Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Come Fly With Me: The UGLY American

The Ugly American
The Power of Language

Katie Helete

“The ugly American.” 

When most of us hear these words, we easily envision a living, breathing embodiment of all things loud, obnoxious and obliviously egocentric. The me-myself-and-I whirlwind of bad Hawaiian shirts, baseball caps, McDonald’s guzzling, booming voices raised to such a level they drown out the rest of the city.

Thankfully, most of us fall short of our infamous stereotype. It is true to a degree that, generally, Americans behave more brazenly compared to people of other cultures simply because of the virtues taught in upbringing and habits at home. Many of us, however, have the awareness to catch ourselves mid-Big Mac and shift to a more culturally sensitive code of conduct. This level of awareness can be difficult to maintain, especially when surrounded by the newness of a foreign country. Comfort can be difficult to find when abroad, oftentimes making the familiar more appealing and many times, without realizing it, we can revert to what we know, no matter how insensitive the action.

This phenomenon is particularly relevant when it comes to language. It is astonishingly easy to go overseas and converse in English the entire time. English is spoken all over the world, a common second or third or even fourth language for people of a wide variety of countries. Also, and perhaps more obviously, it is extraordinarily hard to learn a new language. For one, it takes energy (and maybe money with a quick Rosetta Stone). After a certain point in traveling, weary from trying to absorb the ins and outs of a foreign place, speaking your native language seems as tempting as the warm, fluffy pillow of your hotel. 

Also, communicating in an unfamiliar language puts you in a vulnerable position – you might make a mistake. No one enjoys the possibility of embarrassment or of being corrected, of being on the losing end of a language power dynamic.
By simply trying – by taking that first step and opening yourself up to making a probable mistake or two – you can reap enormous rewards. 

By respecting the language of a particular place, you will not only form a deeper bond with locals, but also create the kind of opportunities that might otherwise be unavailable to you. 

In my experience, people everywhere simply appreciate effort, whether you speak a foreign language fluently or are just learning the basics from your guidebook. Start with small steps – order your morning coffee in the native language, or make it a goal to practice speak that language with your travel partners. It is not accuracy, but the willingness to try that makes all the difference, that transcends all cultural borders and connects us as humans.

As they say, when in Rome…

Follow up story from a friend:

When in Paris, my friends and I wanted to find a pub or bar to meet locals and dance a bit. Two aquaintences from home, Sydney and Lilly let's call them, were traveling with us too, and we were all having a good time. Once we were there, the first thing that came out of Sydney and Lilly's mouths was, "Hi!!! We're American, so we can't speak French. But, can we all party together?" Ok, maybe not quite as bad, but the initial claim of not knowing the language i English immediately rubbed the wrong way. The local Frenchmen looked at them with disdain and shook their heads, pointing towards a seedier part of town for us to go dancing. 

My friends and I gave it another try with the bouncers, and we were in within ten minutes. Why? Because we approached them in French. Some French was better than others. One of my friend's barely knew how to pronounce "bonjour," and shouldn't have been using it because it was night time. But, that hadn't been what the bouncers were looking for. They were looking for charming, humble effort. I said, "Bon soir, monsieur. Je suis Américan, mais je parle un petite peu de Français. Comment votre nuit va si loin?" Immediately he started smiling a bit, and saying in English, "Finally, you're almost a local now! Hehehe" 

Sydney and Lilly were embarrassed and, after asking me how, said to the bouncers, "Nous sommes tres désolés pour le mauvais français, mais nous ne parlons pas français!" They asked me for some words and spoke broken French the rest of the night to the locals' delight! 

We danced and drank Mojitos on the house.

Another story from a friend:

My husband and I finally were able to stay in Italy, our dream location! Upon settling at the hotel, my husband rushed out to find us some pizza bianca and I wandered. I wanted to find a restaurant for that night, so in very broken Italian, I asked the concierge which restaurants he liked. After ten minutes of trying to explain and fumbling the words, he smiled condescendingly and said in perfect English, "Ma'am, I think it would be easier for the both of us if we spoke English." I was embarrassed, but I have to say, he was kinder to me than most tourists the entire stay, and the restaurant he showed us? Divine. 

Travel Section Columnist, Katie Helete:

Katie Helete is a cultured old soul, with a kind of energy that would entice you to travel with her anywhere. Attending UC Berkeley as an undergraduate, she is majoring in Political Economy. Explore the world, bucket list by bucket list with the brilliant and bold Ms. Katie.

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