Monday, September 17, 2012

On Avoiding Being "The Ugly American"

The Three "Stoolges" on Walking Street, Pattaya

For the sake of argument, let's agree that we're not dealing with The Ugly American, the 1958 novel by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick and sticking with the common usage: a pejorative term for a "stereotypical offensive American: a loud, boorish, nationalistic American, especially one traveling abroad, who is regarded as conforming to a stereotype that gives Americans a bad reputation" (Encarta dictionary).

It's unfortunate the term seems to focus mostly on those of us in the USA, which in and of itself is exclusionary enough - after all, there are plenty of other countries in North and South America that contain unpleasant examples of humanity - but I suppose it's all part of it, isn't it?  We're the real Americans, damn it. Now, if the behavior were limited to only we from the US that'd be a different story, but the label of Ugly American fits people across the wide spectrum of races, countries and cultures. You may have an example or two that pop to your mind... I certainly do.

It's reasonably important to remember that we - like it or not - are all ambassadors of a sort, and should behave accordingly. If you read up on your planned destination(s) it's not difficult to learn enough about the local customs and traditions to be a gracious guest.

Two obvious examples most readers here should know about visiting Thailand: it's always wise to be respectful of the royal family, and climbing up onto a statue of the Buddha for a snapshot - or any similar disrespectful actions like it - are likely to get you into trouble, but opening your own personal Pandora's box of less-desirable facets of yourself can, too.

Regardless of how pointedly acerbic your own "humor" may seem be to you or those who understand your "style" at home, sarcasm rarely translates well into another language (or culture). At best, you'll merely confuse the person you're dealing with; at worst you'll come across as an asshole and lose face, which is probably the more likely of the two possibilities, since many who think their wit isn't understood just compound the social gaffe by pushing it further.

The three men sitting on stools at a beer bar (ladies as Rented Admirers optional) are enough of an illustration, I felt, so there's the image.  The one on the far left was being pleasant while interacting with the girls at the club, and the one in the middle appeared to be doing the same.

The Hulk on the right, however, appeared at the time to be a force I'd prefer not to deal with.  He'd been lurching up and down Walking Street a couple of times while I was there with a friend, and we (and others) gave him a wide and clear berth.  Swaying back and forth he actually growled as he moved along. At first I'd thought he might have just been burping, but that wasn't the case.

My Thai friend leaned in towards me and gave me his opinion on where this walking refrigerator may have been visiting from, and he may have been right - but I just said "Ugly American", without thinking. Then I had to explain it, and this time it didn't take much of an effort to get the meaning across to him.

He told a story about seeing one of millions of balding, pot-bellied later-middle-aged male farang haggling with a vendor at the JJ  weekend market a few months before. Haggling is expected by many vendors; a good-natured (if sometimes slightly aggressive) but respectful bantering back and forth in an attempt to reach a "win-win" agreement on the price of an item. This particular episode had begun to escalate beyond banter, and my friend stopped at a safe distance to watch them.

The short version is that the farang actually began to holler about "being an American" and not being willing to be "ripped off by some bandit". When the vendor tried to smile it off and turn away, the farang grabbed his arm to turn him back face-to-face and lunged at the Thai. Vendors and others nearby joined in and gave the Ugly American what he had coming to him, to my way of thinking.

The people who over-indulge in public to the point of losing control of their manners and/or civility can be the worst of it, but the man at JJ was merely a pig-headed fool of a bully, pure and simple.  I'd wager we all run into similar folks on a daily basis. There's rarely an explanation as to why they're such mean-spirited creatures (bad childhood, inferiority complex the size of a Buick, monthly cramps, small penis, inability to hold a civil relationship together... who knows?) but they're there, meaning here and there, anywhere around the globe; being miserable and freely willing to visit their misery on anyone within reach, figuratively or literally.

Readers by now are well aware I'm not one who studiously follows dogma of any stripe, but there are some basic rules of life that I subscribe to, and one of those is what many would call the Golden Rule: do unto others as you would have others do unto you.  That covers nearly all social situations, and if you don't allow it to tarnish while traveling it'll serve you well.


LA Nomadic said...

I cringe when I am a spectator to this sort of behavior too. You are correct in noting that this is not solely relegated to Americans but, the label sure has had staying power over the years.

The sad fool that you highlight is sadly disconnected from his fellow man. I suspect he has much shame that he tries to cover up with bravado.

Thanks, as always for your wonderful blog.


khunbaobao said...

Thank you for joining in, Dave. This post was a little out of character for me, but the subject had been on my mind recently.