I had to use the Google thing to be sure my understanding of the term “Ugly American” was correct. Regrettably, it was.
The term “Ugly American” is generally applied to those arrogant, loud, under-informed, rude and otherwise obnoxious citizens of the United States who travel abroad bringing their plentiful feelings of superiority with them. They most often offend those in the countries they inhabit in any number of ways. Not surprisingly, they appear mostly unaware of their actions and the bloody trail and impressions they leave behind take some significant work to repair.
The Suiss Hotel in Quito was recently packed with nearly 500 North Americans (the vast majority from the United States with some Canadians in the mix) who were attending the International Living Conference to learn what life was like for those of us who have built a new one here in Ecuador. As we had been invited to speak to this group of folks, Diane and I enjoyed numerous opportunities over several days to personally interact with large numbers of them as they sought us out between sessions in the foyer, in hallways, in elevators, at meals and even as we went to the rest rooms. Most of these folks were absolutely wonderful, kind and appeared eager to learn the ways of a new culture. A few, however, stood out from the crowd and seemed to be working especially hard to be the worst and stereotypical examples of Ugly Americans.
On one particular afternoon, Diane and I walked a few blocks from the hotel to check out a very nice local restaurant. Four other tables of gringos were seated in the same small area as we, obviously attendees at the conference. We all arrived about the same time and as Diane and I were checking out the menu, we could hear the others around us expressing their amusement and confusion at trying to order a meal in Spanish. They clearly had no idea what the menu said; certainly to be expected and not necessarily problematic. One of the loudest men at one of the tables, Ugly American Number One, asked the waiter in English if he had an English version of the menu. First…that was a ridiculous question to ask of a small restaurant on a tiny side street in a Latin American country! Second, he asked the question in English. The server did not understand him and simply told him, in Spanish, that he did not speak English and did not understand. The American customer raised his voice and changed his tone to one of loud intimidation and repeated the same question. It was then that I leaned across and offered to assist. Ugly American Number One reluctantly agreed. I gladly assisted the table with placing their orders and the server thanked me. The loudmouth, Ugly American Number One did not.
As I was helping that table, Diane was helping another very grateful couple at another table. A group of six on the farthest side of the room was also having challenges. The Alpha Male of that group, Ugly American Number Two, was loudly proclaiming his dissatisfaction because his language was not being understood. The server had made a minor error in the drink order, which was placed in English using mime and in loud, abrasive tones. I was, for a moment, stunned at the thought that anyone visiting another country would have the expectation that the language from their home country would be understood anywhere else on the planet. The arrogance oozed from this guy like the stench from a rotting fish. The fact that he was unable to speak Spanish was no big deal but his expectation that these working-class citizens of Ecuador should be speaking English was the core problem. He shook his head in disgust and loudly reprimanded the server…in English of course… as his incorrect drink order arrived. I’m certain the server did his best to interpret the English order and had no problem understanding this man’s dissatisfaction, although he did not know the specific problem.
“You’d think they’d want to learn”, Ugly American Number Two said in a condescending tone, shaking his head and grumbling. The rest of the table nodded and murmured their agreement. The implication was, of course, that he had nothing to learn and these working class Ecuadorians needed to learn to speak English. Boy, I had to hold my tongue! I certainly didn’t want to make a scene. I would not be surprised to learn that these Ugly Americans and their friends were part of the crowd in the states who were upset when they had to “Press One for English”.
Some years ago, before Diane and I were married, I took Diane on a date…to Costa Rica. My Spanish language skills were non-existent. In fact, on two occasions, I placed wrong and hopefully amusing menu orders. Once for breakfast, I asked for a large and very cold glass of mother’s milk. The following day, I ordered a bowl of melted cheese for lunch. I did not blame the servers for my inability to communicate in their language.In fact, I apologized.
These guys had displayed the worst characteristics of some of our citizens to some hard-working, Ecuadorian restaurant workers and had firmly imprinted the image of the “Ugly American” into their memories and the food hadn’t even arrived yet!
After the meal, Diane and I were the last of this group to leave and as we did, we stopped and offered an apology to the server, explaining that not all of us were like those folks. He thanked us again for our help and said he knew that all North Americans were not like those “Ugly Americans”.
I now had a sense of these men; retired or soon-to-be retired business executives. Their attire sported all the right labels to proclaim their financial success. Their mealtime conversation (it was a very small space) had consisted of how to structure the hiding of their wealth through a combination of off-shore banking and investment options which would permit them to conceal their assets from the U.S. government. While I found that to be moderately entertaining, my true concern was that their social behavior left a notable negative impact on a slice of the local Ecuadorian culture. They and others like them make messes that the rest of us have to clean up and leave impressions of our U.S. culture that the rest of us must endure.
I’m not sure that one must be wealthy to act like an Ugly American. In fact, I’m pretty sure that wealth or the lack thereof has nothing to do with it. One can behave like an Ugly American regardless of net worth. However, I’m guessing that the sense of superiority these men were expressing may have been less prominent in those who do not have to plan how to hide their assets in foreign nations.
In the future, Diane and I have committed to intervening whenever we see someone clearly displaying blatant “Ugly American” behavior. Our interventions this time came in the form of polite and gentle offerings of assistance without directly addressing their embarrassing and damaging behavior. When we travel outside our home borders, we are representing our nation and those who follow will inherit the reputation of those who came before.
Next time will be different. I’m looking forward to it!