The ugly American

Posted: Sep 04, 2002 12:00 AM
From a cafe nestled atop the Oracle of Delphi, the sweet scent of peaches linger in the warm breeze. The fruit and wild flowers that decorate the rugged mountain roads are deliciously tempting. For a moment, one recedes from oneself. Then, with little warning, one is smacked in the head by an American tourist's loud belch. He is young. His baseball cap turned backward, he's ranting about how no one speaks English and laments the absence of good chili dogs in Greece. He waves his money at the waiter and roars with laughter as the waiter stalks away. My compatriots, who also happen to work at the Greek embassy, sigh. "It is a problem." I take "it," to mean the tendency of Americans to act as though they are the center of the universe. My lunch companions list countless other examples of American arrogance, including the expectation that the dollar should be accepted throughout the continent and the propensity for some young American travelers to vandalize property. One of the embassy officials recalls a recent incident in which two young Americans were imprisoned for tearing the seats out of their rented Jeep, then discarding the seats on the side of a road. When confronted by the police, the two Americans simply began waving their money about. Needless to say, much of the civilized world finds such behavior perfectly ugly. That is not to say that a lack of decorum is a uniquely American trait. It's just that Americans seem less subtle about their rudeness. Of course, we're all familiar with the term "ugly American." The characterization has earned us a special brand of resentment around the world. The term was popularized in a 1958 book of the same name, which mercilessly caricatured American insensitivity and corruption in Southeast Asia. The book became an international best seller, gaining such wide acceptance that it prompted President Dwight D. Eisenhower to reconsider the success of our international aid efforts. Since then, a few things have changed. For starters, the American aesthetic has swept across the globe. Billboards throughout Europe and Asia are printed in English. McDonald's golden arches decorate the landscape of even the most far-flung province. During a recent dog show in Taiwan, participants paid homage to the show's sponsor by sheering the Nike swoosh into their canine competitors. And that special brand of American brashness has saturated the global zeitgeist via MTV. And while the older generation remains fond of ripping America's loud, lewd sensibility to shreds, the younger generation feeds off MTV as though it were food. So, could it be that the ugly American caricature is a harbinger of things to come? Could it be that our dedication to making money will inevitably saturate all markets, twisting inward cultural subtleties in favor of crass materialism? Given the fact that free trade fosters the sort of global engagement - and financial networks - that reduce the risk of war, could the spread of the ugly American syndrome actually be a good thing? Perhaps. But then I glimpse an American urinating on the beach down below and it seems difficult to regard such a savage sensibility as progress.