Monday, February 15, 2010

American Tourists or, The Ugly American

I was once a tourist in London.  I was fourteen and it was my first trip abroad without my parents.  I had a yellow windbreaker that came in its own pouch and a bright turquoise blue camera case that I wore around my neck with my giant Pentax zoom camera.  I was so proud of that camera.  I took pictures of everything: Big Ben, Parliament, the red phoneboxes, our hotel room(s), the funny English signs that said "TO LET" instead of "TO RENT" on buildings.  I talked loudly on the tube during rush hour on the Circle Line with the friends I was travelling with.  We laughed at all the stony-faced Londoners on their morning commutes.  I remember what it's like to be a tourist. 

But now I curse the tourists under my breath in Covent Garden - the ones who stop in the middle of a busy crowd in a daze, the large French school groups who take up the entire pavement when I'm rushing to work and the certain American tourists who always seem to make it known that they're American, they're here, and you should be privileged to be in their presence (I know because I once acted like that, shamefully, in my formative years). 

Americans are funny tourists, because, more often than not, instead of seeing something as "different" or "interesting" they call it "wrong" or "backwards".  I don't know if that's instinct or arrogance, to automatically assume that your way is "right" and the other is "wrong."  The other night, there was a group of four 40-something Americans in front of me and John as we got on the escalator to exit Piccadilly Circus tube station.  They went to head for the right set of escalators but, seeing as those were coming down, backtracked to the set on their left.  "HAHAHAHAHAHAHA!!!" the man from the group guffawed.  "EVERYTHING IS BACKWARDS HERE!!!" he marvelled.  "HEY!!!" shouted an American man on the opposite side.  "THEY FOOLED YOU GUYS TOO, HUH???  ARE YOU GOING TO THE THEATER DISTRICT?  WE WERE JUST THERE!" he said, poking the woman beside him.  "HEY GUYS!" I mocked to John in an exaggerated accent.  "ARE YOU GOING TO THE THEATER DISTRICT?"  I shouldn't have, really.  I shouldn't feel any contempt for them, as I was in the same position years ago, but I couldn't help it. 

Then there are the Americans studying abroad.  I was also one of them, except I ruined tranquil Oxford rather than cosmopolitan London, so that was probably even worse.  You can always tell who they are because they wear their college sweatshirts and Northface jackets on top - always Northface.  And UGGS for the girls.  And Coach handbags.  Udita and I used to make fun of them too, which was wrong, especially since Udita was then studying at UCL.  But we'd sit on the train and observe and as soon as they left, we'd start:  "So ... like, I was thinking, srsly, we should totally, like, go to Hampstead Heath.  I heard it's like, a park or something."  "Yahhhhhhhh ..." the other would answer.  "I want to get some wellies??  Because I heard they were expensive and they have them at like, Neiman's at home but I want a pair here?  In case it rains?  Let's go to Starbucks and then study there for the rest of the afternoon."

But then there's a whole other breed of American tourist and that's The Ugly American.  The Ugly American makes a big show of himself, is usually loud, obnoxious, rude and can't seem to shut up.  I encountered a large group of ugly Americans in Santorini last year.  They made me pretty embarrassed to be American.  Taking over three tables or so in a gorgeous, serene and peaceful cafe overlooking the caldera, they had a MacBook out and were squaking like vultures circling around their prey, cackling over some photos.  Initially this was fine, until they snapped their fingers at the waitress and demanded drinks, instead of politely asking for them, threw their litter on the ground and acted like overall assholes.  I eventually had to leave and get a table elsewhere because somewhere in the back of my head, a small migraine tugged. 

I think tourism is extremely important - it's good for a country's economy and it exposes people to different cultures.  But what good is visiting another country if you're going to be disrespectful and act like an ignorant jerk?  So you can have bragging rights?  "Oh we've been there."  How many times have you heard this phrase from someone?  And not in a "it was so interesting, etc." - just, "we've been there, we can tick that off the list."  Been there, done that.  For me, travelling isn't about ticking destinations off of some stupid list.  It's about really getting to know the history of a place, trying to get a feel for the people and their customs and why things are the way they are.  But sadly for others, travel isn't about learning at all, it's about transporting their creature comforts in San Antonio, TX to a picturesque place and never having to adjust the way they think or their attitude about the world, which I find so incredibly sad.  And pathetic.

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