Sunday, August 05, 2007

Ugly Americans

This is something that I really didn’t think about much when we left home at the end of April. I had some concern that traveling in Europe as an American, and therefore someone who was incriminated in the continuing disaster that is our President, would cause some problems for us, but it hasn’t at all. Obviously there has been mention—in Greece, one of our hosts continually referred to him as “the bush” (it sounded like lower case, although he never wrote it out); and in Portugal several people went on and on about how he was the most hated leader in the world right now and really an awful, awful man, only to pause far into their tirades to ask if we, in fact, liked Bush. Since we patently don’t, this was always an entertaining part of the conversation for us. I’m assuming that if we’d answered in the affirmative, they would simply have given us a pitying look and gone on with their bashing.

Current specific reasons to loathe Americans aside, there is the enduring impression of Americans as ugly, boorish, fat, loud, styleless, cultureless, and clueless. They trample over cobbled streets and millennia-old cultures in their khaki shorts and Hawaiian shirts and photographer’s vests, dripping ice cream on antiquities and speaking too loudly in museums. They complain about foods, and lines, and heat, and traffic, and noise, and assume that everyone in the world should speak English to them.

This, at least, is what “conscientious travelers,” such as ourselves, believe the world thinks about Americans. And it may . . . but to be honest, I have no first-hand experience with this belief. Admittedly, in part this is because I haven’t traveled to “beaten path” destinations in years. I have noticed Brits in Greece being by far the loudest people in the restaurant (talking about how uncouth Americans were no less, and complaining about Greek food, while Ian and I sat and quietly enjoyed our delicious meal); Australians using any excuse to get falling-down drunk in public; large groups of young German men, shouting drunk, staggering down streets in the evening, urinating against buildings in not-so-deserted alleyways. When we took a day trip to Bodrum, Turkey, several years ago, it was not overweight middle-aged Americans wandering around the bazaar in this Muslim country in t-shirts over swim suit bottoms, nor was it a chubby American 12-year-old wearing too-tight sweats with “tasty” across the ass; nor was it a tall, slender, blonde American eating lunch in local restaurant in a pair of turquoise lycra boy shorts and matching string bikini top. In other words, lots of people are ugly on vacation.

I tend to avoid the serious ugliness. For one, I rarely go to museums so I’m not likely to drip my ice cream on something priceless. I don’t get publicly falling-down drunk with big bands of boys (when I did get drunk once long ago with Australians, it was in the privacy of our guest house). You will not catch me dead anywhere in a photographer’s vest, and Hawaiian shirts definitely have their place and it’s Hawaii or a bowling alley. I like heat, traffic irritates me but, except in Seattle, I don’t take it personally, and I don’t really like noise so I typically travel in more rural areas.

I try to learn at least some basics in the language of the country I’m in, and I fancy myself fairly good with pronunciation. I certainly don’t assume people will understand me better if I talk more loudly.

None of this really affected us in a serious way for the first three months of our trip, though. We started in Greece, and not only can we order food using Greek words, we can even read them in Greek script, so we’re way ahead of most tourists plying the Cyclades as we did. Not only that; the Greeks, along with most other Europeans, study English in school and happily speak it both with native English speakers and with all the rest of the Europeans who’ve learned English in school. Then we were in Scotland, and while we couldn’t necessarily always understand what people said to us, they were theoretically speaking the same language and we usually figured out the meanings pretty quickly. Then we were in Portugal, and I actually have a good working grasp of Portuguese, so our 5 ½ weeks there were a pleasure of integrating into a culture not our own.

And then we came to Latvia, and I knew nothing. I had read enough of the Lonely Planet to know that Latvian and Lithuanian are the two remaining surviving languages of their particular branch of the Indo-European family, and that Estonian and Finnish and Hungarian are related to each other and not closely related at all to any other language on earth, and that Russian is spoken pretty readily in the Baltics as well because of the 30 years of Soviet rule (and I actually heard two little girls speaking it—one said “nyet” on the phone and the other called “babushka!” in the crowded market, thereby exhausting my complete repertoire of Russian words aside from glasnost and perestroika and whatnot from the 80s) . . . and I laboriously taught myself paldies, which is not like “thank you” in any other language I’ve ever heard (it’s Latvian). Even arrigato in Japanese is from the Portuguese obrigado.

I found myself shrinking on the streets of Riga, trying to take up less space than usual, observing the people around me but trying to stay out of their way. When I interacted with any locals, I felt, and looked I’m sure, apologetic and contrite and insecure, because all I could do was point at what I wanted. I was trying so hard to avoid assuming people should speak to me in my language simply because I didn’t understand theirs, that I basically stopped interacting with people at all. I felt guilty about being an American. I felt guilty about being me.

After one long day of this, I got mad. After all, I’m me, and there’s nothing I can—or want to—do about it. I’m proud of who I am. I’m proud of my strengths, I accept and work on my weaknesses, and I am grateful for the opportunities I’ve had in my life. One of those opportunities has been the freedom to travel, and with that freedom, the chance to learn about the world in a way uncommon to most of the other 7 billion inhabitants of this planet. And so, cast away guilt! If a Swede considers me to be uncouth and boorish because I’ve studied French and Swahili and Portuguese but not Swedish, that’s not my problem. If a Latvian is frustrated that I don’t speak Latvian or Russian and therefore can’t make my needs speedily known, well, I’ve tried my best.

I have a Master’s degree in linguistics, and perhaps this is part of my problem. I know how important language is (even just accent) for the coherence of a society. I can mourn the fact that languages, like plants and animals and customs, are dying out all the time. I can recognize similarities between languages—this skill helps me fake my way through Spain and Italy, and helps me chronicle the European history of things like the tomato, which is, interestingly, tomato in all the countries I’ve been in so far. I’m well-grounded in how language works and I’m keenly observant of paralinguistic cues, so I have pretty good situational comprehension. And so I keep thinking that some part of my subconscious mind will take over, and the languages will just seep in.

Talking and language are very important to me; they always have been. My mother reminds me of a trip to Brazil when I was about 10, to visit friends she’d made in the Peace Corps. Even though, for several months before we left, everything in the house had been labeled in Portuguese and she had insisted our dinner conversation be conducted entirely in Portuguese, I couldn’t speak much of it at all by the time we arrived, and I found this difficult to deal with. I was a talker, and there wasn’t anyone to talk to. My brother hated having to talk to people, so he was in his element.

I realized something the other day, though. Yes, language ability is important, and it is one indicator of multicultural sensitivity or ugly boorishness. But it’s not the only thing. Observation, attire, awareness, openness—all are valuable as well. And so I’ll continue to do my best, as I always do, in all these categories as well as in language. And I will focus my grateful energy on appreciating the places I’m visiting to the fullness of my ability.

And I will no longer feel guilt for who I am.


Erika said...

No worries about Sweden. So far, we haven't met anyone who wasn't glad to speak English except the taxi driver who claimed he doesn't speak it, but did anyway.

At dinner last night, we sat next to a girl who told us it might be difficult to get people *not* to speak English with us.

You're right, though, that it's more than language that makes up conscientious traveling.

KateMV said...

This was a fascinating entry. First, I agree with you that in my experience, Americans don't necessarily match those stereotypes. Certainly in Thailand, the Germans, Brits, and Australians were the loudest, drunkest, and least appropriately dressed (especially the nude women on beaches that specifically requested no nude women).

Second, we can't learn every language. It just isn't possible. Nor would I expect every visitor to America to learn English(though most of them probably know at least a little). Sometimes we just have to find other ways to communicate, non-verbal if necessary.

Anyway, very interesting reflections.

Gregory said...

Calin, we're really looking forward to your upcoming visit in Sweden!

Although I usually just lurk and don't post when reading your blog, Calin, I figured I should finally post something, since I suspect that this post was provoked in part by an e-mail I had sent to you the day before.

In my e-mail, I wrote "Of course, it's very nice to be able to say a few things in Swedish, so as not to seem like the ugly imperialist American (or what have you)", and included a list of phrases in Swedish.

I hope that you didn't really take this to mean that anyone who doesn't speak Swedish is an ugly American. When you write "If a Swede considers me to be uncouth and boorish because I’ve studied French and Swahili and Portuguese but not Swedish, that’s not my problem", it kind of suggests that. I very much believe in the concept of the "ugly American", but I hasten to point out that there are also "ugly Brits", "ugly Germans", and "ugly Swedes".

The point is that anyone who decides to travel to another country is taking on a certain challenge. How they respond to that challenge says a lot about them. Sensitivity to when to wear and when not to wear turquoise bikinis is part of it. Sensitivity to the various possibilities for communication is another.

I think it's not unreasonable to ask a person to spend a few minutes learning how to say please and thank you in the local language, and you obviously agree with that. You are an especially communicatively talented traveler who does more than most would do. And that is enough. Believe me, no Swede will ever think you uncouth for not having "studied Swedish". But they will certainly appreciate it if you say hello and thank you to them in Swedish, just as anyone in Portugal or Lativia would. (Not that you should use Swedish in Portugal, but you know what I mean!)

So I hope you weren't offended by my phrasebook, and please don't think you need to define yourself as someone who doesn't speak Swedish. Rather, define yourself perhaps as someone who does her best to communicate under the circumstances, which is pretty accurate, I think.