Spots of Time

January 06, 2003

The "Ugly" American

It comes as a shock to many Americans that venture overseas, particularly those that spend significant time with locals or non-Americans, that we as a nation do not have the best reputation as travelers - or as people, for that matter. While the "ugly American" sentiment may initially appear as nothing more than rival country government propaganda (Fidel Castro's thoughts on Americans, Ossama bin Laden’s video messages), the truth is, even in modern, western nations, the stereotype is firmly entrenched – and not without reason. For those of you who are still unaware, picture this: a loud, demanding, obnoxious, xenophobic, fanny pack wearing, yell-louder-if-they-don't-understand-English American. I know what you are thinking – those people are few and far between – most American’s aren’t like that. That may be true. But, it doesn’t take all those traits to create an ugly American – they can pop up when – and from whom – you would least expect.

My New Years 2002/2003 was spent with Aussie friends in Sydney. It was my first New Years outside the US and I really wanted to watch the fireworks explode at Sydney Harbor. Happily, my friends loved the idea, especially when I volunteered my travel companion, Alex, and myself to stake out a good spot early in the day. They dropped me off at Milson's Point, perfectly situated on the north side of the Sydney Harbor, to one side of the Harbor Bridge, and with a postcard view of downtown Sydney and the Opera House. It was 12 noon.

Alex and I spent most of the day doing nothing but staring lazily ahead at the view, eating Tim Tams and reapplying sunscreen. By 6 p.m., my friends had returned, bringing fresh picnic supplies and two more Americans. D and S were friends of friends, and nearing the end of a three-week vacation in Australia. They seemed like fun guys, and we were thrilled when they bought some wine and champagne to add to the picnic spread.

Two sets of fireworks were scheduled - one at 9 p.m. and the grander finale at 12 midnight. As 9 p.m. came and went, we were informed that the fireworks were cancelled due to high winds. The crowd’s disappointment was audible. Those with small children began to pack up and leave, and our group looked to each other for revisions to the night’s plan. This is when the ugly American came out to play. The majority of the group wanted to stay for the midnight session. However, D did not. "This sucks - I want to go party! Lets get out of here and go to a party!" he said repeatedly. Alex and I explained that we had been waiting since 12 noon and had been imagining midnight at the Harbor since we first realized we'd be in Australia for New Years. He was not moved. "This is lame - I want to go somewhere, drink and get fucked up - that is what New Years is all about." Oh right - I forgot.

Multiple tactics were tried. His friend tried reasoning with him, Alex tried humor (“Sorry D, the tribe has spoken and you’ve been kicked off the island”), and I appealed to his nostalgic side. I pointed out that this experience could be once in a lifetime, while going to a pub and getting wasted would eventually blur with all his other New Year's memories. He began to get louder and more belligerent, at which point I realized the alcohol that had seemed to be such a great idea in the beginning now seemed like a big mistake. "I just met you guys, and I'm not going to have my New Years ruined sitting here - what if the fireworks are cancelled again? Fuck that!" he said. While he had a point about the uncertainty of the fireworks, his behavior, tone and language were totally inappropriate. His friend tried to talk to him again while our hosts threw each other uncomfortable looks.

During D’s tantrum, I looked around the crowd and noticed that some of those sitting around us could hear what he was saying. I cringed inside, knowing that this experience was one of those that would add to the stereotype of the ugly American - pouting and yelling when he doesn't get what he wants. Even though this was a minor occurrence, and in truth D was soon quieted, it only takes a couple of instances of ugly American exposure to keep the stereotype fires burning brightly.

The really sad part about the ugly American stereotype is that any one of us can be – and probably have been – the ugly American. When traveling somewhere exotic, especially on hard-earned vacation dollars with limited vacation time, the pressure is on to experience the “perfect” holiday. Too often we forget that the “perfect” holiday – just like the “perfect” anything – rarely exists outside of travel brochures and tourist videos. The reality of the matter is that shit happens – buses don’t show up, sails are cancelled due to inclement weather, tours are overbooked – something almost always go awry that can make our blood boil. If we let it. While we can’t control Mother Nature or overbooked tours, we can control how we respond to disappointing news. And, when we consider that each of us is, in some way, an ambassador for our country, do we really want our mark to be that of a red-faced, squinty-eyed, yelling tourist?

Later in the week, our group reunited for drinks at Bridge Bar in Circular Quay (pronounced “key”), an area of docks and cafes on the south side of the Sydney Harbor. I was not thrilled with seeing D again, especially in a drinking environment. However, as the night progressed, Alex leaned over to me and whispered that D was actually a pretty nice, ok kind of guy – even interesting. He had apologized for his behavior the previous night and was entertaining the group with stories. Alex, a bigger person than I, had given him the benefit of the doubt and been pleasantly surprised. It is unfortunate that none of the people from New Years night would be able to give D another chance. It only takes a few seconds to make a first impression, but once formed, trying to undo a negative one is exponentially harder than maintaining a positive one from the start.