Goodbye to the Ugly American

Americans used to have a really bad rap. For years, we were the country with the most tourists worldwide, so whether we deserved it or not, we became targets for global resentment. We became the obnoxious Americans: loud, entitled, inebriated, and ignorant, a stereotype that fit well with a foreign policy that was brazen, haughty and destructive. Today, nearly 20 years after I began traveling abroad, things are different. So what’s changed?

I have carried the burden of being an American abroad from an early age. My family and I would travel around the world almost apologetically, going above and beyond to demonstrate that though American, we were not like those Americans. It wasn’t just a stereotype; there were obnoxious Americans around us, and we hated them. They were making it worse for everyone. So we tried to be the opposite in every possible way. We were quiet, we tried to speak the language, and we smiled through all situations. It worked; people liked us, and we had a lot fewer problems than others did in getting around and doing things.

It did, however, change my general attitude about being American. Instead of being proud of where I came from, I became the first one to criticize and the last one to compliment America while abroad. If someone identified me as American, I put my head down, apologized for any number of transgressions for which I was not responsible, and waited to hear the latest about why the US sucked. In Italy, people generally thought I was Italian, but once I was outed, I immediately professed my hatred for Bush and nodded in agreement with whatever anti-American vitriol they had for me. Traveling domestically was much less emotionally taxing (even though I still had to demonstrate that people from New Jersey weren’t fist-dragging idiots).

Today it’s a different story. When we said we were from the US, our New Zealand zorb shuttle driver remarked about how many Americans there were around, and we apologized, not knowing exactly why. He laughed. “Americans are so funny,” he said, “always apologizing for being here. You’re almost as bad as the Canadians! Why do you apologize?” We couldn’t really answer him.

It’s a habit I am ready to drop. I like being American. Yes, we have plenty of things to be ashamed of. So does everyone. But I am telling you that as tourists, we are no longer the most obnoxious. With millions of people from other countries traveling abroad in large numbers for the first time, not speaking local languages, complaining about things, haggling over trinkets, and taking pictures of stupid things, Americans are becoming much more proportional. We’re not the only gig in town anymore. Plus, we are pretty polite; we wait patiently in line, we are respectful, and we are happier than lots of other nationalities. We have a lot to be proud of, as it turns out.

So go out, American tourist, and enjoy yourself. Give up the worry of being the loudest person in the room. Because based on our experiences here in Asia, you really don’t have to worry about that anymore.

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