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The Ugly American

The Ugly American

by Matt | 1 Year Sabbatical on January 19, 2011

People are the same everywhereIt was over 5 years ago that we last spent time in Indonesia.  We only had one son at the time and flew in on Malaysia Air, living it up in business class thanks to 700,000 frequent flyer miles provided by my sister (yes, I do havethe world’s greatest sister so don’t be jealous).  We arrived in Jakarta and made our way through customs and then met up with my wife’s parents in the terminal.  We loaded up my in-laws car with the luggage and headed out the gates of the airport for the long drive to Bandung.

But on our way out we encountered a major snarl of traffic.  Cars were backed up throughout the entire airport.  We sat for a good 20 minutes not moving an inch.  Finally an attendant walked by and my father-in-law inquired as to what was going on.  According to the attendant there was an American who was refusing to pay the toll.  Apparently he had come in to pick up a passenger, never parked (he had just rolled through the passenger drop off zone) and didn’t feel he should have to pay the toll since he hadn’t parked.  So he sat in his car at the gate, refusing to pay and backing traffic up throughout the entire airport.

As we approached the other toll gates that were open we saw him smugly sitting in his car with his arms crossed defiantly over his chest.  So how much was he refusing to pay?  50 cents!  Yup, 50 lousy cents!  This guy had disrupted an entire airport and made a fool of himself by his refusal to follow the rules of his host country and show a bit of respect.

I’ve thought a lot about this incident over the years.  It’s actually bothered me quite a bit.  You see I often wonder if I have those same tendencies to feel and act like I am superior to others.  Maybe not in the arrogant over the top way that this character acted but in more subtle ways that I think end up holding me back and taking away from the experience of being in another culture.

Ethnocentrism [eth-noh-sen-triz-uh m]  the belief that one’s own culture is superior to all others and is the standard by which all other cultures should be measured.

When I think back to my time in Indonesia I realize that in many circumstances I had ethnocentric thoughts.  I think it is easy to do when presented with something that is foreign from what we know and from what we’ve grown up knowing.  Maybe it’s a defensive mechanism that allows us to cope.  Maybe the truth is that we cannot escape that mode of thinking. Maybe thinking that way is actually good.

I mean when you think about it, how can we define our place in the world without a baseline to compare it with?  We all grow up learning and knowing certain truths (at least truth from our perspective) and these become the foundation which we use to gauge and measure the rest of the world.

It’s important to have pride in your culture.  It brings about solidarity and a sense of belonging which is something we all seek.  But it can be a double-edged sword because it can also be divisive and cause us to make assumptions and premature judgments.

“No culture can live, if it attempts to be exclusive.” ~ Mahatma Gandhi

When I travel I like to have a completely open mind which I feel allows me to really experience the culture and situations that I am in.  This doesn’t mean that I forget about where I came from or my own belief systems but it does mean that I try to not jump to conclusions too quickly.  Where things go bad is when we allow ethnocentric thinking to dictate and direct our actions; like the ugly American who didn’t want to pay the toll.  I think we really lose out on the experience when we choose to be rigid in our beliefs rather than fluid.  Part of the human experience is learning and growing and changing and dare I say evolving into the person we were meant to be.  One can’t do that by not embracing other cultures and ways of doing things.  Of course the challenge comes when our morality is imposed upon by the cultural behaviors of others.  I would argue that it is these affronts to our moral beliefs that are the most difficult to overcome.  But I believe we can still show respect for the beliefs and practices of others while maintaining our own beliefs and morality but if I am going to be honest I have to admit that there are times when I have trouble working this out in my own mind.  It’s easy to be judgmental.  It’s more difficult to be open minded.

“There are no seven wonders of the world in the eyes of a child. There are seven million.” ~ Walt Streightiff

As a father I love watching my kids experience things for the first time.  They have no expectations, no preconceived notions of what to expect.  They view the world with the innocent eyes of a child and are open to everything that doesn’t scare them.  When we spent 2 months in Indonesia my son made friends with some local kids. They didn’t speak the same language but they had a blast playing anyway. As adults we seem to have lost that innocence and instead look at the world through a filter and often that filter is often clogged with all kinds of crap.

The more I have traveled the world the more I have come to realize that people are the same wherever you go.  It doesn’t matter whether I am in Oregon or Yogyakarta Indonesia, the desires, the needs, the fears, the pain, the aspirations and dreams of people are similar.  Parents in Indonesia want the same things for their kids that I want for mine.

“Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry, and narrow-mindedness, and many of our people need it sorely on these accounts. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things cannot be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”  ~ Mark Twain

How does all this apply to taking a sabbatical?  I think taking a sabbatical or experiencing an International adventure is the best thing one can do to overcome the tendency to judge others.  Like Mark Twain alludes to in his quote above, we cannot acquire the ability to empathize with the plight of others until we experience another culture for ourself.  My first overseas adventure had a very profound effect on me.  It changed me in many ways.  In my experience these changes could never had occurred had I not stepped out side my comfort zone and the borders of my own country.

So, on that note as we embark on this sabbatical journey I want to constantly remind myself to open my eyes and my heart to new experiences, to step up to the challenges that may come my way and above all else be kind.  I never want to be known as the Ugly American.

“Wherever there is a human being, there is an opportunity for a kindness.” ~ Seneca

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{ 17 comments… read them below or add one }

Liz January 19, 2011 at 12:30 am

Great post, Matt. I too have experienced the ‘ugly American’ while I was living in Europe, and it was never a good feeling when I came across one of them. I’ve always tried to follow the premise when I am abroad that when a non-American meets me, I could be THE American they use as their baseline opinion of all Americans. And, if that’s the case, I want to be THE American who is friendly, curious, respectful and fun. So, it makes me really let down my own ethnocentric ideas and take in the culture where I am and appreciate it, and in turn be appreciative of the experience. Different is more often than not, good, not bad.


matt January 21, 2011 at 2:11 am

Hi Liz! That is exactly what I do when I travel as well. I like to act and behave like I am an ambassador from the US and put on the best image possible. That means being respectful, friendly and inquisitive and kind to the people I am lucky enough to meet along the way. An ambassador of good will.


mumun January 19, 2011 at 3:18 am

Great post Mr. Matt,

I agree. Although it’s thin, but there is a line when it comes to your own values applied in other countries. Man, considering the traffic in Jakarta, that man is just ugly! Great post!


matt January 21, 2011 at 2:14 am

Thanks mumun! There is a line and it’s interesting to think about how much one is willing to accept when the ideas of others don’t adhere to the same standards we set for ourselves. I do wonder how I would react if I am ever in a situation where my core beliefs are challenged in ways I can’t even imagine.


Gillian January 19, 2011 at 11:13 am

Excellent post Matt! You’re right, we all have a base experience with which to view the world from. I can’t change where I am from, the privileges I have been afforded, the experiences that have shaped me, but I can be sure that I understand the lens through which I view the world and be careful to remember that it is just that, my lens. It does take more work to be open minded…but it is also so much more rewarding! That’s why we travel though, isn’t it? To see the different and find how much we really are all the same. Cheers!
Gillian recently posted..Responsibly Irresponsible


matt January 21, 2011 at 2:16 am

Hi Gillian! That is exactly why I like to travel. It’s an interesting and exciting feeling when confronted with thing that challenge us and don’t necessarily fit into the pretty box we place our understanding of the world in. When it comes right down to it my experience has been that we share far more similarities than differences.


ayngelina January 19, 2011 at 11:49 am

I’ve seen uglies from all countries and if I were honest I’ve had more than one experience where I’ve been tired, cranky and become the ugly Canadian.

As bad as it is to admit traveling does certainly open your mind, make your more flexible and the necessity to assume dissipates.

I’m much better than I was but I have a long way to go.
ayngelina recently posted..Would you buy a 500 turkey AKA Have you met Andres


matt January 21, 2011 at 2:19 am

Hi Ayngelina! Yeah, I suppose if I don’t get my sleep I can turn into a real animal and snap at people, especially if I don’t get my way. 🙂 I will say that my journey overseas to Indonesia really opened my eyes and gave me a whole new sense of who I am. We all have our moments, that is for sure.


Heather January 20, 2011 at 11:39 am

Traveling really does open your mind to different ways of life and cultures, and I always encourage people to travel for this reason. It makes you realize how privileged and easy we have it here in our developed country, and better appreciate what we have. However, it also can backfire and make you angry when you see how much people have, and don’t recognize it. Sorry, I get a little riled up sometimes when it comes to ugly Americans! 🙂


matt January 21, 2011 at 2:23 am

Hi Heather! I definitely returned from my travels to Indonesia with a whole appreciation of the many blessings and opportunities I have been afforded. But it’s something that I struggle to remember the longer I stay in one place and don’t travel. It’s like those memories start to fade after awhile and before long one gets back into the rut. The best part of travel for me is being able to connect with people and make new friends and learn new things. That can’t happen unless one is gracious and respectful.


mike January 23, 2011 at 2:37 pm

wow that guy sounds like a bastard. never heard the term ´ethnocentrism´before. its really true how travel changes how you see you r own culture.
mike recently posted..Pushkar Camel Festival – Unique Indian Camel Fair


matt January 26, 2011 at 2:02 am

Hey Mike! Travel definitely changed me. It infected me with a bug I can’t help but think about all the time. 🙂


Judy January 30, 2011 at 9:27 am

Hi Matt,
What a wonderful, beautifully written post. (I am just getting caught up on my favorite blogs). I also enjoyed reading the thoughtful responses from your insightful readers.

This post really got me thinking…and I could not help but sympathize with the “ugly American.” Though I may not go as far as to stop traffic, I can understand some of the feelings of hurt and anger that he may have been experiencing.

I have been in Guatemala for almost two years. I am comfortable here, I feel a part of my community but when I visit the city I tend to get overcharged and people try to take advantage of me because I am a foreigner and it hurts.

Logically, I should not take it personally, but we are human and thus emotional creatures. As Americans we believe in “equality” and “standing up for justice.” Without being aware of it we react from these values and principles, especially when we become comfortable in a place and no longer feel like a tourists.

I think it is easy for us to judge this man and think about “what would I do in this situation.” The challenge lies in finding compassion and admitting that we too are imperfect and could very possibly make the same mistakes.

I guess this is where forgiveness plays a big role. Forgiveness and compassion for fellow “Ugly Americans” and forgiveness for ourselves when we are not as pretty ourselves.

Sorry this comment is long….or it offends anyone, that is not my intention.

Judy recently posted..Tales from another climb- Volcán Atitlan


matt January 31, 2011 at 5:28 pm

Hi Judy! You can write as long a comment as you like here and I really appreciate your thoughful and well written responses. In many respects I can see where you are coming from here and I don’t want to sound like I am condeming this guy for his actions or response. It may have been that he was having a really bad day or some bizarre reaction to medication. And I definitely understand that as Americans we have this elevated sense of equality and justice even if at times it is severely misplaced. But for me what it comes down to is that when I am a guest in a foreign country I feel it is my responsibility to behave differently than when I am at home. I do need to put on a face of understanding even if there are situations and circumstances that test my sense of justice and equality. I’ve been to markets in Indonesia where I was charged twice the listed price. In fact my mother-in-law got upset with me because I was driving up the prices for her just because I was standing next to her. Life isn’t fair and sometimes we just have to suck it up and do things we don’t necessarily agree with. I will also agree with you that forgiveness is a good policy to have. We don’t know what was going on with this guy inside his head. Compassion and forgiveness can go a long way to smooth over the worlds differences and problems. And it starts with ourself. Thank you Judy!


Judy January 31, 2011 at 6:20 pm

Aww Matt!

Your words have moved me once again!

You are absolutely right, “We are guests in the countries we visit and in my case serve.” Just as we would try our best to behave ourselves and be good “house guests” when someone extends their hospitality to us, we should also carry the same mentality and be mindful of our actions and words while abroad.

I love the analogy so much that I actually wrote down on a post-it and placed it on my bathroom mirror!

Thanks Matt!
Judy recently posted..Tales from another climb- Volcán Atitlan


Jasmine February 5, 2011 at 1:18 am

One of the reasons I love travel is because it forces me to think outside of my cultural norms and stretch my thinking and question my idea of what is right and what is wrong. I can’t lie, I always feel really angry when I encounter an ethnocentrist traveling. I feel like I want to go up to them and say GO HOME! The only thing I can do is try to be an ambassador of sorts for my place of birth by being genuine, humble, and open-minded.
Jasmine recently posted..Salinas- Ecuador- A Claustrophobic’s Nightmare


matt February 9, 2011 at 1:32 am

Hi Jasmine! Travel definitely stretches your thinking and opens you up to being more accepting. There are a lot of ways of doing the same thing in the world and one is not necessarily better than another, just different. I often wonder if I were in a foreign land and got hit on the head and woke up with amnesia and had no memory at all of my past and all the things I knew how I would feel about the culture I was in? How would I react without any baseline to compare it with? Open mindedness is always a promising policy to have in life. I suspect there are many more ambassadors out there than ugly Americans. Cheers!


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