The Why's Guy

Overseas, ugly American needs a manners makeover

It never takes long for the ugly American tourist to appear.

No, not the stereotypical elderly guy wearing shorts, black socks that seem to reach above his knees, and sandals.

I'm talking about the demon that appears whenever I'm out of the country. This time, it reared up before we had even left the United States.

Passengers had been aboard the Norwegian Sun cruise ship for an hour when I spotted a woman complaining to an employee that her luggage hadn't arrived at her room.

The ship was still tied to the pier. Her luggage was probably being X-rayed in the terminal.

But this woman wanted it — NOW.

She had only the jeans she was wearing, she complained, and certainly couldn't go to dinner dressed like that.

To a dinner that was at least four hours away.

"I expected better,'' she lectured the crew member, who did an admirable job of remaining positive and telling the woman she could call him later if her luggage didn't arrive before dinner.

I would have abandoned ship if I'd been in his uniform. Instead, he probably shared the story about the crazy American woman with the rest of the crew.

Why do so many Americans become morons when they go abroad?

It's embarrassing.

So, in the interest of improved foreign relations (and to ease my humiliation) here's a primer for avoiding Ugly American Syndrome when traveling to Canada, the Caribbean and all other points east, west, north and south.

Tip No. 1: Things will be different. You're not in Kansas anymore, Toto. Forget the comforts of home. I'm tired of hearing: "I will never go back to (insert name of country here)."

Each "here" is an adventure.

Avoiding a place like Dominica means missing out on stunning volcanic peaks engulfed by rainforests. A Pirates of the Caribbean movies was filmed there. It is one of the few places where the original residents of the Caribbean, the Carib Indians, can be found. The unspoiled island boasts 365 rivers, amazing waterfalls and a famous fruit stand where Mr. Nice gives away the fruit, but sells the jokes.

But many Americans see only a poor island with bad roads and dilapidated homes — a place without megaresorts, fancy restaurants and upscale shopping. My suggestion for them? Try Orlando.

Tip No. 2: Do some research. Get friendly with Google.com. Learn about your destination. It might be embarrassing if you don't learn beforehand that all camouflage clothing is illegal in Barbados.

At the very least, learn the name of your destination.

The beautiful island in Tip No. 1 is da-ma-NEE-ka (not da-MI-na-ca, as in the Dominican Republic). The residents are proud of their island and don't like being confused with the Dominican Republic. Yet I don't remember anyone on our cruise pronouncing it correctly. Imagine our reaction if foreigners talked of being in flor-i-DAY.

TIP No. 3: Be aware, not scared. Americans tend to travel in large herds. It's the pack mentality. There are dangers everywhere (but a lot more at home). By combining a little bit of Tip No. 2 and some common sense, it's easy to stay safe.

Tip No. 4: Language will be a problem, because in many places, the residents will speak better English than you (or me).

Tip No. 5: You have a passport to adventure. Use it. You don't have to go cliff diving (unless you want to), but try something new. Pass up the hamburger and sample the local cuisine.

Talk to the residents. Most locals are proud of their country and are willing to share its heritage.

Tip No. 6: Don't buy into the stereotypes. Will you be approached by Jamaicans aggressively trying to sell souvenirs? Sure — by people trying to put food on their table. Isn't that better than begging?

Are some worse than others? Of course.

On one visit I was passing through a craft colony. An American was chatting with a jewelry maker who was selling his wares. The tourist's wife yanked him away and scolded him. "Stop talking to him or he'll end up owning our house."

I apologized for the woman's comment.

"No problem," the jewelry maker said with a smile.

I told him his work was beautiful but that I couldn't buy anything. He thanked me for the compliment and continued on, still smiling.

I suspect the woman remembers things differently.

I'm sure she still brags to friends about saving her husband from the dangerous, dreadlocked Jamaican scam artist who was after their home.

Kyle Kreiger rants about the serious and silly with one question in mind: Why? Contact him at kreiger@sptimes.com.

Overseas, ugly American needs a manners makeover 06/10/08 [Last modified: Monday, June 16, 2008 10:41am]

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