The Ugly American Syndrome

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Originally from England, I have had the privilege of living on three different continents, have visited almost twenty different countries, and hope to visit many more places.

One thing I found prevalent in every country is that the ugly idea of prejudice is alive and well on planet earth.

Prejudice is defined as a “preconceived opinion(s) that is (are) not based on reason or actual experience(s).”

Visitors to England come with preconceived opinions about the food or the people. It may be something as innocuous as thinking all British food is bland or that all Brits stand around Buckingham Palace waiting for a personal invitation from Her Majesty the Queen while eating another portion of fish and chips.

Foreign visitors to the UK think that we intentionally drive on the wrong side of the road just to confuse the rest of Europe. However, the truth is that Brits know how to drive on the CORRECT side of the road and that one-third of countries around the world also drive on the left side of the road including countries on the continents of Europe, Asia, South America, Africa, and the entire continent of Australia. But I digress.

When we moved to Liberia, West Africa, we attempted to fit in with the culture and lifestyles of those we taught on a daily basis. It was a vain attempt for the primary reason that unless you were raised from birth in a particular culture, it is impossible to live exactly like the local populace.

A second reason why we did not fit in is because we were very white or light-skinned compared to every single one of our neighbors. This is a problem because everybody not only sees you as different, they KNOW you are different. You are NOT one of them. The result is unfair trading practices that would never be allowed against foreign visitors to the USA. Rent or housing is generally much higher, as are basic commodities like food, utilities, etc. In many countries, there are “local prices” and then there are the “white man prices.”

Arguing and becoming bitter though will not accomplish anything because you must remind yourself that you are NOT in the USA. Things are different in every single country in the world and unless you were born there, you are to some degree a foreigner.

In this context, foreigner is simply being defined as “a person born in or coming from a country other than one’s own.”

Understanding this basic reality will help make or break your stay in whatever country you have chosen to live in. If you are a European living in Asia, or Asian living in Africa, or African living in the Americas, it is still incumbent on you to learn to live within the rules of whatever country you have selected as your primary domicile.

This is where Americans have sadly become the laughing stock of the rest of the world. My thoughts here do not obviously define every single American, but my travels have revealed the sad reality of the Ugly American syndrome.

Wikipedia defines the term “Ugly American” to “refer to perceptions of loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant, and ethnocentric behavior of American citizens mainly abroad, but also at home.”

Photo by Priscilla Du Preez on Unsplash

What does this look like?

Let’s give a few examples –

1.  Going abroad to a country that speaks a language (normally other than English) and expect them to learn your language to make life easier for you.

There is a rich vastness of human language that will increase your knowledge by simply making attempts to try and learn a local language. It will endear you to many of the native population and enrich your own travel experiences.

By the way, speaking louder than normal in English with animated gestures will not make you any easier to understand, but will simply peg you as an Ugly American.

2.  Going abroad and expecting the locals to act like America is a huge faux pas that will not only upset your hosts, but will just make you an Ugly American.

There is no country in the world that is just like America. Conversely, there is no country in the world that is just like Azerbaijan, Armenia, Botswana, Cambodia, France, Ghana, India, New Zealand, or any of the almost 200 different and distinct countries of this little blue ball we call Planet Earth.

3.  Going abroad and reminding your hosts how much better things are in your home country will not make you flavor of the month.

The fact that you even have the funds to visit a foreign country means you are wealthier than a fair portion of the populace in the country you are visiting. Visiting other countries, or even living in a country other than the one where you were born, is a privilege. It is not a right. You are, and will always be, a visitor in some way or another.

4.  Going abroad and flaunting your money is an unforgiveable error.

When we lived in Liberia, it was considered to be the fourth poorest country in the world according to the United Nations. The average person lived off of less than $1 (USD) per day. For those who could get work, it would mean working 12–14 hours per day for that amount of money.

Our family had to learn quickly how to go about helping others and disbursing our own funds. We were obviously more well off than any of our neighbors and they never expected us to live off $1 (USD) per day. However, we did try to make sure that we lived within our means without becoming an Ugly American.

I remember while in Liberia staying in a home where we had an African American visitor come for a visit. It was his first time to West Africa. In fact, he admitted that he had never even visited a country outside of the US. He was in his mid-30s. Everything he said and did quickly became an offense to Liberians and it was painfully obvious that he was just intent on being an Ugly American. To him, the food was horrible, the room not cool enough, and there was never enough that was being done for him by the locals. He complained about everything and though throwing more US dollars at select individuals would help him be more comfortable and live just like he was in America.

5.  Finally, going abroad and not using common courtesy will make you an Ugly American.

This is actually quite simple. Ask. ASK. And then, ASK again if you want to do something like — take videos or pictures of the local cuisine, of the locals, of buildings, of anything. Some countries have taboos about you taking pictures. In some places, you may find yourself breaking the law simply because you think you are entitled to point a camera at whatever suits your fancy.

Sadly, we can even find Ugly Americans in America. We were at a church years ago and had a Ukrainian choir come for a visit. It was their first time to ever leave Ukraine and this was shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain. The pastor of the American church did a brief slide show and made fun of the food he had eaten while visiting their country the previous year. He talked about how bad the food was and that he was glad he finally found a place to buy a hamburger. The Ukrainian choir had given their best while he visited them, but it was not good enough. Many in the congregation laughed along with the pastor while the Ukrainian visitors hung their heads with shame and embarrassment.

After the church service, the members put on a huge potluck lunch. The Ukrainian visitors had never seen so much food and a couple of them even commented on the amount of food that was being thrown away in the trash. In the end, all many of them could see were Ugly Americans.

In conclusion, there is a rich heritage in every country, in every language, and in every culture. People in other countries are proud to show off their country and what they have to offer. Here are a few helpful tips that will make your trip more enjoyable.

1. Learn from others.

2. Enjoy the experiences.

3. Travel the world.

4. Practice using a few words in other languages.

5. Don’t disappoint them by being an Ugly American.

6. Be respectful.

7. Remember that you are like a goodwill ambassador of America wherever you visit. Act accordingly.