But it was too late to back out and 3-2-1 the filming started. BOOM! I was in a Cambodia rap video. I didn't even have time to stretch or exchange my flip flops for Tims or anything! But I got dancing, all the while thinking, "Don't look stupid, don't look stupid." But it actually turned out to be fun, and the random Japanese girl was a sick hip hop dancer. The song was pretty good, too, and I've developed an affinity for the Cambodian-American hip hop scene, which is small but thriving in both countries.
After it was over, sweaty and disheveled from dancing through five takes in the tropical afternoon sun but happy I'd embraced the experience. I said goodbye to Boss La and Tony and didn't think anything else of it...until a few months later a Cambodian waitress at a bar said she'd seen me in a rap video, and then kids on the riverside said the same, and a random guy that stopped his moto to say hi along the busy road.
Apparently these guys were pretty famous in that scene and the video blew up, with well over 200,000 views to date.
Hmmm...maybe being a backup dancer in Cambodian rap videos could be a new career for me? Or I could even go out on my own and do a solo album? I could be the next Cambodian Drake - "MC Cake!"
Nah, better not quit my day job just yet.
A few years back, I was sitting in a casino bar in Manila, watching the Manny Pacquiao fight. Sitting next to me was a big brother from the U.S., so we got to talking. It turns out he just retired from the Navy, where he had been working at the American embassy in Manila for years.
As Pacquiao succumbed to Mayweather and our beers disappeared, the Navy man told me an endearing story about a Filipino you’ve certainly heard of.
One day, he was working his regular security detail there at the visa office in the embassy.
A short, scrappy, and obviously broke Filipino with shoulder-length hair walked into the office and got in the line to apply for a U.S. visa. As we all know, it’s almost impossible to get a visa to the states unless you have a lot of money or a business there sponsoring you, so the man was out of place and doomed for the same fate as Pacquiao that day – the wrong end of a decision.
In fact, life had not been kind to him up until then. His mother died when he was a young boy, leaving his father and family with so many debts that he had to send the children away to live with various relatives. The boy soon quit school and went off on his own so he wouldn't be a burden on anyone. In the coming years, he was often homeless, sleeping on park benches and in front of friend's houses. He did odd jobs just to eat once every couple days, and even singing on the street to try and earn a few Pesos, or at the Shakey’s Pizza on Taft Street in Manila when he was 15.
When the scrappy Filipino got to the front of the line, the obviously skeptical lady working asked him why he wanted a visa. He told her that a band in America was looking for a new lead singer and was flying him out to San Francisco for an audition. The band’s guitarist had stumbled upon a video of him on YouTube covering one of their songs.
In fact, he often sang their songs with his local small-time bar band in the Philippines. He’d been part of many bands over the years that allowed him to earn enough to eat if nothing else, like Ijos, and later, the better-known Zoo Band.
There at the embassy, he told the lady in the visa office that the U.S. group was impressed when they’d heard him and seen him on YouTube that they’d sent him an email, and then an invitation to come to America and try out. He produced a tattered print out of an email that supposedly backed up his story.
It sounded so far-fetched that the lady scoffed and started reaching for the ‘Rejected' stamp to send him packing, but mockingly asked him that if he was such a good singer, why didn’t he sing one of the band’s songs right then and there? Why didn’t he sing one of her favorites, “Wheel in the Sky?”
So the scrappy man put down his things, stepped back, cleared his throat, and belted out:
“Winter is here again oh Lord,
Haven't been home in a year or more”
“I hope she holds on a little longer
Sent a letter on a long summer day
Made of silver, not of clay
I've been runnin' down this dusty road,”
Every single person in the office stopped and listened to the man. You could have heard a pin drop, according to my Navy friend who was working there.
“Oh the wheel in the sky keeps on turnin'
I don't know where I'll be tomorrow
Wheel in the sky keeps on turnin'”
When he finished his dazzling rendition, everyone there cheered and applauded. The lady working was stunned, too. She immediately grabbed the ‘Approved' stamp and emphatically OK'd his travel visa with no more questions asked.
The scrappy singer walked out of the office, past the big Navy officer on duty, smiling. He later got on that plane to San Francisco, met a guy named Neal Schon there, auditioned, and got the job. He was the new lead singer of this iconic American band that was replacing their cherubic-voiced former front man, Steve Perry.
Against all odds, Arnel Pineda, became the lead singer of Journey, a band that’s sold 80 million records worldwide and is considered one of the best of all time. They even made a movie about Pineda’s star-struck good fortune, called “Don't Stop Believin’.”
You can watch that YoutTube video of Pineda and Zoo Band that Neal Schon first saw here:
His acoustic guitar floating with him, Hadfield’s well-rehearsed version did falsetto justice to the Bowie original:
“This is Major Tom to ground control,
I’m stepping through the door,
And I’m floating in the most peculiar way,
And the stars look very different today…”
At face value, the 1973 hit by iconic rocker David Bowie was a futuristic sci-fi ballad about Major Tom, a lone astronaut in space, but the deeper themes are about exploration of the human condition, the courage to be different, and the conflicting emotions of the detachment it takes to truly be free in this universe.
Of course Hadfield left out the part where Major Tom reports problems to ground control, and even inserted his own name in the song a couple times. Since its release and worldwide popularity, the whole team successfully came back to earth and Major Tom, err Chris Hadfield has retired from the space program, as planned. Just like in the song Major Tom makes it back to earth and is celebrated by the press and his fans as a hero, but the real reward was a few solitary moments orbiting the earth and the view from the dark starry heavens that belonged only to him.
My friend told me about this video last night and I was immediately moved by both the vulnerability and depth of it. Coincidentally, I began listening to Bowie’s classic a few weeks ago as I write as an eerily-dreamy reminder that no one ever accomplishes anything important by keeping their feet on the ground.
What really fascinates me is how unique Hadfield’s solo-above-the-stratosphere truly is. He did something that no one, and I mean NO ONE, in the history of the earth has done. That’s remarkable when you consider the thousands of years of mankind’s modern history and the fact that there have been 100 billion people on earth. Think about that – there are infinite possibilities to create, to do something different, to be the conscious ground control in the mission of our own lives. As time goes on you’d think that we as a race of artists and dreamers and explorers had LESS ideas to launch, but instead inexplicably we have more, exponentially it seems. What a pure, weightless experience; to summon the courage to be an innovator and let your imagination soar into its own orbit. Art, writing, music, creation, ambient knowledge - they keep expanding into previously dark and empty corners of our existence to give us warmth. The democratization of ideas, our social web of conscience, people helping others a world away who they’ve never seen and will never know - interconnectedness like never before. Somehow the world is getting bigger and smaller at the same time, spinning out of control but also hugged tightly by a gravity much bigger than ourselves.
Don't miss Norm's new book,
The Queens of Dragon Town!
Norm Schriever is a best-selling author, expat, cultural mad scientist, and enemy of the comfort zone. He travels the globe, telling the stories of the people he finds, and hopes to make the world a little bit better place with his words.