Go Ahead: Take a Vacation. But Don’t Be an ‘Ugly American.’

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Greg Markley

By Greg Markley

The term Ugly American has been around since the late 1940s, perhaps earlier. It doesn’t refer to American tourists’ physical appearance, but our attitudes and whether we comply with the cultural norms in a given country. It mostly refers to countries in Western and Southern Europe where many of us travel to see the homeland of our ancestors.

“There are four root causes of this negativity towards Americans,” wrote Chief Executive Magazine Editor-in-Chief  William Holstein in the New York Times, Oct. 23, 2005. “The war in Iraq is a cause. Another is the arrogance, ignorance and insensitivity of American people. A third reason for anti-American sentiment is the pervasiveness of American pop culture. We’re not the only source of ‘cool’ anymore. And the fourth reason is the effects of globalization.”

Erina Moriarty in time-travellers.org (2001) outlined some key elements of being an Ugly American. First, Americans are way too loud for Europeans’ comfort. She pointed out that many Europeans speak English well. Why speak loudly and too slow? Why let the world know what you and a partner are saying to each other?

Second, Americans complain about things not operating the way they do at home. Living in Berlin, Germany, for two years, I seldom went to any of the four McDonalds there in the mid-1990s. You may not like all of the food every place you visit, but eating local cuisine is part of the adventure, isn’t it? For instance, most Europeans may laugh when you ask for decaffeinated coffee. Get used to the smoking in all areas – second-hand smoke is tolerated in most countries.

Third, wearing ugly white tennis shoes brings one closer to being an Ugly American. “American tourists are soooo easy to spot because they wear brand spanking new blinding white sneakers,” she said. “I know where this comes from – the suburbanites reading tour books warning them to ‘wear comfortable walking shoes.’”

Students heading abroad for the first time are counseled to present the best image of our wondrous country. But they sometimes forget that something as simple as wearing sweats when not exercising offends people from the Germanic countries (Austria, Germany and Switzerland).

Also, when members of the U.S. military arrive for duty in another nation, they are told to be “ambassadors for their country.” Many take this role seriously but others due to too much drink or arrogance do not. Not finding a NO SMOKING area in an eatery upsets Americans who are overseas for the first time.

In temporary duty assignments (1984 and 1986) in Honduras, I often heard a soldier jokingly say: Honduras is “a wholly owned subsidiary of the Dole Pineapple Company.” That refers to the fruit industry and a leading U.S. brand. Still, how would we Americans feel if someone said, “The U.S. is the wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon.” I hope Jeff Bezos doesn’t hear about this.

  In American popular culture, the term Ugly American gained prominence due to a 1958 book with it as a title. The book opens with: “Where the hell is Sarkhan?” “It’s a small country out toward Burma and Thailand.” It’s funny the diplomat has not heard of the country before. Let’s hope he is not a future Ugly American. In the book, a group of Americans exhibit a set of corrupt and incompetent behaviors. They work on impractical projects to help American contractors rather than the Southeast Asians they were supposed to help.

A few foreign service employees succeed with local people when they know the local language and culture. The bestseller led President Eisenhower to pursue reforms to foreign aid in Southeast Asia. There was also a film starring Marlon Brando, in 1963.

We continue with guidance on what not to do as an American on holiday. Number four: few other countries have people using baseball caps outside of the stadium. Moriarty again: “Nothing screams ‘I’m an Ugly American Tourist’ like a baseball cap – ok, the white sneakers are worse. If you are worried about getting sun in your eyes, then wear sunglasses.” This goes for NASCAR caps as well.

Fifth, a “fanny pack” may be credible for some, as it keeps your hands free and stops pickpockets, right? Maybe so. A small backpack is fine, but bigger is bad. Finally, t-shirts, sweat shirts or sweat pants and blue jeans are viewed as sloppy and too informal in many countries. This all may seem disappointing to students hoping to see Europe from one hostel to another.

Wait – college and university students practically “live in blue jeans,” so why not while traveling? I wouldn’t worry too much. The bigger thing is for students to experience other countries and cultures. Letting them know basic Don’ts is fine, but don’t let European traditions come between them and their Calvin Kleins.

Greg Markley first moved to Lee County in 1996. He has Masters’ in education and history. He taught politics as an adjunct in Georgia and Alabama. An award-winning writer in the Army and civilian life, he has contributed to the Observer for 10 years.  gm.markley@charter.net

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