Don’t be the Ugly American

Even when you find Ugliness Abroad

Image for post
Image for post
Photo by Luca Dugaro on Unsplash

I recently returned from a vacation to Europe. I traveled to places I’d never been before — Hungary, Austria and the Czech Republic. I had an amazing time and didn’t want to come home.

However, it was not all a bed of roses. There were times I was inconvenienced. This is part of the reality of travel.

There are times you will be annoyed. Maybe you’re tired, or lost, or homesick, and you just don’t want to deal with one more irritation. Maybe you’re dirty. You don’t want to have to fiddle with the weird knobs on the shower, you just want it to work so you can get clean and go to bed.

When this type of thing happens, I remember something I learned from my mother, “Not all fingers on the hand are the same.” She says this in Gujurati, her native language. It means that not all people are the same.

When I travel, Mom’s wisdom keeps me from turning into the Ugly American.

I remind myself why I travel. It’s to experience new cultures and perspectives. It’s to discover unique beauty. Nothing inspires me so much. Yet nothing in life is perfect — neither the good things nor the bad.

In the midst of tragedy, there will be hope. And in the midst of something amazing, there will be annoyance.

In Greece I experienced a breathtaking sunset in Santorini. But I had to deal with the annoyance of Greek plumbing. Toilet paper couldn’t be flushed. Instead, after being used, it was put in a container. I found this disgusting. I could have complained, but instead I focused on the beauty of the sunset.

It was my choice. I chose not to be the Ugly American.

Staircase inside St. Stephan’s Cathedral; picture by Shefali O’Hara

Similarly, I was awestruck by St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. I walked in wonder along the rim of the Grand Canyon at sunrise. I climbed with delight to the top of an ancient Mayan pyramid. But these experiences were not hassle free. Along with them came other, less pleasurable things.

Like getting sick from the water. Or making a dinner of stale nuts because the train was late. Or climbing countless flights of narrow, steep stairs because a 500 year old structure has no elevator.

When we were in Vienna, we discovered that on Sundays the shops were all closed. We had to manage. Because their culture is different, we had to adjust. But that was part of the experience and we didn’t complain. We did not become the ugly American.

And, of course, it’s not just Americans who can be ugly… I still remember a guy from Sweden I met a few years ago.

“Where are you going?” I asked him.

“Out West to see the National Parks,” he replied.

“Oh, you’ll love it,” I enthused. I used to live in Colorado, so I told him about some of the sights he might enjoy that might not be in his tour book.

We chatted comfortably for a bit, but then he started to complain. American cars were too big! And there wasn’t enough public transport. And the food — he couldn’t stand American food. Why did they always put ice in the water?

After listening to his tirade for a few minutes, I had had enough. I said, as gently as I could, “You know, you didn’t have to come here. If you dislike it so much, you could have stayed home.”

He glared at me, but had no comeback. He and I both knew that, in that moment, he was being the “Ugly American”.

Don’t be like him. When you travel, be gracious. Be open to new experience and new ways of doing things. If you don’t like something, remember — not all fingers on the hand are the same.

Thanks for reading! Please CLAP if you liked this, and feel free to respond!

Written by

Cancer survivor, artist, writer, engineer. Grew up in NYC, living in Austin. Love animals, books, hikes, art, travel, D&D and fireworks.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store