Back in the Dark Ages (1987 to be exact), I spent a summer in China at East China Normal University (Huadong Shifan Daxue in Mandarin) to improve upon my skills in Mandarin Chinese. We toured all over China, admiring the incredible scenery and the amazing history, and enjoying the company of many kind and gracious Chinese hosts. And unfortunately, all along the way we met…”ugly Americans.”
I had seen them before on my previous visit to China. I had thought that these stereotypical people had existed only in comedy skits. But there they were: loud, floral print shirts, loud voices, and whiny, complaining tones. (And I have seen and dealt with whiny, complaining, obnoxious Americans in other countries as late as last year. We still have plenty around, sadly.)
I love America. I am proud of my country and I believe America is the greatest place on earth to live. But just because we think highly of our country does not mean we have a right or a reason to behave rudely or arrogantly or ignorantly in other people’s countries.
The Chinese love and are proud of their nation too. The Italians love and are proud of their country too. And the Canadians and the Argentinians and the Japanese and the Kenyans and the … well, you get the picture. So, here are a few tips I thought of for travelers as they set out to tour a foreign land. Here’s how NOT to be “an ugly American:”
1. Lose the attitude.
Like I said, America is wonderful. I am very patriotic. But remember, you are a guest in another person’s country. You are in their home. You love your home; they love their home just as much as you love yours.
So, show some humility. Go with the attitude of learning, experiencing, and appreciating. When I was in Italy, I learned so much about the ancient and medieval worlds that I never knew before. Man, I could just LIVE in the Capitoline or Vatican Museums. In Italy, it’s all about the art! The music! The FOOD!!!! And the people were just as kind and generous as could be. (There are nice people everywhere in the world — and there are jerks everywhere in the world.)
But were there some things in Italy that irked me? Sure. I had a cab driver who rooked me one day. On another day, a pickpocket stole from my friend. But on the whole, the trip was a living dream. I went to learn and make new friends. So with that attitude, even a few setbacks did not stop me from enjoying the beauty and charm of Italy. (I can’t wait to go back.)
2. Study the country.
Before you go, start reading about the history of that nation. If you go to China, boy you have a LOT of history studying to do — five thousand years of history, in fact. (Maybe buy the Cliff Notes version.) But learn some of their history.
In so doing, you’ll see a window into their soul. What accomplishments are they particularly proud of? Who are their national heroes? They will be so honored that you cared! And then when they see you cared that much, you will have made new friends. We all need friends.
Learn some of the language. No, you don’t have to be fluent. But anyone can learn “hello,” “goodbye,” and “thank you.” Oh, and you should probably learn “where is the bathroom?” (very important).
One day in 1983, during my first visit to China, I was determined to get on a bus all by myself and ride it from the college to downtown Shanghai, shop on Nanjing Road, and get back “home” using my very limited knowledge of Chinese. Well, I made it downtown, and went into a store to buy those black and white cloth shoes (called buxie). I spent probably 15 minutes with the clerk struggling mightily in Mandarin to explain what size I wanted and so forth.
Then I said under my breath in English, “Gee I wonder what time it is.” She said, “Quarter past four” in perfect British English! I exclaimed, “You speak English??? Why didn’t you tell me?” She calmly replied, “I was so impressed and happy that you were trying to learn my language that I wanted you to keep trying and struggling. There’s no other way to learn, you know.” We both laughed out loud. She was right. And I made a new friend … all because I tried to speak their language.
When I was in Montreal, I made friends every day by simply trying to speak French. The Québécois were so happy that I was at least trying to speak their language! Everywhere we went, the French Canadians graciously went out of their way to help us have a pleasant stay (and we did). Just try. You’ll struggle and mispronounce some things, but you’ll have fun and the people of that nation will probably love you for it.
3. Be sensitive to cultural differences.
It’s always important to know what is polite and what is not. In some countries, it is impolite to eat every single thing on your plate; instead you should leave a little something on your plate. In China and in Muslim countries, public displays of affection between the opposite sex are frowned upon or outright banned. Some sign gestures in America (like the “OK” sign or the thumbs up sign) are just fine; in other countries they are obscene.
Better learn some of these differences now, or face some angry people.
4. Be careful about politics and religion.
Almost goes without saying, right? Be careful about that here in America, but ESPECIALLY overseas. I don’t wear t-shirts with the U.S. flag on them, or political sayings, or sayings that brag about the U.S. Why start a fight? Just wear regular clothing and enjoy the tours. If people want to talk about politics, I ignore it or change the subject. I am on vacation. I get enough politics here. Some people just want to bait me. I don’t take the bait.
When it comes to religion, I try to be as respectful as possible. I am not a Buddhist, but when I visited a Tibetan Buddhist monastery, I was quiet, respectful, and I learned a lot about Buddhism. When I visited the oldest mosque in Xian, China, I had a great time talking to the imams about their faith. They were so happy that I was asking them questions that they gave me a very rare and highly prized gift — the Quran translated into Chinese! It was their way of showing appreciation.
In St. Peter’s Basilica, I was in awe of the artwork and respectful (and I sure was appreciative of the tour we got all the way to the top of the dome — wow what a view from up there!). Enjoy yourself, but be aware that to millions of people, some of the places where you tread are regarded as sacred, and they would give their lives to defend the honor of that particular place.
5. Be patient.
Roll with the punches. In some countries, nothing is on time (you know who that is). In some countries they don’t know what air conditioning — or central heating — is.
OK, but you probably knew that going in, right? So why expect every single country to be exactly like America? We certainly have our faults too, don’t we? And to be honest, I DON’T want every single country to be a carbon copy of the U.S. I love the differences. I love many of the little idiosyncrasies of other nations.
Sure, there are some that get on my nerves. In Hong Kong, it’s almost like everyone and his brother knows kung fu as we make a mad dash for the train. It’s elbows and knees all the way, and the little old Chinese ladies will knock you down if you get in their way. But, after a while, because I was patient, I learned to be just as agile as the rest of the Chinese in order to get on the train — and I didn’t have to use my “kung fu” to do it!
6. Be grateful and generous — and smile.
Smile! Even if you don’t know the language, a smile carries a lot of meaning. Everyone understands it. Don’t turn your nose up at people if they are sincerely offering you something that means a lot to them. Don’t refuse a new kind of food just because it’s “different.”
Be adventurous! Receive things with gratitude, smile, and try something new. I saw a woman literally turn up her nose at a wonderful dish of food that an Italian waiter was offering (the food was already payed for). The poor waiter acted like he had been shot. They had slaved over that food to make us “visitors” happy. And that woman turned her nose up at it and insulted him.
I was so embarrassed and angry. She confirmed the “ugly American” stereotype to the people in the restaurant, and I wanted to undo all the damage she had done. So I reassured him that the rest of us love his food and that I would eat her share.
Don’t forget to be generous. In many places, the people exist on the money gained from tourism. Without tourists, they go mighty hungry. I try to tip generously. I try to do all I can with the meager amount I have to help people who are really trying hard to make my stay a good one. And I want them to be happy to see me and my fellow Americans the next time we visit.