Saturday, June 18, 2011

Of Americans ugly and otherwise

It always wonders me - wonders me deeply - when I hear people use the term Ugly American. I know that it has come to refer to people from the United States who travel abroad, who refuse to build relationships with the people in the area where they are living, who refuse to learn about the people and culture and history and country, who judge everything by the standards of the United States, who are culturally insensitive, who are certain they know what is best for the people even without listening to the people, who insert and implement solutions based in United States and developed world values and standards, who are often loud, and who are generally obnoxious.

But still, the term Ugly American grates on me - not because the reality to which it points rings false - I have known people like that. I have been that person. Often. Far too often.

My problem relates to the term's origin.

As I understand it, the term Ugly American  comes from a novel by William Lederer and Eugene Burdick. Published in 1958 (and first read by me at an unknown time) and set in Southeast Asia, The Ugly American contrasts U.S. approaches to opposing Communist influence.

Most of the folks from the United States in the novel fit the contemporary usage of the term Ugly American. Loud, boorish, certain they have all the answers, unwilling to learn from the people, relying on U.S. technology, their work benefits U.S. contractors and companies and the elites of the country. They build no relationships with the people and accomplish little.

A smaller group proves somewhat more effective because they meet and relate to the people. They listen to the people and try to implement projects and programs based on what they learn. They make use of technology appropriate to the situation and the needs and assets of the people. The members of the first group distrust them immensely and limit their effectiveness.

Then there is the title character. Homer Atkins is ugly. That is made clear. His appearance is ugly. In particular, his hands are described as ugly. His rough clothes and unrefined manners contrast with the pressed clothes and polished mien of the diplomats.

Atkins is an engineer. He spends his time with the people. He learns from the people - both in terms of what they need and in terms of what they suggest as solutions. He is the one who reveals and practices cultural sensitivity and proficiency. His efforts, rooted in the people, benefit the people.

I realize that I swim upstream against years of linguistic usage. But the way we have twisted the meaning - losing the context from whence it came - sometimes seems and feels like an example of the very phenomenon the term seeks to describe.

So whenever I hear Ugly American used with its contemporary meaning, I cringe. I recognize the reality to which Ugly American as we use it today points - in myself and in so many others, and I grieve and cringe again. Then I remember all the women and men who live in real life as Homer Atkins did in fiction, and I give thanks.

Some day I will tell you about Madame Defarge. 

See you along the Trail.

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