Monday 22 January 2007

The Importance of Being Ridiculous

(The title should have been written as "The Ridiculousness of Being Important" to be exact. However, I would like to borrow the title of a famous play by Oscar Wilde.)

One of the things that insprires me the most to work as a journalist is the chance I get to witness different aspects of a society like ours. One of the conclusions I reached after my first two years of working was that we were living in a place where all ridiculous people are centered. I don’t know about other countries, but Vietnam I think must be the climax of ridiculousness in comparison to the rest of the world.

The Vietnamese (including me, of course) are characterized by two seemingly contradictory personalities: vaingloriousness and humbleness. These characters have long confined them in their own cell. As TV reporters we often conduct filmed surveys for our reportages, and part of the job is to persuade people to stay in front of the camera and answer the given interview questions. The success of the interview is always thought to depend entirely on the interviewer, in this case the reporter. In fact, as a German TV editor once confided to me, it depends almost entirely on the interviewee; I personally guess the proportion should be 60-70%. So the hardest task for us would fall on how we can convince the intended interviewees to accept our request, and then on how we can make them give effective answers, meaning the answers that our “superiors” can accept. It’s really wretched, especially when you have to work with Vietnamese interviewees. It seems that every Vietnamese hates to appear on the screen, to publicize their opinion, or just to say something that makes sense. The reason I guess is that they are not much confident in their appearance, and that they have the tendency to evade responsibility. To put it another way, the Vietnamese dislike to appear on screen because of the fear that they may be bad looking or that the interview may possibly cause some bad consequences for them afterwards.

Strange as it is, at the same time many Vietnamese people like to see themselves on TV and make the most of every chance they have to show their preeminence, that they are more talented, more knowledgeable, more intelligent, more powerful, more influential, more like a dissident, etc. than others. So it goes without saying that although we must try hard to persuade people to talk to the camera, once they get started we find it equally hard to stop them saying or to say something to the point. And every idea they give will include at least one “I”, or “me”, or “mine”.

“All through the day, I, me, mine, I, me, mine, I, me, mine
All through the night, I, me, mine, I, me, mine, I, me, mine
Now they’re frightened of leaving it
Everyone’s weaving it
Coming on strong all the time…”

Sometimes I think I am living in a vanity fair where everybody’s wearing a sheeny mask and doing anything to raise themselves up. Every word is meant to add more values to the speaker. I narrowly escaped from bursting into laughter when I got a name card from T., a famous writer, which read:

Mr…. T., Doctor, Poet, Writer, Novelist
ASEAN Award in Literature, 2000
ASEAN Award in Literature, 2001
ASEAN Award in Literature, 2002

… on and on and on…

I must turn my face away to hide a wry smile, struggling not to scream with laughter in front of him. I couldn’t help thinking to myself, “A visiting card of size 6x9 must be too small to list all of his status. Why did he not think of a A4-sized card? Wow, may I suggest that he gets such a card designed?”

The other day I saw another impressive name card, which read:

Chairman of the Cao Bang Association of Literature and Art.

“Oh no,” I thought, “We must have seen a Vietnamese Leonardo da Vinci! Who thinks there is such a genius in that remote area!”

People like such can be found in great abundance in Vietnam. However, no matter what they say, I do not hold any prejudice against them. It’s natural that people have the need to assert themselves, only that they must be politic enough to show their need in a more subtle way. Because we are passing through the “transitional period”, we can’t expect to see million examples of subtlety. Rather we will inevidently find ourselves in a society full of ridiculous people and stupid things, with us being part of.

Next post: more on this subject