- Sivaram Srikandath
The Ugly American was a 1958 political novel written by Eugene Burdick and William Lederer. The novel was hugely popular, spending 76 weeks on the best-seller list with more than 5 million copies sold. It was turned into a Hollywood movie in 1963 with Marlon Brando starring in a major role. The book, which describes the losing battle fought by the United States against Communism in South East Asia, quickly became a cultural landmark, and the term Ugly American became a metaphor for the loud and ostentatious type of visitor travelling to a foreign country.
More than half a century later, the term Ugly American is still part of the argot of popular culture, portraying the image of a boorish and insensitive tourist who has the money, but not unfortunately, the class. The only change is that now the term refers to not just American tourists in their electric Bermuda shorts and colorful Hawaiian shirts, but to a whole new breed of international traveller, equally obnoxious and painfully irritating, mostly from the newly rich economies of countries prospering from the globalization boom.
All you need is to travel during the holiday season, and you will understand what I am talking about.
The typical New Ugly American comes in three varieties. First of all there is the outbound tour group that travels in a large pack; then there is the smaller group of professionals travelling together for trade conferences or on sales junkets; and finally there is the nou- veau riche category, usually travelling as couples or families. Each is a horror story in its own way, and comes into their own, particularly in the restaurants and in the dining areas.
The outbound tour group is the loudest, and yet the easiest to handle. Just avoid places where they congregate, and you are safe ! It is easy to spot them. Usually there will be a tour leader, an officious looking type wearing a baseball cap, a man-bag over his shoulders, and an eager-to-please grin on his face, cosseting them around like a herd of sheep. This group is at its obnoxious best around the breakfast buffet. They chatter loudly in their mother tongues, laugh loudly over private jokes made at other people, cut into lines, pile their plates with food which they mostly discard, and then are in a frenzy to load up their handbags with free fruit, bread rolls and jam tarts ( which they normally wrap up in paper napkins!) Once they leave, the restaurant returns to normalcy and you can have your breakfast in peace.
The second group of travelling professionals normally comes to life late in the evenings, long after the first group have chowed down and retired for the night. This group has been drinking steadily throughout the evening in their rooms (why else have they gleefully stocked up on their quota of liquor at the Duty Free at the airport ?) and by 9.30 pm are in an advanced state of inebriation. Then they wander down into the restaurant, dressed in tacky T-shirts, ill-fitting shorts and bathroom slippers. Fortunately, the restaurant is mostly empty by now, and only the waiters are left to watch the painful spectacle of a bunch of glassy-eyed sad sacks aimlessly wander around, with food dripping off their plates onto their T-shirts and shorts. These folks are completely hammered and have no clue as to whether they are eating scalloped potatoes or veal medallions. However, food is the last thing on their minds – they are already thinking of ways to kill the bottle in their rooms before calling to quits. So they feel no pain !
The third variety – the nou-veau riche – is the most dangerous of the lot. Now, this is a group of tourists that is familiar with the travel experience. And precisely because of this, they tend to be loud, rude and extremely obnoxious to the waiters and waitresses. They know well enough to order a bottle of good Australian Merlot with their dinner. But then they spoil it for everyone else by making a loud spectacle of tasting the wine, comparing it with a South African Cabernet they had been served in Singapore, or some other place, and then sloshing it down like a glass of cola. Or else they complain about the quality of the fruit sitting next to the cheese platter, bickering that the musk melon is not sweet enough, or that the grapes are too mushy. Occasionally, this group has a teenage daughter in tow, with an immeasurably bored expression on her face (sort of been-there-done-that look ) and sulking all the time while Papa and Mama are getting progressively sloshed on the Merlot.
And the ordeal continues when you arrive the airport to catch the return flight. Most of them are already there at the terminal, cabin baggage and bulging shopping bags in hand. The tamasha starts just before the boarding gates open. They jostle and shuffle to get to the front of the line, and when boarding is announced according to rows, they mill around the boarding gate preventing the others from proceeding ahead. And then when they finally board the plane, there is a further mad scramble to stuff their bags into the overhead luggage bins.
Finally, when that objective has been realized, they settle down into their seats, eagerly looking forward to the final indulgence of their holiday – the complimentary booze served on board the flight. And once they have their fill of all the beverages they can consume, they happily drift into slumber, probably dreaming of their next vacation.
And you realize with a sinking heart that yes, it is quite possible that you may meet them again. The Ugly American in his or her new avatar rules !