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'I was on a reality show': when Liza and her family got picked to be on National Geographic's Worlds Apart, they were rarin' to go: But it didn't take long for Liza, 17, to discover that reality TV just isn't quite as real as she had thought.

My family has always been very adventurous--my mom is a snowboarder (unusual for a Nashville woman), my dad is a camping freak, and we're all quite active. But, like most families, we also watch a lot of TV together.

One day, my mom was watching Oprah, which was airing a segment about a family who had appeared on a National Geographic reality series called Worlds Apart. The show features families who are sent to a foreign country to live with a host family for 10 days. My mom thought it sounded like something we'd like to do, so she signed us up to be considered for the show.

When she told us about it, we thought it was cool, but we were positive we wouldn't be chosen since so many other people wanted to be on the show. But we soon got a call from a Worlds Apart producer, who said, "We're sending someone to Nashville to meet you and decide if you're right for the show." A week later, I was in the school cafeteria with my friends, and my mom and brother showed up with this producer who was carrying a camera. It was so cool[ Everyone at school just went crazy.

Two days later, a producer called from New York to let us know we'd been chosen to appear on Worlds Apart. We were unbelievably excited--even though we didn't know where we'd be going! We only knew we'd be somewhere for 10 days in a fairly difficult situation.

A camera crew showed up at our home a few days later to announce that we'd be going to Norway. We were so happy! But a week after that, the producer called to say, "Change of plans. There's not enough snow in Norway."

We waited three weeks before the camera crew returned to tell us, on film, that we were going to Cambodia ... in two days. We were in total shock! We didn't know a thing about Cambodia. All of us were nervous. Even so, we were psyched since it would no doubt be an amazing adventure.


We were told that everything we did, except going to the bathroom and sleeping, would be on camera. We would be traveling with three camera people, a location scout and producer, and microphones would always be on us--but we could turn them off if we wanted.

When we arrived in Cambodia, we stayed at a hotel in its capital, Phnom Penh, for one night. The next day, we took all eight hour speedboat ride to our location. By the time we arrived, it was dark, and we rode on a tractor-trailer to the village. We were nervous about meeting our host family, especially when we learned they don't speak English.

In the area where we were staying, each extended family has its own little village. Our village had about 20 people, and our host family seemed really nice--although we didn't have a translator. They served us dinner, and then we were taken to our own bamboo hut.

The hut was one room on stilts, and we all slept in bamboo beds draped in mosquito nets. They definitely weren't comfortable, but we're campers so we're used to roughing it--which is lucky, since there was no toilet. We didn't have food or water in the hut, but we did have ducks and chickens running around outside to eat and a market nearby to buy supplies every few days.

At the end of each day, our producer would "debrief" each of us on film, asking what we thought of the family and village life. Although we were honest, we knew we were on camera and did not want to be disrespectful to the family by saying anything negative about them.


The villagers had never seen Caucasians before, and everyone was at least a foot shorter than I am. When we rode through nearby villages, people stared. But they were very welcoming. We did not have to speak the same language to see that the people there are friendly.

Our daily job was to pick rice, which is unbelievably difficult. I had to bend down and machete rice for eight hours a day. Then my mom and I had to do the cooking, while the men relaxed. That was my least favorite part of the trip, especially because the kitchen was only 5 feet tall and I'm 5-foot-9. It was so hot and uncomfortable in there.

Cambodia is so beautiful, though. And I made a really good friend. She's 19, her name is Lena, and she is the only person I met who speaks perfect English. My little brother and I also became friends with all the children. We'd sit outside at night and teach each other words from our languages. My brother played guitar and got them to sing along in English. It was so much fun!

One day, Lena took me "downtown" (there are only three stores) and we went to a beauty parlor for a "Cambodian makeover." It was hilarious! I had hot-pink lips and was wearing Cambodian clothing. About 40 people showed up to watch--and laugh!


Halfway through our stay, we noticed a change during our daily debriefing. We were being asked leading questions by our producer, like, "What's your least favorite thing here?" and "What problems are you having with your host family?" and "Do you want to go home?"

We had noticed that on other episodes of Worlds Apart, the families seemed to have a tough time--they complained and argued a lot. I think our producer felt our episode would be more interesting with conflicts of some kind--but we didn't have any.

I think they even tried to set up a fight in my family one night. They wouldn't let us eat until late and then asked us to kill a chicken in the dark for dinner. It was so stressful, and we were really hungry. We hadn't expected those kinds of tricks since this was National Geographic, not Fox.

There were times, late at night when we knew we weren't being filmed, that my family complained. And my brother and I fought a lot, but no one saw it since we didn't want it to be on TV. Sometimes, I even faked being happy if I felt the producer was trying to get me to say something bad.

The producer knew I got frustrated in the kitchen because it was so tiny. And I didn't understand why women had to do the cooking--we worked just as hard in the field as the men. So, one time, the producer took my mom out of the kitchen and left the cameras on me. I knew what they wanted--they wanted me to stress out and get mad. Even though I was steaming on the inside, I acted calm and smiled for the camera.


The last night in the village, our host family cooked us a special goodbye dinner. And, as an honor, my dad was asked to kill a cow. He really didn't want to do it, but he did it anyway so as not to insult our hosts. Dinner that night was "cow soup"--with lots of blood and stuff floating in it--along with side dishes of beetles, spiders and frogs. Pretty gross, huh? None of us complained, though, since it was a very special meal to them.

When our time was up in Cambodia, we were really ready to go home and sleep in our own non-bamboo beds. Once home, we had to wait three months to meet with the executive producers of Worlds Apart in New York, where they told us they were having trouble editing our episode. One week later, they called to tell us our episode was canceled due to "scheduling conflicts"--which was odd, since the other 12 episodes they shot were being aired.

We were so bummed. We had been really excited for our friends to watch our trip on TV, and now we had nothing to show for it. We didn't even get any footage because it's owned by National Geographic. Only National Geographic knows the real reason our episode was dropped, but I think it's because we did not argue enough.

Before being on the show, we knew reality TV isn't real. But we didn't realize how unreal it is! It makes me sad about the American public, because it just shows that we really don't appreciate anything but conflict. Our episode could have been really interesting--about the culture of Cambodia and the wonderful, hard-working people there. But I guess Americans would rather see a family fighting than a family getting along in a tough situation.

Ever since my reality-TV experience, I prefer to spend my viewing time watching non-reality shows, like Gilmore Girls. To me, that's higher quality TV. Then again, I'm still a sucker for America's Top Model. Hey, nobody's perfect!
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Author:Ryan, Sandy Fertman
Publication:Girls' Life
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Oct 1, 2004
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