Wednesday, January 25, 2006

The Amazingly Tacky Race

I have a friend who is a great fan of The Amazing Race. He has been to the Pyramids in Egypt and the Great Wall of China and many of the other exotic locales the contestants whizz past on their way to the next clue, and he enjoys being able to say, "I've been there!"

What strikes me, though, is the extent to which the race promotes the "Ugly American" stereotype. The contest forces the players to scream "Faster! Faster! I'm in a hurry!" to their taxi drivers and rush past cultural sites and sights in the search for a travel agent to get them the hell out of there to the next country on the list.

A recent installment offered a few glimmers of hope. The contestants all piled onto a small plane to fly over the African countryside, seeing a perspective on Africa that few serious travellers get. In essence, the producers compelled the players to take a moment to "smell the roses," to actually experience their surroundings. The next stop also offered a unique opportunity to experience the local culture, although every single one of the contestants blew it to some extent.

The challenge was to navigate a small town in India and serve tea from a traditional service cart to at least five out of a list of ten local businessfolk. It was an opportunity to experience at least a moment out of the everyday lives of ordinary Indians outside of Mumbai or Delhi or Bangalore, and also an opportunity to place yourself for a moment in the role of servant instead of imperious overlord. One of the teams, a pair of grandparents, was even greeted by a throng of eager fans lavishing their affection on these two Americans. Had I been in their shoes, I would have paused a moment to express my thanks to the locals, and then asked them for their help in finding the people on the list. Then I would have served the tea to the first five of the people I could find, but I would have done so without the haste and the "Give me your business card NOW!" attitude. [The business card was the proof of service required to complete the challenge.] After I found the fifth person, I would have asked my fans for their help in delivering the tea to the remaining five names, giving the remaining tea to the gathered locals with my thanks for their assistance. If the owner of the tea concession had complained about my bringing back an empty tea pot and a scant few empty cups, only then would I have played the wealthy tourist card by apologizing and offering to pay out of my own pocket for the losses.

The problem is, I probably would've lost that leg of the race to an elbow-in-the-ribs win-at-all-costs team, and that is precisely the problem with the show. I wish that the producers would find some way to structure the challenges to tilt the playing field against "Ugly American" behaviors. The contestants would benefit, the image of American tourists would benefit, and I even believe it would make better television.

When I travel to a foreign country, even just for a few hours, I try to learn at least a pinch of their language and culture. Most basic is "Do you speak English?" in the local language. Better yet, "I do not speak [your language]," plus please and thank you. Those four simple phrases will open doors for you that won't open for a wad of Yankee greenbacks. 我不講中文, but I don't expect everyone in the world to speak English for my convenience.