16 April 2006

Too little, too late? US to give tips to its citizens how not to be 'an ugly American'

In what must be one of the more remarkable laughs I've had in a bit (being as I'm a fairly frequent traveler and have also worked in the travel and hospitality industry), I read today in a UK (yes, nothing about here, mind you) newspaper that an active campaign is underway to help Americans improve their image when travelling overseas. In short, be the more polite, less arrogant, less demanding, and generally better behaved tourists we should have been all along. Coordinated in part by Dubya confidante Karen Hughes (who also recently led a disastrous PR campaign to the Middle East, where she discussed how Muslim women could become more independent like American women, among other things), a non-profit group is producing guides for American travelers and business people to follow. The goal is to improve the country's image overseas (which, I wonder, would maybe also improve greatly if our political leaders read same guides??) and to aid in the general business and cultural exchange that occurs when in foreign lands.

From the "UK Telegraph" : 'Speak softly, don't argue and slow down' .

I especially have to wonder what Ms. Hughes' influence is with regard to handling the political discussion, namely, the 'don't argue' element of the guide.
  • "If you talk politics, talk - don't argue. (Steer clear of arguments about American politics, even if someone is attacking US politicians or policies. Agree to disagree.)"

Personally, and I realize this is where many Americans abroad get into trouble being loud and obnoxious, I think political discussion overseas should actively be encouraged. If an American tourist actually has to learn something about another country's politics or (God forbid) has to actually defend some of our own from here, a pathway to understanding can be laid. Instead of shying away from talking to the locals, Americans should be trying to talk and learn about anything from them...this is how trust and friendships are developed, and that is how the image of the 'ugly American' is killed before it takes root. Unfortunately, that image is something we frequent travelers have to contend with everywhere we go now...and, given our recent politics, it's only getting worse. What's more troubling, though, is that our dear government has frightened people so with the 'US versus them' attitude that any potential travelers from the US are just staying on North American shores instead. After all, according to Dubya et al, the terrorists are everywhere and they're all against us.

But if you get around the Propaganda (where is the next Charlie Chaplin when we need him, anyways?), though, you'll find there is a wonderful, huge, beautiful world out there...and full of equally dynamic people eager to meet and make friends with Americans. But as much as they want to learn about us, it's important we learn from them, too, or else the whole reason for going in the first place is lost.

It wasn't until I went to London for the first time did I realize just how wealthy (and inaccurate, in my humble opinion) the British thought everyday Americans are...the friends there were and are still flabbergasted that I actually live paycheck to paycheck somewhat and budget all the time. I also learned invaluable tips about how to deal with the patented British 'stiff upper lip' in confrontations, and I actually prefer it now to the way we generally handle arguments. Civility still does exist, although it's a dying art.

It wasn't until I went to Italy did I fully appreciate how much Americans take things like long showers, dependable public transportation, and a relatively corruption-free government for granted (and, yes, I was in Rome). I don't care how many travel books you read, nothing teaches you about learning a language quicker than being there and lost in a piazza and having to find someone, anyone, who knows some English to help you get out and back to your smallish (and egads! perhaps non-air-conditioned) hotel. Nothing humbles you more than not being able to even say the fewest phrases in their language, but them knowing yours fluently.

It wasn't until I went to France did I realize how very different the social and welfare systems are from here...and why, at the very minimum, Americans should understand why this frequently puts the two countries 'against' each other on the world stage. The French may still may not be 'my kind of people', but I understand them, and their generational motivations, much more after being there. The time spent with the elders and the students gave me insights that hell even further explained the French Revolution.

The same goes for Spain, as the dear Spanish are always wondering why Yanks are always in such a hurry, always needing something more, newer, more expensive...in short, why we can't just settle the hell down and be happy with what we have got so far. They pride themselves on keeping their priorities and taking things at a simpler pace and if they make less money, so what? They'd contend they're much happier. When will we reach that point, they ask, aren't we tired of running the rat race already? And, you know, those are very legitimate questions and they demand to be asked to every tourist that travels that fine country.

In my beloved Australia, the dear Aussies are nothing short of petrified of becoming the 'next America', ruining a wonderful way of life that they have created with much blood, sweat, and tears. I have learned so much from them...everything about how they value their families, how they have to respect the outdoors and what fickle Mother Nature has given them, how they so desperately try to live and let live with others as much as they can...you can't help but wonder how long they can hang on to these principles that we've cast aside in the US. Happiness for them is having a barbie with friends and family, maybe with the cricket game or footy game on in the background, and a few cold stubbies (short-bottled beers) in the eskie (cooler) and not working 50, 60 or more hours a week to maintain that lifestyle. Australia is unfairly dubbed as America but just 20 years backward. For the most part that's not true, but God Bless them, they do still hold onto the ideals of family and fun of an America that ceased to exist about 30 years ago. And every American tourist needs to be reminded of that, first hand, and often. Seeing what we've given up as a society is just as important as what is we've never had.

The above can't be found from reading a travel book, or watching a TV show, or even talking with friends over the internet. For the longest time, Americans have been acting like John Wayne in the Badlands...unquestioned king of the domain. I'm guilty of it, all Americans abroad are guilty of it for some reason or another. It's how we deal with challenges abroad that will define us in other people's eyes. Regardless of military conduct or economic policy, we have a duty to be a world citizen when we travel and learn about others...and more importantly, not be afraid to learn about ourselves, no matter how we may dislike the reflection projected back. This guide is too little, and far too late, in my opinion, but maybe it will help some folks on their first travels. Instead, we should have had this guide decades ago...when the die was being cast, when education about other countries wasn't tied to political propaganda so much, when Americans were less fearful of our neighbours and our neighbours were more trusting of our intentions. It's an uphill battle from here on out, folks.

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