“Ugly Americans” are now in America too

I was standing in the lobby of the fabulous Grandvia Hotel, which sits directly atop the Kyoto Station rail hub located in the middle of Japan’s ancient southern capital. From the lobby of that hotel, down a few escalators, almost anywhere in Japan is accessible by train in less than a few hours.

Often the conceit is that America or Western Europe are the pinnacle of human civilization. But just think of this, anywhere in Japan in less than a few hours by train.

“Don’t you idiots have American food here?” rent the air of that sophisticated lobby. In Japan, people don’t raise their voices, it is considered unseemly. And doubly damning was the pointedness of that unseemliness. Of course, the person shouting was not Japanese, he was American.

I have been blessed enough to have been able to travel to many places around the world, unfortunately during these travels I have also run into the old “ugly American” trope.

The term has come to signify a condescending self-centered lout who waves their entitlement around like a flag. They do things like demanding people in foreign countries speak English, or that foreign sovereign nations accept American money. The level of disrespect is embarrassing, especially when juxtaposed over cultural environs that have existed for centuries, or millennia, long before the words “We the people…” were ever jotted down.

The concept of the “ugly American” was originally developed in the 1958 book of the same name by authors Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. That book depicts the failure of American diplomacy in a fictionalized Southeast Asian country, which not only predated the Vietnam War, but predicated its excesses.

In the book a Burmese journalist remarks: “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They are loud and ostentatious.”

Which is a phenomenon that I have witnessed far too often while travelling abroad. Whether it was the American woman snubbing her cigarette out in the incense censor at the Buddhist temple in Japan, or the crewcutted loudmouth making a young Chinese nun cry over 25 cents on a street in Nanchang. It was always the same; disrespect, condescension, and the complete lack of empathy for either the host country’s culture, or it’s people.  

That unresolved incident at the Grandvia happened in 2007, and in the years since I have noticed an alarming trend. One which I have explored repeatedly in this space in this newspaper.

With increasing frequency Americans are now treating other Americans with that same disdain, disrespect, and lack of empathy. It has become all too commonplace now to dismiss the rights, and basic humanity of other Americans living right here, right now.

These days, we all must be more conscious of others, especially with the notion of social distancing. Do they have enough room to get by me on the trail? Am I six feet away from that mother and her children? Did I bring my mask? It is our new reality.

Yet unfortunately, and more glaringly obvious now, are the people who just don’t care. From the woman blocking the entire aisle in the essential business with her highly questionable service dog, to the man marching up to the waiter taking an order at the outside parking lot table, not wearing a mask, and shouting directly into the waiter’s ear. He would have touched me too had I not stepped back.

The chickens are coming home to roost. Once you have made it OK to treat any other person poorly, it becomes that much easier to treat all other people the same way. It can’t happen here, postulated the novelist Sinclair Lewis in his 1935 novel of the same name. And with all due reverence to Mr. Lewis, I respectfully disagree.

Leaving me with these thoughts:

-Marlon Brando starred in the 1963 movie version of “The Ugly American.” It was a box office flop, perhaps because by then the US had become quite involved in the Vietnam War, participating in the coup that cost the president of South Vietnam his life. 

 “I know the bastard now. He drives a big red convertible that he slews around corners and over sidewalks. And he’s got exactly the kind of loud and silly laugh that every Asian is embarrassed to hear,” says the character Miss Jyoti in the book “The Ugly American.”

“Those people” says every ugly American on their road towards hate.

-“Do unto others” is still the gold standard, whether uttered by Confucius in the 4th century or almost every major religious tradition that has followed.

-The Japanese archipelago stretches 3000 miles from tip to tip, almost the exact width of the United States.

-Brando loved Campari and OJ. Who knew?