Monday, May 02, 2005

Portrait of an Ugly American



The phrase, "Ugly American" was first coined in a bestselling book published in 1958, The Ugly American. The book contained slashing expos of American arrogance, incompetence, and corruption in Southeast Asia.

Although I was born in the same year that book was published, this particular blog entry has nothing to do with the political ugly American. It's more about Richard C. Crepeau's definition of the ugly American as "a caricature built on the reality of a boisterous, loud, uncultured, unsophisticated, arrogant, insensitive clod -- one who was prone to throwing around too much money, dressing absurdly, and acting oblivious to the subtleties of high culture."

Having been on 14 cruises, I tend to agree in principle with that definition. Americans do tend to behave badly when faced with social situations or cultures they aren't familar with.

A perfect example is silverware etiquette. According to Italian food retailer Barilla, here are the rules for table settings:

HOW TO SET THE TABLE
According to the rules governing formal table settings, the silverware should be arranged at the sides of the plate in the order in which the various pieces will be used. In order to avoid potentially embarrassing situations when faced with an imposing array of knives and forks, all you have to remember is that they are used as required, beginning with the implements furthest from the plate. As a rule of thumb, each course has its own silverware, up to a maximum of three forks and three spoons. In cases requiring more silverware, it is up to the person serving to bring more as needed.
Okay, for anyone who has seen Pretty Woman with Julie Roberts and remembers the restaurant scene, the basic rule for silverware use is start outside and work in. When I first started taking cruises, dinner was a pretty traditional formal affair with all of the silverware placed on the table at the onset. In the past few years they've given up and only bring a utensil when you need it. Why? Because Americans couldn't figure it out.

Don't get me started on our excess consumption of everything. When I take a cruise, I enjoy eating in the dining room where you can enjoy a leisurely paced meal with modest proportions. But 90 percent of the people prefer a buffet where they can pile more food on a single plate for a single meal than many third world countries consume in a week. Then they complain about the quality. It's little wonder that the people who work on cruise ships carry back to their countries the perpetuated image of Americans as fat, loud and wasteful.

And I've been guilty of this myself, but why is it most Americans think the perfect souvenier of a trip to another country is a t-shirt. Shoot, most of the t-shirts were manufactured in China or Indonesia and shipped to Mexico and the Caribbean where Americans haggle over the $3 price tag. And once we get our cheap t-shirt home and wash it once, the only one in the family who can fit in to it is the cat.

Then there is the basic attitude of most American tourists that everyone in a foreign port is out to cheat them, even the kids peddling Chicklets. I can never get this image out of my head of overfed cruisers fresh from the buffet, pouring off the ship in Caracas, Venezuala and bartering with these little homeless kids from the shanties that surround the city over the price of a keychain.

How many times have you seen Americans pour through a small town and tramp through a cathedral wearing shorts and tanktops, pausing only to snap a flash photograph during a funeral ceremony. Would you tolerate that in your home towns?

And what is it about Americans from the east coast that makes them shout all the time to make themselves understood in other countries. There's something about old fat women from New Jersey screaming at there husbands to "TELL HIM WE WANT TO GO TO THE BEACH, BUT WANT HIM TO WAIT FOR US BUT WE WILL ONLY PAY $3 U.S....SAY GO-O TO BEACH-O..." that makes you hope the drive will drop them off at a leper colony and high tail it out of there.

I suppose I'm no one to talk. I have done my share of parading around in shorts and a t-shirt, buying my obligatory overpriced Cuban cigar, snapping my photos and bargaining with cab drivers.

But at least I know which fork to use.

2 comments:

shandi said...

Okay...I agree with you about the whole "ugly american" thing. But, I just have to share something with you...

When I traveled to Tijuana, I was approached by a taxi driver insisting that I must take a taxi to the city. I saw hoards of people simply walking across the border and across the street to...I don't know...somewhere...

I asked the driver where all those people were heading. He assured me, "Oh, you don't want to go with them; they are going to the races." I took the cab ride for a whopping $12 american dollars. The cab driver took me on a 20 minute circuliar drive around the run-down freeways of T.J. and dropped me off less than 20 yards from where we started.

I guess it added to my mexican experience.

Great post by the way.

Tim ID said...

You were brave to take a Tijuana Taxi! I guess I wouldn't put TJ in the category of another country. Being so close to the border, it's kind of taken on its own brand of ugly.

Glad you survived.