Ugly. This loaded adjective encapsulates a world of negativity. It is no less so when used to conceptualize a nationality. “Ugly American” is a derogatory term used to describe a loud, arrogant, demeaning, thoughtless, ignorant and ethnocentric U.S. citizen. Only 36% of the US population has a valid passport according to the U.S. State Department, so I can only hope that there are just a few “Ugly Americans” at large. But given that about 68 million Americans traveled abroad in 2014 according to the U.S. Department of Commerce, it is possible that you have met an “Ugly American.”
In my experience of traveling 41 countries, as well as hearing horror stories of the “Ugly American,” it is unfortunate to see how even a handful of Americans colors the rest of the world’s perspective of us. For me, the “Ugly American” is the American who shows excessive arrogance and cultural insensitivity. It’s the American who believes that by the virtue of American citizenship, he or she is exempt from all rules. It’s the American who goes around saying things like “How America does it.” The point of traveling or living abroad is to experience something new—the culture, the history, the people, the food, the architecture, the art—that we cannot experience in our own native borders. It is to accept what is different and adapt, not to compare and instantly label something different as bad.
Having met such ugly Americans, albeit very few and far between, even I cannot escape the acknowledgement that Americans are not the best expats or tourists and that I too have had my “Ugly American” moments. The inherited legacy of the “Ugly American” and the handful that are at large have created a haunting self-critical stereotype that Americans believe about themselves today. LivingSocial and Mandala Research’s 2012 survey shows how this stereotype from the 1950s haunts today’s generation of travelers. 5,600 respondents from five countries, 4,000 of whom were Americans, ranked Americans first as the world’s worst tourists. Being self-aware and acknowledging that some Americans live up to this stereotype is improving the world’s favorability toward us. According to PEW, nations across the globe are looking more favorably upon the United States. There are many different factors such as a weaker dollar, or a more globalized society, or local interests which lead to mind opening experiences, or an overall better political image that are finally allowing Americans to shake off this stereotype somewhat, though it has taken nearly 70 years for this ugly stereotype to subside.
When asked to write this article, I chose this topic not to harangue my fellow Americans. “Ugly American” is an inherited stereotype which has taken us a long time to shrug off. Traveling to 41 countries does not give me any right to judge other tourists, but it does not mean I do not see the flaws in bad tourist behavior either. In writing this article, I do not want to be mistaken for pointing blame or excusing bad behavior. I want to illustrate that we can all stand guilty of being “ugly” and that we can all afford to be more culturally sensitive and accepting. Whether we are traveling or living abroad, let’s be better guests in someone else’s home. The idiom “When in Rome,” should not just apply to the fun aspects of visiting another country but also to the following of cultural norms and rules, because when it comes to “ugliness,” what happens in Las Vegas, does not stay in Las Vegas.