Don’t be ‘Ugly Americans’

A train pulls into a small station somewhere in Europe. A loud group of people wearing outlandish clothes disembarks. They immediately, with great drama and noise, drop their bags and begin to complain in unison, like a choir singing in church.

One complains about the crowds on the train while another chimes in about the stupid ticket vending machine. Before these two die down, a third pipes up with a disgusted comment about the smell of the country. The last traveler concludes the chorus with a complaint that no one speaks English.

Many of the people within earshot, however, probably do speak English. Even those who don’t know the language know the tone and the habits of these insane creatures: the Ugly Americans.

This summer, Americans will travel around the world, visiting and exploring other cultures, unconsciously acting as ambassadors of America and serving as living examples of American culture.

All too often, Americans traveling abroad project an image of pouty, complaining divas, too ignorant and narrow-minded to realize how foolish they look. They don’t know any languages except English, possess an atrocious sense of geography and demonstrate almost no understanding of other ways of life.

Here are five suggestions to prevent you from falling into this category:

One: Keep an open mind. If something looks strange or different, it’s supposed to be! You’re traveling. No doubt the locals have reasons for their practices, so try and find out why they do things differently and you will likely learn something new.

Two: Learn a few words of the local language. I have yet to visit a country where even a weak attempt to use the local tongue was frowned upon. Many people around the world speak English, but don’t use that as a crutch. Learning even a little bit of the language may teach you more about how the people think, communicate and see the world.

Three: Try some of the local cuisine. There’s no harm in finding yourself with a guilty craving for McDonald’s or KFC after living overseas for months, but don’t get off of the plane and head straight for familiar food. You spent your money and time to travel; go explore. The best way to get to know a culture is to share its intimate moments, and meals certainly fit the bill.

Four: Hold your tongue and your judgments until you get the facts. It is almost guaranteed that you will misunderstand what you see in front of you at first. Foreign things take time to understand and digest. In some cases you may never understand something, but you can still accept that though other people do things in different ways, that does not necessarily make those ways inferior.

Five: Remember that other peoples are not so different after all. If the food, language or culture of another country seems odd and unsettling at first, try to keep in mind that all people share certain things, such as love and respect for their families, dreams for a happy life and goals for the future.

These ideas of open-mindedness, knowing another language, exploring foreign cuisine, refraining from judgment and looking for commonality can help out at home as well.

Get to know some of your fellow students who come from different backgrounds. Think about how much they have adapted to live and thrive in the U.S. and see what you can learn from them about their homes. Some of the best parts of life come from moments of learning and bonding, and you might even get an exotic home-cooked meal out of the experience.

Armed with knowledge and patience, I urge you to explore the world and let everyone see the best America has to offer.

Americans understand how cultures can flow together, merging and overlapping, building on each other’s strengths. The nation boasts cities in which you can eat food from every continent in the world within a few blocks.

Americans love sports, barbecue picnics and family, and feel justifiable pride in their country, but Americans can also be humble and understanding, generous to those in need and graceful in both success and adversity.

Show the world your best side. Let people see “America the Beautiful,” not the Ugly American.

Jason Olivero has received a bachelor’s in anthropology from the University of Florida and is pursuing a degree in electrical engineering.