Wednesday, January 6, 2010

The Ugly American

With all this chatter about tourism and travel, I thought today we could talk about Ugly Americans.

Surely you've heard this term?  This would be the insult tossed at those apocryphal American tourists arriving in foreign lands, toting large cameras, sporting white sneakers, and oozing a decided superiority complex.  The insult refers to the tourists' insistence on loudly proclaiming that local foods are 'weird' or 'disgusting', that hotel provisions are nothing like what is on offer in the States, and generally comparing their current location - unfavourably -  to their home in Nowheresville, USA. 

When I first arrived in England for an extended stay, I did everything possible to avoid living this stereotype.  I purchased Dr Martens boots immediately upon arrival, and essentially lived in those, and woolly sweaters for the rest of the school term.  (What can I say? It was the height of the grunge years.)  I worked hard on modifying my accent to the point where it wasn't immediately identifiable, if still a bit nasal.   I even ventured as far as not showering every day, as I'd heard this is what Europeans did. (I am now convinced, however, that if true Europeans are possessed of horribly fine & uncoooperative hair as I am, they are entitled, under a subset of the European Union Bill of Rights, to at least wash their hair in the sink, if not shower.)

I would argue that after almost twelve years in England, I'd done a fair job of assimilating.  I'd stopped blanching at cream being poured on everything, I'd pinned down a few key colloquialisms, and I'd stopped wearing shorts. Ever.  My accent had morphed - as it does with many ex-pats - into a weird non-specific amalgamation of sounds.  All it ever did was confuse business clients and telephone contacts. 

Somewhere in the years between college and career, this radical idea began to slowly dawn on me: that actually, individuals born in Europe are not by definition classier than Americans.  I can't believe how long it took me to grasp that just as there are tacky Americans who will laugh out loud at nudity in classical statues, there are tacky Englishmen, Frenchmen, and yes, even tacky Norwegians. (Not my family, of course.  I've just heard of them, you see.)

But yet the stereotype of the Ugly American persists, and the notion that all Europeans are just naturally more evolved continues to prevail. This handy little article I've linked to has a number of "simple suggestions" for American travelers.  One can hope that since the end of the "Dubya Era" some of this antipathy and stereotyping of Americans may have waned.  I will say this, however: I've come across all sorts of people, of all nationalities, and at this point in my life genuinely feel it is deeply unfair that the criticism continues to lie at the feet of the Americans.  (Or at least the Texans.)

So here's my Public Service Announcement for All Travelers, Regardless of Nationality:  it is always rude to sneer at local foods/traditions.  It is always rude to insist on being provided with only the foods that you would eat at home.  It is generally considered ill-mannered to hold forth on the ignorance/stupidity ofthe locals.  When one visits a new country, it is recommended to find positive things about the new locale. Generally, one is advised to be aware and modify the faces one makes when confronted with something new/unusual/displeasing whilst traveling.

In fact, generally, imagine that you have guests in your home.  How would you want them to behave?  Culturally, you may have some differences, but if everyone's trying to be on their best behavior, things will probably go pretty smoothly.

I'm just sayin'. It ain't just us, y'all.  Now where is my Hawaiian shirt??

1 comment:

Lori-Anne said...

Ah, yes, your Dr. Martens. I still have your first pair! Do you remember? You bought them a little small. Around that same time, I had purchased a pair, also a little small. When this came out in conversation, it was decided that you'd give me yours and I'd give mine to Marit, who went out and bought a pair in your size and everyone was happy. Ah... dorm life...

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