Sunday, 24 March 2013

The Amazing Race 22, Episode 5

Hanoi (Vietnam) - Maun (Botswana) - Makgadikgadi Pans National Park (Botswana)

This week’s episode of The Amazing Race 22 was preceded by an apology by host Phil Keoghan to “veterans, particularly those who served in Vietnam, as well as to their families and any viewers who were offended by the broadcast” of last week’s episode.

The on-screen apology came after a week of denunciation of the CBS network and the producers of the TV show by the American Legion and the Veterans of Foreign Wars.

The focus of the criticism was that the “reality-TV” show depicted (1) the B-52 memorial in Hanoi, which consists of fragments of a US plane that was shot down while on a bombing run over the city, (2) a portrait of Ho Chi Minh, and (3) students singing a patriotic song praising and calling for loyalty to the country’s form of government.

All of these are things that any visitor to Hanoi might encounter. The B-52 memorial exists. The lyrics of the song were about on a par with those of “God Bless America”, “America the Beautiful”, or any other country’s nationalist hymns. It would be hard to show public buildings or events in Vietnam without including official portraits of the country’s first president. And the fact is that many (not all) Vietnamese do “glorify” Ho Chi Minh as a national hero, even while many of those same people criticize his successors and their practices.

CBS, Phil Keoghan, and the “Amazing Race” production team didn’t make this stuff up. It’s not clear what sort of re-writing of contemporary Vietnamese reality the show’s critics wanted its producers and editors to engage in.

The VFW complained that, “The scene with the B-52 wreckage could have been used to tell a story about what was then America”s longest war, about the 58,195 American names on the Vietnam Wall, about the 1,652 Americans still listed as missing-in-action, or about the fates of the multiple crewmen aboard each of the 17 American B-52s we lost in combat.” That’s true, but it could also have been used to tell a story about what the B-52 carpet bombing meant to those on the ground below, especially in Hanoi, or about the numbers of Vietnamese (at least an order of magnitude larger than those of Americans) killed or still unaccounted for.

This is the fourth season in which “The Amazing Race” has visited Vietnam, the previous three times without controversy. The race has visited the Hanoi Hilton and other landmarks and tourist sites in and around the city.

I suspect that most of the critics of last week’s episode of The Amazing Race have forgotten, if they ever knew, that the first time the show went to Vietnam, in Season 3, the cast included a veteran of the American war in Vietnam, and the episodes in Vietnam focused on his perceptions.

So the question isn’t whether reality-TV should show us how Vietnam looks to American visitors including those who had been there before as soldiers during the war. The Amazing Race has already done that, and made it a point to begin its encounter with Vietnam from that perspective. The issue is whether it is ever permissible, in the view of the American Legion and the VFW, for television to show us, or for us to think about, how the places we visit appear from the points of view of the people who live there.

For me, learning about the perspectives of my hosts is one of the major reasons to travel.

The racers’ tasks in Vietnam required pattern-recognition skills that are useful to travellers anywhere you don’t know the local language(s).

First they had to look at signs with a fragment of the lyrics (in Vietnamese) to the patriotic anthem that was being sung, and then look through a collection of posters to find the one with the same phrase on it.

Later in the episode, at the “Temple of Literature”, they had to match Chinese characters (used for writing Vietnamese until the current system of Romanization was developed by a French Christian missionary and imposed by the French colonial government) on a sample game board with those on the costumes of actors playing human game pieces on a life-sized board.

In neither case were the racers expected to be able to understand the meanings of the words or characters. Often, however, it’s useful to be able to be able to match a word or phrase from a book or brochure in a foreign language — even if you don’t understand it — with that same word or phrase on a building or sign.

“The Amazing Race” didn’t mention what to me was the most amazing sight at the Temple of Literature: Rows of stone tablets (supported upright on the backs of stone turtles) on which are engraved the names of all those graduates who passed the royal exams for the Vietnamese mandarinate (and the names of their examiners) over a period of more than 300 years!

Link | Posted by Edward on Sunday, 24 March 2013, 23:59 (11:59 PM)
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