A Love Letter To Ugly Americans

When traveling abroad, some things you just have to accept and learn to live without. My last grande soy vanilla latte, four months ago, in Piura, Peru. Haven't seen a Starbucks since then.

This is my love letter to you, my dear Ugly American. There are things I so love about you, that I’m willing to hang in there with you for the sake of our relationship, stick it out for the long haul, make our time spent together abroad work.

Oh, sure, you can be loud, arrogant and disrespectful of the customs and cultures of others, and there were times you made me cringe, but we share so much in common that I’m willing to forgive your overseas foibles – well most of them.

I still somehow can’t bring myself to forgive your decision to climb that fragile stone archway to that ancient sacred temple in Machu Picchu, despite posted signs not to do so. No, you didn’t care. All you cared about was snapping some “cool” photo to text to your Facebook friends. And when a group of stunned visitors – myself included – implored you to get down, your reaction was classic Ugly American, spitting out f-bombs and telling all to “mind your f’u****ng business!” Oh, you were brilliant that day.

And when you threw that large rock down an Inca well that has stood for centuries, simply to check if there was actually water at the bottom, remember how angry I got? Oh, and how could I ever forgive or forget the time you tossed your empty Coke can toward a trash can in Barcelona and missed? You didn’t even think to pick it up, did you? No way. That’s just not your style. But, you know what, I applaud your effort to at least put it in the trash bin.

I…Oh wait, remember that summer we spent in West Africa? You proceeded to offend every person with whom you came in contact. You snapped your fingers at waiters like they were dogs, complained about everything, demanded the comforts of home, and when you couldn’t find anyone who spoke English, well, that’s when you completely lost it.

I know you as an American expect -wait, demand! -that any given country you visit be like America in comfort, custom and language. In short, in every way. So you get incensed that nobody in Middle Of Nowhere, Boltusa, speaks a lick of English. Heavens to Betsy! The Boltusans speak only Boltusan! What gives?!

As we’ve traveled around the world, the one question you’ve never heard me ask on approach of a local person is “Excuse me, do you speak English? That question lobbed at locals in Not My Country irritates me to no end. Think about it. You are in Your Hometown, U.S.A., and you’re approached suddenly by some inappropriately dressed jughead with a camera that looks aimed at you who asks: ” ‘Scuse me, do you speak Boltusan?”

Of course, your response would be a quizzical no. And  would you expect the Boltusan to get angry that for the past five minutes he’s been striking out finding anyone in America who speaks his language?

Okay, I see you right about now scratching your head wondering where in God‘s name is Boltusa? You are notoriously geographically challenged, I know. And you are widely known as a monolingual species. So let me bring it back to reality. [Forget trying to Google Boltusa! It doesn’t exist. I made it up to make a point. Sheeez, you know so little about the world. ]

Okay, stay with me this time. Imagine the French, who are notoriously fixated on keeping France free of American culture – a losing battle that at times compels them to issue the most stupid declarations in the name of conserving French purity – visiting the United States and expecting every other American he or she encounters to speak French. Now do you get it?

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You are breathing fire at this point and firing up your e-mail mailer to teach me a lesson. But I heard it all before. You will tell me that English is the world’s common language, and that it’s spoken everywhere, so it should be normal for you or anyone else to ask that question and expect an affirmative answer. I say to you and them check your attitude on the Ugly American scale. Where is it written, dearest one, that it is the responsibility of locals to learn your language for your convenience? And who came up with the rules that the good people of Boltusa – sorry – must have English at the ready and deliver it at your command? Worst yet, why do you grow so angry if  the lovely Boltusans only speak their native language?

Let me share with you this story.

I once met a man from Ohio on a train platform in Japan who walked over to me and asked “Are you American?” When I responded yes, he said: “Thank goodness, someone who speaks English! Can’t find anybody who speaks English in this God-forsaken country!” Really Mr. Ohio?

Not a fact that in Japan it’s hard to find people who speak English, but if that were the case, why be surprised? You are in Japan, my good man, where they speak Japanese!

If I am planning a trip to Japan or Boltusa -can’t let it go – the first thing I do is try to learn a few survival words and phrases in Japanese and Boltusan. If I make the attempt to speak Japanese and fail and the Japanese person responds to me in English out of the kindness of his heart, great! I at least didn’t insult him by expecting him to speak my native language. That’s what mainly drives the French nuts about Americans. I don’t believe it’s a French unwillingness to speak English. I believe the French rightly get incensed when Americans on first approach practically demand that the French person direct them to the Louvre but do it in English, please, and thank you for speaking the dominant language. Perhaps these Americans who didn’t take the time to learn a few simple phrases in whatever native language should have stayed home in the Good Ol’ U.S. of A., where everyone speaks English. Well, almost everyone.

I suggest a better approach is to first try to communicate with the person in their own language combined with the true international language: point, gesture, smile. Give the local person the respect and courtesy and allow them the switch to English, if they so desire. Nine times out of 10, people who speak English in addition to their native language will gladly speak to you in English if you are struggling with their language. And they appreciate your attempt to first try to communicate in their native tongue. But strutting around the street like a bull asking one person after the other the dreaded “Do you speak English” question labels you right off the bat as an Ugly American and some locals – some French are evil about this – will say they don’t speak English, even if they do, just to stick it to you. Why? Because you are the umpteenth American to ask that question.

Two "ugly Americans" of another sort left in the wild in Chile

Another story, dear one, if you please.

On my third trip to Paris I was with an American woman I met during a casual stroll on the Avenue des Champs-Élysées. Together we had reached the imposing bronze statue of Charles de Gaulle and we had questions.

“Excuse me, we need someone who speaks English to explain this statue,” she shouted to the first presumed Frenchman who walked by. His response, in English with a strong French accent: “You are in France. We speak French. You must try it.”

As the man kept walking, my very temporary travel companion blurted out “How rude!”

“How rude, indeed,” I said. “How rude of you!”

I spent the next 15 minutes trying to convince her that she was in the wrong. She never got it. We parted ways when we reached the statue of Winston Churchill, the one with the words “We Shall Never Surrender.” Can’t you just hear Churchill saying those words? I will never give up on you – surrender, if you will – dear Ugly American. The world is a different place and you must come around. So surrender those bad habits that make me, and I’m sure others, cringe.

In very few instances, say in a life or death situation, should you approach someone with the “Do you speak English” question. That’s different. There’s no problem there.

I love to be with you abroad, dearest compatriot American, though you know I’d rather spend time with local people. This notion that all Americans must flock together in a “we” versus “them” front is warped. Of course, I’ll hang out with one or two of my compatriots but you do know if they start to keep me from my mission of being with locals I bid them adieu. Ah, did you like my use of French there?

Not that I don’t find my traveling compatriots interesting – many of them are – it’s that I find the Boltusans far more fascinating.

Please, allow me one more travel tale.

I was in Beijing, China, for about a month some years ago and was doing just fine eating Chinese food. It was delicious and healthy! And I was even speaking enough Chinese to get around on my own. Then I met a group of prissy American girls who told me they, too, had been in China for a month and they were “sick of Chinese food.” They said they had spotted a Pizza Hut and invited me to join them. After I told them I found the food in China amazing, I nevertheless decided to join them at Pizza Hut, where, one of them pointed out, “the signs, even the menu is in English.” Umm, did she say her name was Ditz?

The first bite into a slice of the pizza I thought it had a weird taste. I took a second bite and still felt it didn’t taste quite like the pizza from home. At a slice and a half I quit eating. That day is etched in my mind as a pivotal moment in my travel history. I thought I was going to die in China of some uncharted form of food poisoning. The pizza made me so sick, I broke out in a cold sweat, spending countless hours on the toilet, then weak and bedridden for a week! Under the care of a Chinese doctor who gave me natural Chinese medicines, I was able to bounce back, but was so weak for days after I was barely able walk. Lesson learned: stick to local cuisine that is working for you and stay away from prissy Ugly American girls who look and sound like they’re from the California valley.

A final story, I promise.

This week I witnessed a culture clash between Americans and Chileans. And it was ugly. It ended badly. And it left individuals on both sides of the cultural divide with battered feelings. And it was all just a series of misconceptions that blew up into misunderstandings and produced casualties of a cultural war.

I am not suggesting that the teachers at the institute where I teach English are Ugly Americans. They very well  may be, but I don’t know them enough to say. I do know that some of them expect things to be the way they are in the United States, all nice and neat and orderly, and that isn’t always the case in many countries.

Complain and try as we might, Americans will never succeed in forcing others to conform to American ways and standards, especially in the workplace. This holds true for Chile. Chileans admit that they are a notoriously tardy people. They joke about it. Set a meeting for noon, you’re lucky if it happens a half-hour later. More likely than not, it happens an hour or more later or not at all. Or try to get Chileans to follow through on anything.  Or do what they say they will do “al tiro”, meaning right away. Doesn’t happen. This irritates the heck out of Americans for whom punctuality and keeping your word are important in a work environment. Chileans are irritated by Americans’ seeming lack of flexibility. But the way I see it, it’s not my country, I’m just a guest. So who am I to try to change the way people run their country? Mine has enough problems to be fixed. In six months, I will be in another country with different customs and ideals. Shall I try to change them, too?

I say as long as no one has a foot firmly planted on my bald head, I will work with what I have to work with, be it Chile, France, Japan or Boltusa. To get angry, throw adult tantrums or insist that things be a certain way in a country that is not your own is to be an Ugly American.

Want to speak English only. Stay in America or travel to English-speaking countries. Try Britain. You won’t understand half of what comes out of their mouth anyway. Want the comforts of home. Bring it with you or stay home. Hate Chinese food? Don’t go to China!

All this I say out of love, dear Ugly American. Because I know you will have a more pleasant experience traveling abroad if you let go of your ugly ways. And I won’t have to keep explaining YOU.

Categories: Rants and Raves | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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3 thoughts on “A Love Letter To Ugly Americans

  1. La Tricia

    Amen! I too encountered the “I hate Chinese food” attitude when I ran into American tourists the year I spent in Beijing. Now, I went to McDonald’s from time to time when I was there, but that was because they had pineapple pies, which you can’t get in the U.S., because I’m not a fan of the food there (except for the fries).

    I made some great friends in Beijing. Two of them were Africans (Congo and DR Congo), who fluently spoke four languages, including English. I was ashamed I spoke only English fluently, but I learned Mandarin and mangled it every chance I got. In a fair exchange, Chinese students eagerly mangled English with me. 🙂

    Yeah, got no patience for the Ugly American…

  2. Bene and Jeff

    Love your letter! so true 😉
    To me, tut the timing issue is one of the hardest thing to not get mad at 🙂

  3. This is a great post and it comes both from the heart and from in-depth experience, Mike. I know what you’re talking about, because my fellow-Germans abroad are very similar to your fellow-Americans abroad. With the exception that they don’t expect the whole world to speak German, but instead they expect everyone to understand and praise their often goddam awful English!

    Living in Seattle now we’re purposefully staying away from German expat communities. It’s Seattle (and the U.S.) and the Seattleites (and the Americans) we came here for, after all.

    Dear Mike, good luck with the rest of your wild trip of travel and work. If you ever come up our way, be sure to visit!

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