fearless way of reminding you there is still time to donate. (Just a suggestion)
I guess the moral of the story is that you don’t have to be famous to make a difference.