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The Myth of the Ugly American

The day after 9/11, the French newspaper Le Monde featured an article [1] with the memorable title “We Are All Americans.” Almost 17 years later, one doubts any publication in Paris would offer such solidarity. The mainstream media love reminding us that global opinion of America has precipitously declined since the 2016  presidential election [2]. Yet in another respect, Le Monde’s assertion still rings true—people the world over continue to view themselves as Americans, at least in potential. This reality became painfully clear to me while living overseas in Southeast Asia, where I noticed a peculiar consistency to how foreigners view the United States.

Despite the many caricatures of the bumbling, arrogant American tourist, I found most Americans to be deeply interested in understanding the characteristics and nuances of foreign cultures across Asia. The strong emphasis on multiculturalism and pluralism at all levels of American academic institutions (as well as in much of the American media and Hollywood) has affected how we interact with foreign cultures. Americans traveling abroad generally presume other cultures are different from their own, and that other people see the world differently, interact differently, and value different things. Indeed, this is one of the main draws for us as Americans when contemplating traveling overseas—we want to experience something culturally new and exotic.

Tour guides know this and play it up, perhaps beyond the reality of la differance, often to such a degree that their culture appears almost otherworldly to American visitors. Countless Asians I met went to great lengths to explain how their particular culture was very different from America, and how it would require great time and energy for an American to truly understand and appreciate these divergences. In turn, I watched countless American tourists display remarkable humility and deference to these customs and beliefs. Obviously Asian tour guides understand how this paradigm works in their favor—the more exotic and “other” their culture appears, the more spellbound and respectful the Americans will be, and, of course, the more likely they’ll be to spend money.

But is this approach reciprocal? Are Asians and other peoples respectful towards, or even interested in, the nuances and complexities of American culture? Not particularly, I have found. Indeed, most of the non-Americans I met across Asia presumed they already knew most everything worth knowing about American culture and society. There’s a likely reason for this. As one CBS report noted [3]:

Generations in Asia, Africa, Europe and Latin America have grown up under the influence of the superpower U.S. and have felt awe and envy. America permeated their lives—through comics and Coke, through Hollywood and Neil Armstrong, and via the internet, iPhone and Facebook. It has been seen as the land of plenty, freedom and equality where Indian migrants could head behemoths like Google, Microsoft and Pepsi, and a South African could capture the imagination with an electric car.

Decades of successful commercialism have brought mainstays of American culture into the stores and homes of the rest of the world. No country in human history—not ancient Rome, colonial France, or the British Empire—has sought to impress its image upon the globe like the United States. Indeed, for much of the 20th and 21st centuries, we have exported not only our products, but our political and socio-cultural philosophy: democracy, rights-based law, and free markets, to name but a few. And after 75 years, we have significantly, if quite imperfectly, accomplished that mission. The “American experiment” has in many respects become the world’s experiment.

Yet the rest of the world often doesn’t understand America or appreciate its complexities. A close friend of mine, an Australian, described a Hollywood movie starring Jennifer Lawrence that takes place in Appalachia: “Winter’s Bone.” Except the film doesn’t actually take place in Appalachia (properly pronounced, by the way, “APPA-LATCH-UH”). It’s about the Ozarks, about 700 miles away. Certainly the two places share commonalities—both, for example, were settled by Scots-Irish and German immigrants. But they are different regions and have different cultures. Bluegrass music wasn’t birthed in Arkansas.

The same can be said for other “provinces” across America. It’s easy to spot differences between a New Yorker and a Californian, or a native of Chicago and a native of New Orleans. The accent, the cuisine, the ethnic heritage, the mannerisms, and the regional histories remain significantly divergent, even in our era of mass media and modern travel. Alternatively, non-Americans often presume racism is peculiar to the South (thanks Hollywood!), largely ignorant of “white flight” and the deeply embedded bigotry that still plague Northern cities like Boston and Philadelphia. Thanks to the success of American commercialism, they are well familiar with American holidays and traditions like Christmas, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day. Yet by and large they have little concept of how any of this relates to America’s peculiarly Judeo-Christian heritage religious origins. At least for most Thais, there’s no debate about “putting Christ back in Christmas”—he was never there in the first place. In their celebrations of these holidays, as with the products they buy, foreigners often assume they are taking on aspects of American identity, effectively “becoming American.” This should not be.

change_me

As an American citizen, I cannot simply participate in a rite, purchase a product, or learn a language, and suddenly declare myself Italian, Nigerian, or Chinese. I cannot go to a country, get a job, and assume another nationality. As any diligent student of another culture will tell you, even after many years within a society carefully absorbing its language and mores, native inhabitants will still view you as an outsider. This natural, almost primordial tendency in man serves important functions for group cohesion, solidarity, and survival. And yet America in many respects has fostered a system that works against this. We’ve made it harder to maintain any sense of a shared American identity, from the city to the heartland, from the highest income brackets to the lowest, as recent socio-political developments have made clear. America today suffers in large part because we cannot agree upon what it means to be American, and whether or not that identity is something truly separate and unique from the world at large. As with the ancient Roman Empire in its decaying final centuries, we’ve sold our identity to the world, and now the world works to erode it.

There’s no easy answer or fix to this problem. As FDR once quipped: “Remember, remember always, that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” America is indeed a nation of the descendants of immigrants—even the Native Americans immigrated here thousands of years ago. This is certainly a source of strength for us, and it is hard to imagine an America without the contributions of those successive waves of Irish, Italian, and more recently, Latinos and Vietnamese, among many others. Moreover, this propensity for pluralism, so ingrained in our national history, is a direct rebuke to the opinions of citizens of many countries [4], who view the United States as “intolerant.”

Some traits still seem to bind us together as Americans, unique from other peoples. As that same CBS [3] report observed: “Americans are also seen from afar as generous tippers, friendly, [and] uncomplicated.” Moreover, we are the “standard bearers of freedom, equality, creativity and technological power.” That, I suppose, is worth something, though I would argue that there must be a religious, spiritual, and/or metaphysical dimension to American identity. Despite the diversity of religious opinions and beliefs in our land, we still need some form of civic religion—some appeal to a transcendent source of life—to unite us. A belief in that “givenness” from above presumes life as a gift, and a subsequent “right” to participate in the common good. This, I’d propose, is more important than the many “rights”—be they to privacy, ownership of firearms, or sexual or gender identity—that define our contemporary debates.

One evening while living in Bangkok, my wife and I went on a date to a restaurant/bar that played American movies on a big projector screen. Upon entering, we were greeted by a friendly, Southeast Asian-looking man. As carefully instructed by other Southeast Asian natives, I carefully bowed and pushed my hands together (called a “wai”), and greeted him in Thai. He smiled and exclaimed “Hell, I’m not Thai, I’m Texan!” with the appropriate drawl. “Busted both my knees playing high school football. Made some good money with a startup company, and decided to cash out and try my luck at a restaurant in Bangkok. Y’all like burgers?” My wife and I spent the next few hours chatting about our shared American experience with a true Texan (of Vietnamese origin), munching down red meat while watching “Ferris Bueller’s Day Off.” I have only incomplete answers to what defines a unique American cultural identity and how to preserve and cultivate it. But certainly what we experienced that night points to something about the American experience worth defending.

Casey Chalk is a student at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Theology at Christendom College.

26 Comments (Open | Close)

26 Comments To "The Myth of the Ugly American"

#1 Comment By Realist On April 17, 2018 @ 2:47 am

Multiculturalism is never a good thing.

#2 Comment By Saul Goodman On April 17, 2018 @ 6:22 am

Sometimes a caricature exists because they accurately reflect the flaws of a person or group. I’ve did a fair bit of traveling in my twenties to Europe, Australia, South America and Asia. I met many people of many different cultures. Without question, the group that had the most difficulty assimilating into these other cultures were other Americans.

I saw American tourists become irritable and visibly frustrated at people in other countries for not speaking English. I saw a disinclination on the part of many to experience the native food and gravitate to the nearest McDonald’s. Binge drinking is product of American culture more so than others, so you saw a lot of tourists who already stuck out like a sore thumb acting unbelievably drunk and belligerent in comparison to other visitors.

And boy are they loud. so loud! I once spent two months going from town to town by train in Europe before settling into a summer college course in Spain. When my other American colleagues arrived, we heard them well before they even arrived. It was, I admit, embarrassing, and one of the more frequent “compliments” I received from many natives during my travels was that I was very nice, polite, considerate and thoughtful “for an American.”

It’s not fun to say or admit, but at a certain point you have admit when your people have a problem.

Of course none of that is to say that the author’s viewpoint or experience is invalid or that every American who travels abroad acts in the way I’ve described. I am, after all, an American myself. It’s also not like tourists from other countries are always perfect. I remember a couple of particularly rude Australian tourists we met in Italy. But it is a real, genuine problem that decades of over the top indoctrination about American exceptionalism has led many Americans to take those attitudes with them to other people’s lands and arrive with the expectation that the country will conform to their tastes and not the other way around.

#3 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 17, 2018 @ 6:41 am

Ugly? Those official military tourists drop a mean bomb. Not exactly winsome. Nor do they even win, anymore.

#4 Comment By Conewago On April 17, 2018 @ 6:54 am

Nothing more naively American than believing that “Judeo-Christian” is a valid and real religious heritage.

#5 Comment By Centralist On April 17, 2018 @ 7:59 am

The ugly American moniker I thought was always geared more to our government then the average citizens. The US government officials I think would fit the model of ugly American you describe better then the average citizen

#6 Comment By Youknowho On April 17, 2018 @ 8:41 am

Ah, why do tourists want exotic, different cultures? Well, if they wanted something similar as what they got back home, they would have stayed back home. They want their money’s worth. That’s the point of traveling, seeing something different. Are they being suckered into believing things that are not true? Or are they getting the entertainment they are paying for?

The question is those tourists see those people in foreign lands as PEOPLE, and not like characters in a movie playing in their heads.

#7 Comment By EliteCommInc. On April 17, 2018 @ 8:56 am

Winter’s bone is an intense film. But the use as to example was lost on me. The Australian got the region wrong, but the content and issues are pertinent to both regions, regions regardless of how one pronounces it.

__________________

“that all of us, and you and I especially, are descended from immigrants and revolutionists.” America is indeed a nation of the descendants of immigrants—even the Native Americans immigrated here thousands of years ago”

What elitist clap trap nonsense.In reality, FDR was all to happy to assume that Japanese citizens would join Japan if they attacked US shores. He was all to happy to endorse an unfair distribution of his restore america new deal based on superficial conditions, and those people were fully assimilated if not integrated into the society.

That’s right, it’s hard to assimilate into any society as a new comer. And that integration may take several generations. Which is why immigration policies would be enforced in full and respected.

And one sure as heck does not get this,

“Despite the diversity of religious opinions and beliefs in our land, we still need some form of civic religion—some appeal to a transcendent source of life—to unite us.”

by attempting resolve diversity issues by importing more diversity unchecked and assimilated. If the US wants to the US, then it should manage its immigration with some sense of order and care — say stop immigration entirely for five years, until we clean up the mess we made.

As for your comments about christ and christmas. Hogwash, the foundations of Christmas moved from hooliganism to a Christ centered ethos since the pilgrims. Sure santee claus and Rudolph play a larger theme as the country embraces the nonsense of holidays for commercial reasons — but the very word — holidays — Holy days — remains as does the very essence of Christ — giving.

The churches, have taken some hits — but the sure of Christ still dominates even if we don’t acknowledge it. And the idea that Jesus wants us to make war in Syria for Israel is bizarre —

But this country has a long way to go before Christ is dead in its fiber.
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” I have only incomplete answers to what defines a unique American cultural identity and how to preserve and cultivate it.”
Ahhhhhhh . . . ,

It is easy to forget that we are a young country still figuring out and making who we are. Nice close.

#8 Comment By mrscracker On April 17, 2018 @ 9:41 am

Saul Goodman says:

“…And boy are they loud. so loud! I once spent two months going from town to town by train in Europe before settling into a summer college course in Spain. When my other American colleagues arrived, we heard them well before they even arrived. It was, I admit, embarrassing, and one of the more frequent “compliments” I received from many natives during my travels was that I was very nice, polite, considerate and thoughtful “for an American.”
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It’s true about the excess volume level of many Americans but as far as massive drinking, the Australians have us beat big time. Scots, too. Actually, the British in general. It’s a real issue there.

#9 Comment By mrscracker On April 17, 2018 @ 9:49 am

Youknowho says:

“Ah, why do tourists want exotic, different cultures? Well, if they wanted something similar as what they got back home, they would have stayed back home. They want their money’s worth. That’s the point of traveling, seeing something different…”
**************
I think many travelers do want to authentically experience other cultures, but on the other hand, most of the gated, “all inclusive” resorts closely resemble one another. You might as well save the money & passport & find something closer to home.

#10 Comment By Apathetic or whatever On April 17, 2018 @ 10:09 am

I try my best to be an Ugly American when I travel abroad.

I am of course referring to the main character of the book The Ugly American.

The original Ugly American from the book was an example to follow. He learned the local language, respected local culture and befriended local people. He helped improve the economy by helping to develop actual jobs for the community.

Somehow his title of Ugly American has been transformed into an insult aimed at people who embody the exact opposite characteristics.

Reading that book changed how I viewed the world. I would recommend it to everyone before they go abroad.

#11 Comment By Ryan W On April 17, 2018 @ 10:10 am

Drawing on my own experience, I think it would be more accurate to talk about the “ugly Anglo-Saxon” or even the “ugly Westerner” than the “ugly American”. I think America is just more visible than other countries because it’s simply bigger. But what I found in five years of living in Asia (Korea and Vietnam, while visiting most of the other countries in the area), was that Americans, or Westerners generally, don’t get “ugly” as long as they’re just tourists. As the article notes, Western tourists tend to be enchanted by the strangeness of foreign places, which results in a generally polite and accommodating demeanour. However, in my experience, this tends to change when you look at “long-term” expatriates who live and work in a place for months or years. The trouble is that the embrace of foreign cultures tends to be fairly superficial. Once the initial enchantment wears off and people realize that cultural difference affects deep and important things, and isn’t just a matter of strange clothes and cool greetings, a significant reserve of hostility and cultural entitlement bubbles up. Ironically, I’ve found that it’s often the people who are the most theatrical about “respecting” a foreign culture at the beginning who get the most hostile later on.

#12 Comment By Margaret On April 17, 2018 @ 10:17 am

@Saul Goodman — How long ago was this? Because times have changed. The Chinese are now the loud, rude tourists.

I also find it weird that the author would expect someone from Australia to know the difference between the Ozarks and Appalachians. How much do Americans know about Australian geography? Nada.

#13 Comment By Lert345 On April 17, 2018 @ 10:24 am

The Brits are famous for public drunkenness. I recall that British tourists under a certain age were banned from some Greek islands because of it.

I found that the most anti-American people were actually Canadians. Most of those I met only had negative things to say about the US, and rather impolitely too. You could be talking about the weather and out of nowhere they’d start in with their complaints. Maybe an inferiority complex or something – who knows?

#14 Comment By Bill Haywood On April 17, 2018 @ 1:21 pm

Haven’t been overseas in a long time. So American tourists no longer complain that the locals actually know English, but pretend not to?

#15 Comment By cacambo On April 17, 2018 @ 2:10 pm

Not to split hairs, but Bluegrass wasn’t “birthed” in Appalachia either. It was invented by Bill Monroe, among others, in the 40s and 50s. It drew on traditional string band forms, but also incorporated blues traditions as well.

#16 Comment By EarlyBird On April 17, 2018 @ 2:18 pm

“Indeed, most of the non-Americans I met across Asia presumed they already knew most everything worth knowing about American culture and society.”

As someone who has traveled extensively throughout much of the world, this has been my experience in general, that foreigners think they “know” America, because they are so awash in our cultural products.

#17 Comment By Josep On April 17, 2018 @ 2:21 pm

I’ve visited a few English-language expat sites and forums (e.g. ToyTown Germany), and noticed how some expats complain about the following in their host countries:
* lack of English proficiency
* lack of queues
* “poor” customer service
* people not smiling
* not saying “please” or “thank you”
* lack of air conditioning
* not holding the door open
Many of the users of such forums include Britons and, surprisingly, Australians, so I wouldn’t say it’s limited to Americans (as Ryan W points out). Either way, it definitely reeks of entitlement and colonialism. It’s almost like economic migrants moving to a welfare state and mooching on its benefits while disdaining the country’s people and culture, making no effort in assimilating.

#18 Comment By Dan Green On April 17, 2018 @ 3:57 pm

I traveled a lot to many countries on business as a representative, of a major US multinational. I always got the feeling, we Americans are not as popular a culture as we believe in. We are primarily simply placated by our guest. Our European ancestors to this day tag us as an experiment.

#19 Comment By Delos Fall On April 17, 2018 @ 4:42 pm

“Yet the rest of the world often doesn’t understand America or appreciate its complexities.”

I’m in Peru for the semester, and easily 80% of the time when I tell people I’m from Chicago, I get “Ah! Al Capone!” and then they start miming somebody shooting a tommy gun.

I don’t even mind, it’s hilarious.

#20 Comment By Hawkins Parker On April 17, 2018 @ 5:10 pm

>>> Americans abroad are actually quick to defer to other cultures.

Really? I’ve traveled extensively and I’ve never seen this. Anywhere.

Heck, I’ve never seen ‘Americans at home quick to defer to other cultures.’

#21 Comment By Fran Macadam On April 17, 2018 @ 9:24 pm

“I’m in Peru for the semester, and easily 80% of the time when I tell people I’m from Chicago, I get ‘Ah! Al Capone!’ and then they start miming somebody shooting a tommy gun.

“I don’t even mind, it’s hilarious.”

And not only that, it’s true, given Chicago’s murder rate!

#22 Comment By cka2nd On April 18, 2018 @ 3:13 am

Margaret says: “How much do Americans know about Australian geography? Nada.”

Hey! I’ve seen “The Flame Trees of Thika” and “The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert” I’ve only seen the former once 30 years ago, but I learned about Alice Springs from it, and you can actually glean a fair amount from the latter, from small towns in the outback to the Melbourne suburbs. Now that I think about it, other movies and TV shows about Australia have been pretty instructive, too, although more about the rural-urban divide than about the differences between the big urban areas, I think.

#23 Comment By mrscracker On April 18, 2018 @ 9:52 am

cka2nd,

It’s been a while but I thought “The Flame Trees of Thika” was about Africa? Maybe Alice Springs played a part in the plot, too?

I don’t think some Americans are knowledgeable about other regions of their own nation, much less Australia’s. We tend to make assumptions about ourselves based on Hollywood’s interpretation, too.

#24 Comment By mrscracker On April 18, 2018 @ 10:04 am

Fran Macadam,
Peru, at least from a quick glance at data online, has a homicide rate a bit higher than the US as a whole. But not even close to Columbia, El Salvador, Honduras, Jamaica, etc. There’s some bad stuff going on down there. Very sad for such beautiful countries.

#25 Comment By Chiming in On April 18, 2018 @ 10:50 pm

Saul Goodman and Ryan W are right.

#26 Comment By Ray Woodcock On April 20, 2018 @ 4:50 pm

I found this article interesting and useful. I had not thought about it quite this way before, about the non-reciprocality of American vs. non-American appreciation of alien cultures. Not to oversell it — I gather there are still plenty of “bumbling, arrogant” American tourists — but it’s a point.

I don’t think America suffers because we can’t agree on what it means to be American. On one hand, to the extent that’s true, I don’t think it’s new, though it may seem so to those who don’t know our history. On the other hand, I don’t think it’s very true. Or at least, as you say, the French have a pretty good idea of what it means to be American — enough, anyway, to know it ain’t them.

Can’t quite agree with the notion that a “‘givenness’ from above” “is more important than “the many ‘rights’ . . . that define our contemporary [and historical] debates.” Those debates continue to shape this country. Maybe if the givenness were translated into terms more specific than a “‘right’ to participate in the common good.” Not sure what that means.

I’d say what’s really worth defending about the American experience would emerge if, in Bangkok, you were to run into a transsexual Planned Parenthood employee looking to score some coke, and if you and she were able to have a friendly conversation and come away feeling proud of your country. Something to aspire to, no?