Tuesday, June 06, 2006

All American

We live in America. We have choices, opportunities and freedoms that are seldom present in other parts of the world as prevalently as they are here, even with all of the controversy. We should be grateful for our freedoms, for everything we are given just for being born in America. I am just as American as the next person, but I have to admit, there have been times when I wished that I was not.

As I age, I find, among other unpleasantries, that my view of America is changing. I would like to blame this on one person President Bush or event, but I cannot. I would like to say that it is because I feel the rights that so many have fought so hard to keep and/or obtain, are being threatened, but that's not it either (although these things do contribute). I would like to say that it comes mostly from the knowledge of the "Ugly American".

Until my late twenties, my international travel included only trips north to our neighboring Canada (which I love). Being only a ferry ride away from a drinking age two years behind ours (it was 19 in Canada at the time, 21 in the states) was an advantage I fully enjoyed during my first few years of college. Several of us, numerous times, made the seasick journey to Victoria B.C. to explore the pubs and night life. I am pretty sure that I garnered eyerolls and stares by our gracious hosts and was referred to as the "Ugly American" more than once.

Fast forward a few years and a mellowed, matured and married version of my college student self was all set to embark upon the border to our south, Mexico. I looked forward to using my Spanish and seeing the culture, not to mention the margaritas and palm trees swaying in the baja breeze. Turns out that I knew enough Spanish to talk myself and three others out of a trip to a Mexican jail in La Paz, order beer, find the bathroom and hail a life-altering taxi for a ride back to the hotel. I found myself conflicted while vacationing in this beautiful land. I was having a hard time enjoying myself while seeing, for the first time really, such extreme poverty. I was beginning to understand why so many families flee to our country to "find a better life", I was beginning to realize that even the poorest individual in America has more opportunities and services available to them than some of these people. How the heck can one enjoy a bucket of Corona when little (4 year-olds) girls are constantly offering to braid your hair or want to sell you a trinket or pack of chicklets? These girls were the same age as my oldest at the time and it broke my heart. Being a tourist there, I was fully aware that the livelihood of these adorable children's families depended upon me giving in to their angelic faces. They knew it too, even at such a young age. I left Mexico with a lump in my throat and knowledge of a sad reality that stayed with me for a very long time afterward.

I wasn't the "Ugly American" in Mexico, but I saw plenty of them in places like Squid Roe and the Hard Rock Cafe in Los Cabos. The drunk Americans falling in the street and then peeing on some beautiful flower arrangement. No respect. Would they act like this in their own towns? I am fully aware that a vacation is a time to unwind, relax and do things you don't normally do, but is it also a time to make a complete ass out of yourself, exploit the people whom depend on your tourist dollars and embarrass the entire country from which you came? No wonder they hate us.

In 2005, I finally got off of North America (makes it sound like a ship, doesn't it?). We took a cruise which left from Port Canaveral, Florida and stopped at the Bahamas, St. Thomas and St. Maarten. I could not have been more excited for this trip and the sadness I had felt after leaving Mexico was a mere memory. That isn't to say I had forgotten about what I'd seen, but I was becoming more aware of the global poverty issue, I knew that Mexico was not alone in its poverty, it was everywhere.

We enjoyed ourselves to the fullest on the cruise ship. I never felt as if I was taking advantage of the staff (we became quite good friends with them as you are assigned the same group of servers, waitstaff and housekeepers the entire trip) and we saw some amazing parts of the world that I can only hope I will be able to share with my own kids someday. We met and mingled with people from all over the world and all over America. Each and every port of call welcomed us with open arms (yes, in an attempt to earn our tourist dollars), but I saw virtually no exploitation of little children, even in the markets. I hadn't seen an "Ugly American" to date, and my friends and I were having a time like no other until...

Here was this hairy, balding, overweight guy on our catamaran saying "Oh yeah, tits!" to the people sunning themselves at the nude beach on St. Maarten. I could not have felt any more un-American than I did at that moment. This portion of the island is Dutch. It is absolutely beautiful and if I ever get the opportunity to go back there, I want to stay in St. Maarten the whole time. I want Dutch citizenship and I want to live there forever...okay, I digress. The guy on the boat can't let the fact that we sail past a nude beach slide. We had already been to a beach where clothing was totally dependent upon your own comfort level (you can imagine all of the different levels here). It is safe to assume that this gem of a person was probably snorkeling near the topless/bottomless ladies just to get a peek. And here we are, stuck on a boat in the Caribbean with "Mr. Ugly American" himself. Nowhere to duck your heads and hide, we are on an open-air boat. Thank god for rum punch, or I probably would've died of shame.

I am now more aware of how the world sees us, as Americans. While I feel like growing up in a very accepting and diverse part of the country has benefited me in a lot of good ways, I had been naive to how the rest of the world sees us, lumped into one category "Ugly American". I cannot say that I, with my limited traveling abroad, think that EVERYONE thinks of Americans this way. However, having heard the term tossed around my whole life, and then witnessing it for myself through my experiences has opened my eyes as to why the term even exists. I do not expect all foreign travelers to become ambassadors for the US, but come on people, showing a little respect for the differences of the world can be a humbling learning experience.

There are so many breathtakingly unique places to see in the world, I just don't think we should see them with our "Ugly American" hats on. Learn a little about the culture you're about to experience. Do not take for granted the "cheap" price of goods because there is always a cost, even if an unseen one to you. Approach travel with an open mind, without pretenses, without your convictions and generalizations. Have a vacation, just leave the "Ugly American" back in the states.

p.s. And if someone asks you what you think of your President, just smile and nod, smile and nod politely.


Christina_the_wench said...

EXCELLENT post. Two thumbs up!

sunshine scribe said...

This was a great post. I am hesitant to comment (as a Canadian). I have lots of wonderful American friends and no the "ugly american" stereotype is not fair.

But I've been guilty of thinking it at least once...I was in Venice on an Italian national holiday while backpacking through Europe. We were always careful to display big Canadian flags on our packs so that we wouldn't be mistaken for American's and given a hard time. That day we were next two a group of young American women who were annoyed that it was so "Italian" at this holiday celebration and so they decided to sing the Star Spangled Banner loudly. It got ugly. I was so mad at them for doing that for the Italian people there but also for the disservice they were doing to so many other Americans that are unfairly judged.

You don't sound like an ugly American at all. A very self aware, open minded one who deserves to travel the world without other people's baggage.

mom said...

well done, mi hija

Kristin said...

Wonderful post!

When we were in China we had a family with us that made a point to talk VERY loudly and VERY clearly to the various Chinese clerks they dealt with... they also were constantly comparing the US with China... PLEASE! I wanted to shove my foot in their collective asses.

Lisa said...

I know what you mean. When I see that type of behavior I cringe and wonder what the rest of the world thinks of us...

Mommy off the Record said...

Great post! I think it takes quite a bit of courage to write about this these these days, but it is so important to critically examine our American culture, values and attitudes towards the rest of the world. You have done that very well here.

And I wholeheartedly agree about the importance of travelling and seeing the world. I think we become much more tolerant and respectful of other cultures when we do that. I've only travelled to Europe and Mexico so far, but I have a long list of other places I'd like to see.

Again, great post.

P.S. You gotta post sometime about how you got out of that Mexican jail in La Paz!

Mamacita Tina said...

Haven't witnessed the Ugly American abroad (have yet to travel outside the US), but have definitely seen it within the states themselves. Are we just an incredibly rude culture? Sad.

Angry Dad said...

I think that the "Ugly" person isn't representative of just any culture. I've seen plenty of Ugly Australian's abroad as well. I don't think that the ugly exceptions should take us from the fact that in the main, most people are nice, trustworthy and respectable in almost all cultures. Unfortunately its these bad eggs which make it bad for all cultures, and give off a bad image to others.