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The Amazing Race 3, Episode 10 (11 December 2002)

Singapore (Singapore) - Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam) - Cai Be (Vietnam) - Ho Chi Minh City (Vietnam)

Commercial interruptions

The color of the “Amazing Race” route marker flags was changed in Vietnam, host Phil Keoghan told us, “so as not to be confused with the colors of the Vietnamese national flag”.

That was disingenuous: the Amazing Race flags are yellow with red stripes, while Vietnam’s flag is red with a single yellow star. The real problem for The Amazing Race was the similarity between the Amazing Race flag and the flag of the pre-1975 USA-backed government of the erstwhile “Republic of [South] Vietnam”: yellow with three red stripes.

Many older Vietnamese-Americans are as fanatically anti-Communist, and as unwilling to recognize the reality (like it or not) of the current government of their homeland as the most extreme of Cuban-Americans. I still see them parading in San Jose and San Francisco with the carefully-preserved flags and uniforms of a government that hasn’t existed for decades. But it wouldn’t be well received for a TV production company from the USA to try that in downtown Ho Chi Minh City.

The flags proved crucial, though the problem wasn’t their color. Twins Drew and Derek were eliminated when, as soon as they saw a route marker flag, they followed it to the “pit stop” at the end of the course — even though they hadn’t yet found the clue (which was at another flag) or completed the task it described (peddling a “cyclo”, or tricycle rickshaw).

It’s actually quite common for travellers to find several similar landmarks. Especially in a new country or city, one building, statue, or plaza can look remarkably like another, or have a virtually identical name (as happened to the racers last week in Singapore in a housing complex where all the streets had variants of the same name). If you need to be in a specific place, don’t rely on any single landmark: double check your location with some independent indicator, such as reading a street sign or asking a bystander. Otherwise you’ll end up like the twins, finding a marker similar to what you are looking for (a flag, but one without the box of clues), and following it further and further off track.

Ian had been a soldier in Vietnam during “the American War”, and was nervous about going back. He seemed quite surprised that “They are embracing us”. But he shouldn’t have worried: most Americans — including returning American soldiers and “Viet Kieu” — are welcomed in Vietnam . Most Vietnamese, like most people anywhere in the world, can distinguish between individual Americans and the government of the USA.

Citizens of the USA require visas, in advance, for Vietnam. So Ian, like all the others, knew it was on the short list of countries for which he had a visa. But each season the producers get the contestants visas for some decoy countries they don’t visit (in the first season Team Guido recalled that theirs included the republic of Georgia, although the race has yet to visit any part of the former USSR — I expect it next season). So none of them could be certain they would visit any particular country.

Unfortunately, the racers arrived in Vietnam tired, stressed, and in the middle of the monsoon rains (the start of September 2002). For me, the pleasure of watching the race in one of my favorite places was ruined by one of the commercial interruptions on the CBS broadcast in the USA: an advertisement for American Express, featuring a couple redeeming the points they’ve earned for buying stuff with the Amex card to get airline tickets, hotel rooms, and other services for a trip to China to adopt a baby from a village near Beijing.

I kept waiting for the cheerful voiceover to tell me how many Amex reward points I need for a “free” Chinese baby, or to urge me to charge a baby on my Amex card to put under the tree as a Christmas gift for some happy new adoptive Mom.

Different travel agents have different criteria, but almost all of us have some ethical limits on what sort of travel we’ll arrange. In the USA, for example, most reputable travel companies won’t knowingly facilitate sex tourism, in marked contrast to many European and Asian countries where it’s quite mainstream, or at least more open and widely tolerated. (Take note, those of you who say I only criticize the USA!)

Others of my colleagues categorically refuse to help missionary travellers, on the theory that cross-cultural religious proselytizing is inevitably cultural imperialism. I’m not so sure about that, having done my own share of political proselytizing, but I certainly respect their choice.

I draw my personal line at trafficking in women (which, in the USA, presents itself mainly in the form of mail-order marriage brokers and buyers) and children (which, again in the USA, presents itself mainly in the form of paid adoption brokers and baby-buying adoptive “parents”).

Don’t get me wrong: I’ve got nothing against adoption. The world has far too many unwanted, unloved, and suffering children (in the USA as well as in places like China). I applaud those who take on the work of caring for them, especially for those children with disabilities.

The problem with rich people adopting the children of the poor, though, is the inherently coercive power dynamic of wealth.

Adoption agents commonly charge “facilitation” fees totaling many thousands of dollars, a lifetimes’s wages for poor people in any of the top source countries for adoptions to the USA. (Three-fourths of international adoptions to the USA are from China, Russia, Guatemala South Korea, or Ukraine). Everyone getting a piece of that huge (by local standards) financial windfall has an interest in having suitable babies made available for adoption. The easiest way to make that happen is to kick back a small fraction of the adoption fee to the family that supplies the baby.

When you have little or no other means of economic subsistence, and someone offers you enough money to live on for years if you give up your baby, can the choice ever be said to be truly voluntary or free?

That’s equally true with North Americans adopting children and babies in most of the Third World, or (in its more traditional but still prevalent form) with upper-class coastal urbanites in the USA adopting the children of poor parents in the rural South.

Of course the international adoption brokers — some of whom are de facto child slavers, in my opinion, no matter how noble their intentions — deny that birth parents or their families are ever paid. Like multinational corporations bribing government officials, they insulate themselves with layers of intermediaries, to keep their hands clean and give themselves plausible deniability.

Adoptive parents want to believe that the babies and children they are adopting were abandoned. Local officials, often themselves financially dependant on their share of the adoption fees, are typically eager to reinforce that belief. But repeated exposés of baby buying have shown that payments for babies are, and will likely remain, a fixture of the US$1 billion a year international adoption industry.

As the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe put it in adopting recommendations on international trafficking in children in 2001: “Trafficking is becoming a complex phenomenon because it is no longer solely for the purpose of sexual exploitation…: child-bearing is also becoming a commercial activity and children are being produced through more or less voluntary childbirth to supply the illegal adoption market.”

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