The Ugly American
I have decided to write this column, which I have thinking about for sometime, from inside the American embassy in Mumbai. And by American embassy I mean Starbucks.
It is somewhat embarrassing to me, but from time to time on this long road trip around the world, I have slipped into these familiar surroundings for the reliable Wi-Fi, the air conditioning, the cold drinks that are cold by American standards, and the coffee that is served 16 ounces at a time.
It is surprising to me when I find a Starbucks, because I’m not really looking for them they just appear. In the middle of a flower market in Bangkok, around the corner from my hostel in Saigon, or in this case two blocks from my hotel in Mumbai which is also right next to the high court and the Bombay Stock Exchange.
I feel like a traveling failure when I come inside and if no one could tell I’m an American as I walk the streets of various cities they certainly know it as soon as I cross the threshold into the land of the Grande Vanilla Latte. I know the menu better than the staff and in India in particular I can feel the eyes of the nation upon me as they watch to see how an American uses a Starbucks. “Look,” they say to each other, “He’s setting up his laptop right on that common table as if it’s his own house.”
The Starbucks in Saigon is where the seed for this column was planted. During those few hot days in October I was staying in a hostel located inside a maze of alleys. The room was very small and if I wanted to get any work done I either had to go right next door to Starbucks, or about a block away to the Vietnamese equivalent known as Highlands Coffee.
It was in the Saigon Starbucks that I came across my first group of ugly Americans who were flaunting their wealth, talking loudly, and calling attention to themselves in a manner that suggested they felt entitled.
It was a group of three kids really — in their 20’s and 30’s and they were working for a firm that provides concierge services to wealthy travelers. They wore t-shirts with the company logo so I looked up the firm to see what it was all about. In short, if you have the money, you can hire this firm to pick you up at the airport, take you wherever you need to go, hold your hand throughout your visit and make sure you never have to interact with the people who live in the country you are visiting. You are wrapped in a tourist cocoon.
These obnoxious traveling butlers were carrying on about their experiences and apparently were feeling a bit homesick. They had had enough of Vietnam. Suddenly one, the oldest of the group, burst out in a loud voice, “THIS IS FUCKING AMERICA! Starbucks. We are in fucking America right now. This place is ours.”
“Great,” I thought. Way to fly the flag you jerk.
My point being, if you are going to travel to other countries understand that you are representing your own country and have a little humility. Don’t embarrass your hosts. Don’t put them down. Don’t criticize their way of life even if it is driving you crazy.
The ugly American syndrome is not limited to Americans. I’ve witnessed ugly Germans, ugly French and ugly Australians on this trip. One Australian made a big show of not drinking the water or using the ice in Vietnam. Instead of just declining a glass of water politely he had to loudly explain to everyone in the room that the water in Vietnam is simply unsafe to drink and he would never consider taking a sip. Please, young man, be a good bloke and find a way to quietly ask for a bottle of water.
I saw another group from Australia riding high end dirt bikes through the streets of Kathmandu like marauders from a previous century. Traffic and road conditions in Kathmandu are bad enough. A bunch of cowboys on BMW cross country bikes gunning through the streets was actually terrorizing to some of the locals. “What a pack of”…I thought. Their bikes were bigger than some of the cars in Nepal.
In Phnom Penh, Cambodia, Australian bikers had their own bar where they parked their motorcycles outside, drank large amounts of beer and watched rugby from back home. No one else was welcome in their bar, but at least they were keeping their behavior to themselves.
Americans, Germans and the French often fall into the general category of, “You don’t do things my way therefore I am better than you.” This of course is not true, but it’s an attitude that leaves a negative impression in foreign countries.
In Delhi, I walked into the middle of an especially obnoxious display by a young American man who was explaining to an Indian why his country is failing and how his culture’s approach to religion was making the problem worse. He was precocious — post college age — and very good at debating, but not good at listening, and possessing a terribly closed mind.
He told his non-practicing Hindu host that only Christian religions have any merit, that the religions practiced in India put too much faith in a greater power and none in the power of the individual to improve his or her own life circumstances. He accused all Indians of being fat and lazy and said the country is so dirty, because again, non-Christian faiths require no work on the part of the individual. Therefore garbage piles up on the streets while everyone waits for their god to clean things up for them.
I wasn’t even part of the conversation and I was embarrassed. The Indian victim of this ugly American politely listened and since he wasn’t allowed to make a counter argument he was left only to say, “You have some interesting points, but I am not prepared to argue with you right now, because your English is better than mine.”
On the contrary, in each country I have visited I have been impressed by how friendly and helpful most people are. People are eager to hear where I am from and when I tell them the “United States” or “America” they break out in a smile and often say something like “we love America.”
In fact, the guy downstairs at this Starbucks in Mumbai said, “America is my favorite country.” I didn’t tell him that he was in America as he stood behind the counter.
Earlier in the day I was photographing the neighborhood. It has a large inventory of buildings designed and constructed in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s. All around me young Indian professionals were reporting to work wearing fashion trends out of New York and talking on their cell phones. They all want to be in Brooklyn and they don’t realize they already are. If the young people who have taken over Brooklyn could see this place, see this architecture and the prices, they would set up shop in Mumbai tomorrow.
Wherever we are we often want to be somewhere else. We idealize places we have never been and imagine or assume they are better than where we are. My point is this: Our personalities are shaped in large part based on where we are from. When we travel, we are ambassadors for our country, our state, our town, our family, our way of life and ourselves. Don’t disappoint. Represent yourself well, because how you behave leaves a first and lasting impression your hosts in foreign countries will carry with them always. Don’t be an ugly American.