Everyone who has ever traveled international and many who have not, have heard the term ugly Americans. It comes from the way some of us act when we travel abroad. We are louder than most people, we are more outgoing, and many things that are not strange here stand out in other cultures.
I have traveled a lot internationally and I can tell you that while I am willing to admit that many of the things for which we are labeled ugly are merely cultural differences there is plenty that we need to change when we travel abroad. On the other hand, many times I have seen people behaving in ways that are not inherently American but are inherently ugly.
My first trip to Europe was in the summer of 1980. I spent eight weeks in Munich, Germany and one week in Oxford, England. In Munich we stayed in an apartment at Number 7 Hertzog-Wilhelm Strasse. It was right off the main entrance at Karl’s Platz, see my blog on Munich for a photograph of the entrance. I lived just a block and a half from there.
While we were there, I was serving as a summer missionary, we were handing out Christian literature and talking to people on the streets of Munich. One day I was handing out literature where the subway comes up in the heart of Marienplatz. The best part about working in a foreign country where you have a limited knowledge of the language is that when the teenagers would make fun of you, you have no idea what they were actually saying.
As I was smiling at the mocking teenagers, I heard a lady’s voice coming from about a block away. She was screaming at a man who was about half a block behind her. I am not sure whether he was having trouble keeping up with her, or he had deliberately put some distance between them. This lady was really loud. And she was an American. It took me a minute to realize she was lost and making sure her husband knew she was lost.
As she got nearer to me, I began to understand her. “He said it was right up here, but I don’t see it. Why would that man not tell the truth?” In an effort to save every American who has ever traveled abroad some embarrassment I stepped up.
“Can I help you, ma’am?” I asked her quietly, hoping she would follow suit.
Instead, she turned around and yelled back to her husband, “Quick honey, this one speaks English!”
“I would hope so, ma’am, I am from Georgia.” I do not think she ever caught on to the fact that I was an American like her.
“Hurry, honey, let’s see if he can help us.” She continued yelling. Marienplatz was crowded and people were starting to stare at the loud Americans.
Finally, her husband came up to where we were standing, a little bit shy or embarrassed, I could not tell which. “Ma’am, what are you trying to find?”
She continued yelling and speaking slowly, because we all know that makes it easier to understand English, even though we were standing less than two feet apart. “We are trying to find the Frauenkirche!” Of course, she did not come close to pronouncing it correctly.
“Well, ma’am, you are just a block or so away. Continue up this road,” I pointed up the pedestrian zone toward Karl’s Platz, “and you will see it down the next street to your right.”
The old lady turned, grabbed her husband’s hand and shouted, “He says it is just up here. Come on we have to hurry.” And they disappeared into the beautiful Munich afternoon.
I went back to handing out literature and getting laughed at even worse by the local teenagers.
On another trip, also to Germany, I traveled with a small group of pastors. As it turns out, we had one ugly American on this trip. He was loud, he was often obnoxious, and he was sometimes rude. There are two instances that come to mind.
The first one happened on a train. We were riding from Hamburg to Cologne, Germany in the first-class section of the train. During the entire trip which lasted several hours or more, though it seemed like days, he talked about five times louder than anyone else on the train. It was so obnoxious that we were getting a lot of looks from a lot of people during the entire trip. I would watch them look over their shoulders at us as if willing us to stop talking or get off their train.
Now, Germans are quiet people in public. They talk in hushed tones in many settings where Americans would be naturally loud, like in University cafeterias. Here we were on the expense part of the train, and it felt like he was screaming. As the train came into the main station in Cologne I thought, thank God, this nightmare is over. I was about to learn how wrong I could be.
Most everyone on the train began gathering their belongings to depart because this was a main transfer point in the German train system. They seemed even more relieved than I was.
As the pastor gathered his bags he shouted out, “I guess all these people will be happy to get these ugly Americans off their train!” And he started laughing. I quickly ducked back down into my seat hoping that no one would realize that I had brought this man into their world. Not satisfied with the response, he continued, “Yep, let’s get rid of these uglyAmericans!”
The train was almost stopped, but the pastor was not. “Yes sir, uggggglllllly Americans, uggggllllly Americans!” He stretched out the word ugly like nothing I have ever heard. It was like being in a dream that will not end.
Thankfully the train stopped, the doors opened, and everyone ran off the train except the ugly Americans. The rest of my group stayed on the train for another moment hoping to be free of the judgment that was coming from every person on the train, German or otherwise.
There was one other incident involving this same pastor. It occurred a couple of days later at the same train station. We stepped into the shopping area underneath the tracks because a couple of people wanted to eat at Burger King. One of our pastors liked to get burgers without anything but ketchup and mustard and Burger King was your best bet, even though the German version of Burger King had apparently never seen the advertisement about having it your way.
The ugly American pastor stepped up to the counter to order. He began his order very loudly and very slowly. Again, we all know that this is the best way to make sure that foreigners can understand you. He ordered a TRIPLE Whooper, something I did not even know they made, without onions and lettuce and with extra ketchup. The girl behind the counter repeated his order in nearly accent less English. She may well have been an American whose parents were in the military because a lot of them work in fast food restaurants. Unfortunately, she repeated his order incorrectly, adding extra mustard to the burger.
The pastor started yelling at the worker in loud, slow English. She messed up the order again when she repeated it. So, the pastor yelled louder and slower. By now the girl is nearly in tears. We are all backing away. The pastor turns to us and yells something like, “Man, these workers in fast food restaurants are bad the world over, aren’t they.”
At this point, I took everyone, but one other person, and we went somewhere else to find food. Later we learned that when he finally got his food he sat down, stuffed that triple whooper in his mouth, took a big bite, and with his mouth full, screamed, “Now, that is what I am talking about!”
Needless to say, I do not travel with this pastor internationally any more.
These are just a few examples, I have others.
Try to remember when you are traveling that whether you like it or not, you are an ambassador of America. You may be the only real America any one ever sees. If that is the case, try to be sensitive. Most of the world is quieter than America. Most of the world is less friendly than America. They are not wrong, they are different.
Try to learn a few words in the local language, that goes a long way. I try to learn how to say hello and how are you. And then I go to “Do you speak English?” in their local language. You would be surprised at how much good will you can get from these simple phrases.
Let’s all commit to being sensitive when we are traveling abroad. Let’s decide that we are going to be the reason that people in the rest of the world like Americans. Let’s make sure they have a good experience with Americans. It is a tall order, but I think we can do it.
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