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Is That You, "Ugly American"?

As a Black woman raised in America who has been to 6 out of the 7 continents, the reality is I live in several different worlds. I have always considered my travel to 57 countries to be a blessing because travel is an act of freedom, and based on where I grew up I wasn’t necessarily supposed to make it.

The Voluptuary's CEO at Checkpoint Charlie in Berlin
In Berlin at Checkpoint Charlie, with the souvenir & the seller, back in my early travel days (peep the timestamp!)

While I can acknowledge the privilege I have because I hold that blue passport with “United States of America” on the cover, I am constantly straddling anger, dismay, and downright defeat watching us be killed, harassed, jailed, and disrespected without impunity. As a mother to a Black boy, this weighs on me heavily because raising a child in this world means being as honest as I can in preparing my son (and future children) for what to expect from the world and how they should navigate it. Despite having to constantly hop between these fences, and navigate these (and many other) worlds of identity, one fact I return to often is that being raised here as a Haitian-American Black woman, I am privileged. As a traveler that privilege reveals itself to me when I come across fellow Americans who serve as counters to the humbled narrative I try to embody in my movements abroad. I first learned this term at the University of Pennsylvania’s (my alma mater) study abroad orientation session where, seated with a group of students getting ready to descend on other cultures for the semester, the Office of International Affairs debriefed us on how NOT to act. I’ll never forget that orientation back in 2005 because truth be told I wish EVERYONE traveling abroad as an American had to undergo the tutelage we received that day.

"The Ugly American demands that everyone else acquiesce to the whims of American culture in every fathomable way. "

The “Ugly American” at that time was categorized as the obnoxious persona that demands that everyone else acquiesce to the whims of American culture in every fathomable way. From meeting our (sometimes ridiculous, outlandish, and disrespectful) demands, to the expectation that things should operate based on American ways of life. Even if we were transplanted to an entirely different locale, the Ugly American insists that everyone speak English, move quickly to meet their needs, and is LOUD about all of it. As I’ve grown in my travel experience I’ve seen iterations of the Ugly American take shape and become further fomented in the political and social-cultural landscape we live in. The landscape that says WE are always right, WE are the best (even if we really are not), and that WE can do whatever we want, wherever we want WITHOUT consequence is the perfect petri dish for the Ugly American to grow, multiply, and prosper. The Ugly American is the quintessential extension of BIG colonizer energy and BLACK people are NOT exempt from behaving in these ways abroad. Now that you have a definition, you may still be wondering: what does the Ugly American look like?

The need and desire to ONLY eat fast food (namely McDonald’s because it’s the easiest and most-often more readily available option to be found abroad); or the desire to ONLY eat foods that you find in America exclusively. The expectation that EVERYONE should speak English because why the hell don’t the people in Country X know what I mean when I speak? And also, the demand that people accept DOLLARS EVERYWHERE even if that isn’t their currency. To add to this list, is the blatant disregard for people’s property, and country by virtue of peeing while drunk in other folk’s streets, disobeying their laws, and acting as if you, as an American are shielded from punishment, reprimand, and service when you act a damn fool outside of the borders that insulate you from the realities of other people’s livelihoods in countries that do not have people waiting on them hand and foot for the almighty dollar.

The Mobal blog has a great list that reflects these sentiments and you can read about them here. Furthermore, Matthew Kepnes shares more about what NOT to do in this Thought Catalog post about how not to be annoying and to shed the skin of Ugly American abroad. There’s something to be said about the fact that both of these posts are several years old, and how I am just NOW writing about it. So a bit more about that...if you’ll indulge me. We are still living through the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic, but as people traveled throughout that time, and return to traveling even more now as vaccination increases, it’s just important to name that the cultural shifts within our country politically have emboldened the type of behavior that really detract and diminishes authentic travel experiences. People realize some borders have been and remain open to us despite vaccination status, and the attitudes that have been promoted after Trump’s presidency, need to be addressed in a global context. While politics is NOT what I am here to debate, the sense of entitlement, correctness, and audacity is at an all time high for all the people who before, had to be careful about what they say and how they act. With these attitudes on 1,000+ it’s important to shed light on how crazy you WILL look if you keep on acting like the Ugly American in your international experiences.

And so as an unofficial crusader to save the world from Ugly Americans abroad, and your global guru who was out in the world fielding conversations many Americans couldn’t hold because of their ignorance of REAL American History, I will gladly speak on a few definitive things you should know about any new country before you visit so that you can avoid these tendencies and do your best to not show your entire ass while in other people’s countries.

1. The National Food & Specialties

Can you imagine going to Italy and demanding to ONLY eat McDonald’s in the land and ORIGINATOR of pasta?! Now, my goal is not to tell people HOW they should feel about these things, but looking for chicken nuggets, fries, and a quarter pounder in the place that pizza and pasta was invented is just screaming cultural ignorance AF.

Tapas plate from Madrid, Spain
Tasty Tapas from my layover in Madrid, Spain

True to form of being 1000% honest, I realized for myself that I wasn’t necessarily a fan of Italian cuisine after eating pasta for every meal when I traveled to the Amalfi Coast back in 2015. I still respect it, and found other things to eat, BUT imagine not even discovering what you COULD be eating simply because you wanted to remain glued to the diet you have at home, with ingredients that are totally different even if you went the fast food route.

2. The Currency

One of my pet peeves is when people travel and call everything “The Dollar” when in reality that is OUR money. With ATMs and Debit/Credit cards being accepted worldwide, there really isn’t an excuse to try to give locals US money and expect THEM to do the work to exchange it, once you’ve gone about your luxurious day of not working and vacationing. Now, in some places they WANT the dollar, and so this one is a little tricky because often, our currency is more valuable in other countries. BUT you can still give these people the equivalent in THEIR currency. I know when I went to Vietnam, and traveled outside of Saigon or Ho Chi Minh’s main tourist area, the people flat out were like, “Nah, we don’t want that money and if you want THIS, you need to pay in Vietnamese Dong.”

Vietnamese Dong currency image
Vietnamese Dong had me feeling wealthy!

Fair enough, and a lesson I learned for myself when I go abroad. It’s not EASY and we shouldn’t assume it is, for us to use our money when these countries have their own. Lastly, as the US dollar weakens, the attitude that our currency has weight is quickly being proven false globally.

3. Traditions & Customs

The best part of travel is learning and experiencing something different that your everyday experience. Whether you’re traveling to escape, heal, reflect, or simply get away when you leave your home country/state it really is important to understand that you’ve also left the traditions and customs of your home. When traveling abroad especially to countries where religion differs you just have to follow their rules. I’m not wearing booty shorts to walk around Islamic countries, and if I am with my significant other or even a play thing, best believe that PDA is NOT ALLOWED. If you don’t know this before you go, you’ll be unprepared, in for a rude awakening, and looking crazy. Your movement as an uninformed traveler is NOT a political statement, nor are YOU as a tourist equipped to take a stand simply because you didn’t want to look up what the expectation was and are now out there looking crazy. Many Americans fall into this particular trap because they believe in the idea of exceptionalism that America has tried to inculcate in its citizens. WE are not that special, WE are not that GREAT, and quite honestly, WE need to respect other people’s stuff as much as Americans hypocritically expect immigrants to do the same.

"Knowing a little bit about where you’re going goes a long way in managing expectations as well. After all, things will NOT be like home."

Even McDonald’s won’t have the same menu because you are NOT home!! By doing a cursory search on the traditions and customs of where you are going, you’ll be better prepared to complain less, adapt more readily, and prime yourself for an experience that you’ll enjoy. Also, if they don’t DRINK in a country you’ll know that too, as is the case when traveling to Muslim-led countries.

Ultimately, I’ve spent a lot of time NOT being the Ugly American abroad. Even if I’m Black, I’m also American and I felt the need to educate as I often do because it’s important. We often lead our lives with judgment instead of enjoyment and it doesn’t HAVE TO BE that way. People have created and lived entire live doing what works for them...when in their countries/states respect it by having a slight idea of where you’re going. I promise you’ll really enjoy the experience much more if you shed some of that pre-determined attitude when you do,


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