The Real 'Ugly American'

Setting: a moderately crowded subway car in Oslo, not long ago. Sitting near me is a wiry man with long, scraggly salt-and-pepper hair and beard. He’s wearing a cap with a Price Waterhouse Coopers logo. He looks fiftyish, though he has the wild-eyed, ever-young quality of an aging hippie. I know at once that he’s not Norwegian.

Facing him is a black couple, both about thirty. Both are smallish, a bit stout, in cheap but tidy clothes. (The guy in the cap is the opposite -- he’s dressed expensively but sloppily.) The woman is wearing a head covering, but not a veil. Even from the side, the way they’re sitting – slightly hunched, with their eyes downturned – suggests that they’re not completely at ease, perhaps even a little scared.

“Where are you from?” the guy in the cap asks. In English. He’s American. And he’s incredibly loud – everyone in the car can hear him. The black man apparently replies, but I can’t make out any sound at all.

“Oh, really? Ethiopia? What’s it like there?” Again, the answer’s inaudible. “No, I know where it is. What’s it like there?” Pause.  “No, I asked, what’s it like there? How is it? I mean, the real truth. Not what they tell us. The real truth! They don’t tell us anything here. The Norwegian newspapers are useless. All they tell you is who’s f—ing who. Who’s sleeping with who. But not what’s going on in the world.”

I wonder how the husband feels about this stranger’s language. (Assuming he understands it.)

“I’m from the United States. It’s the great prostitute. Prostitute! Do you know what that means? It means whore. Hore,” he says – “hoo-reh,” the Norwegian word for whore. “The whore of the world. That’s where I’m from. The United States does nothing but spreads evil and destruction and violence over the whole world.”

I know this man. Not personally: I mean I’ve run into Americans like this before.

“So please tell me,” he asks the Ethiopian, “what it is like in Ethiopia?”

Pause. The Ethiopian man mumbles an answer. His wife is still staring down at the floor. She looks terrified. It’s not hard to imagine why. To come from a place like Ethiopia, and to find yourself suddenly being interrogated by a stranger -- what is going through her mind? I want to rush over and reassure her that everything will be all right.

“Yes, I read that you hadn’t had a government for years. Right. Right, famine. I heard about that. Fighting on the Eritrean border. Right. Right. So now you’re here? What made you come here?”

I look around. Everybody on the subway car is listening to him, willingly or not.

“Democracy?  You came here because of democracy?”