The trope of the ‘Ugly American’ can be a sad reality at times. What is an Ugly American you ask? From Wikipedia;
“Ugly American” is a stereotype depicting American citizens as exhibiting loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric behavior mainly abroad, but also at home.
It is important to recognize that applying this pejorative to every scenario that involves a cultural faux pas is incorrect. For example, when dining overseas it is not rude or inconsiderate to ask for clarification on what a menu item is, or what ingredients it contains. For those with food allergies this can mean the difference between life and death. This article on the signs of an Ugly American points to the practice of asking the exchange rate in US dollars for items. This I disagree with as not everyone can always have currency exchange information on their smart phones. Many merchants and businesses helpfully keep currency conversion handy just for this reason. There are however, a few clear-cut examples I recall from traveling overseas that are worth mentioning. These I classify as Ugly American Situational Syndrome, or UASS for short.
I have written before about Guam, but here is another story on island life…
A lifetime ago in the late 90s I was stationed on the pacific island of Guam at the start of my naval career. After purchasing a ‘Boonie’ car whose better days were seen around the Reagan administration I began to explore the island in my time off. Being a naïve 19-year-old sailor, I went pretty much all over the island without regard to islander dynamics in mind.
One weekend, I went to a pool hall by myself and began to play with a group of Chamorros (local Guamanians). I had noticed the bar in passing a few times and decided to finally check it out. After meeting the owner and playing a few games with him, I noticed that I was the only American in this local bar. I asked Richard (the bar owner) if it was ok to be in the pool hall, and he replied, “You are welcome here anytime. You are respectful.”
Back at work that Monday, several fellow sailors asked where I was that weekend. (pre-cell phone era) I explained that I had gone to the pool hall downtown. They expressed shock and dismay that I went there, explaining that they had tried to go a few weeks ago and had been summarily thrown out after being told it was for locals only.
“Were you drunk and being dumb?” I asked. “Yeah,” they admitted.
This attitude of barging into places and acting as if there was a sacrosanct right to be in a space was a common theme overseas. Going into a local bar and trying to take over is textbook UASS behavior.
Spending time exploring the country of Singapore is quite the experience. Located at the southern tip of Malaysia, this small island nation has many attractions. From the world famous Singapore Zoo, to the famed Gardens by the Bay, a $1 billion botanical garden inspired by the three distinct ethnic cultures of Chinese, Malay, and Indian. On this visit, our group of Sailors found ourselves on the famed Orchard road, a retail and dining district. Lining the street were plenty of restaurants to choose from, and we quickly decided on a pleasant outside café with a patio. A large sandwich style billboard on the sidewalk displayed the drinks available for order. Besides Coca-Cola and various teas, the café had three types of beer; Heineken, Stella Artois, and Tiger beer (the local favorite, usually consumed as a last resort).
A polite waitress came to the table and we began to place our drink orders. Everything was moving along smoothly until she came to our traveling companion that I’ll call ‘Don.’ Without too much backstory let’s say that Don was, well, unworldly is the nice way to describe it. On this deployment, he was one who would look for the nearest McDonald’s, or ask nonsensical questions on local culture. Not one to disappoint, he requested a Budweiser. Then a Coors Light. When informed that the café did not carry those he topped it off with, “You mean to tell me you don’t have any American beers?” Maintaining my composure through gritted teeth I helpfully directed Don’s attention to the before mentioned sign on the sidewalk that had the available refreshments. He continued to show his dismay that a restaurant 8800 miles from the USA would not carry his favorite swill.
It is not that difficult to avoid the UASS label while traveling and living overseas. Understanding different customs and cultures will help one avoid becoming a living embodiment of UASS.
Ugly American Definition
7 Signs You’re An Ugly American
Singapore’s Orchard Road