An Ugly American One Year, a Pretty One the Next

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An Ugly American One Year, a Pretty One the Next
Story and photos by Theresa Dowell Blackinton



We individual traveling citizens have very little control over our elected leaders, our country's bilateral negotiations, or our immigration policies. For the American traveler, however, those outcomes land in a foreign place well before us and set the stage for how we're seen.


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As we walk past the minibus station—a gravel parking lot full of women selling bread and oranges from baskets atop their heads, bus attendants trying to out–yell each other for customers, and overcrowded minivans heading out from Blantyre, Malawi in every possible direction—a man opens the back window of the bus he is crammed into and yells to me and my husband, "I love your country, and I love your president!"

I'm not sure how he can tell we're American—we carry no tell–tale signs that I'm aware of—but I accept his words with a huge smile and a loud "Me too."

Before the minibus turns the corner and hurtles out of the city, he shoves his hand out the window, and through the cloud of exhaust gives me a thumbs up. Over the din of an African city on the move, a boisterous "Yes we can" reaches my ears.

I enjoy the moment. It hasn't always been this way.

***

"Don't be ugly," I was told when I was fifteen years old.

I was on my way to Ireland for what was to be my first trip overseas. Until that point, I'd never heard the term "ugly American," but once it entered my consciousness it took over. Lists of don'ts filled my head. Don't wear shorts to church. Don't speak so loudly. Don't insult the food, even if they feed you nothing but potatoes. Don't compare (at least out loud) the way things are in Ireland to the way things are at home.

By the time I boarded the plane to Dublin, I could hardly think of anything else, and I divided my flight time between marveling over the tiny cans of soda handed out by the Aer Lingus flight attendants and imagining all the ways I could embarrass myself and my country. Fortunately, despite the fact that it took me a week to decipher my host father's brogue and I didn't have the first idea how to get eggs from the chicken coop without upsetting the hens, my faux pas were all forgivable.

Five years later as I packed my bags for a study abroad year in Freiburg, Germany, I tucked among my underwear and jeans a better understanding of what it is to be an American abroad. But exactly one week to the day after I landed in Freiburg, a town of cobbled streets lined by gurgling brooks and embraced by the Black Forest, my entire paradigm for how the world worked collapsed. Standing in front of a bank of televisions in a store full of Germans whose accents I was still trying to work out—their way of speaking a sharp turn away from the Hochdeutsch I'd learned in school—I watched the World Trade Center towers crumble.

Shock came first. Hugs from strangers followed. Flowers appeared outside American doors. A candlelight vigil at the town cathedral, itself once destroyed by bombs, brought a feeling of solidarity. And just as suddenly, without time to prepare, we became a world of "with us or against us."

Warnings from the embassy filled my email inbox. Take off your baseball caps, they said. Put your college sweatshirt in the back of your closet and leave it there. Speak German, always, everywhere. Don't worry about appearing ugly, worry about appearing American at all.

The questions from my roommates changed. At first it had been: "What's for dinner?"; "Are Ross and Rachel ever going to get together?" (Friends forever playing on the communal television); "Why do Americans prefer football to soccer?" Later it was: "What do you think about Bush?"; "Did you vote for him?"; "Are you in favor of going to war in the Middle East?" Some days the questions were honest inquiries, some days veiled attacks, dislike of America's current politics an excuse for airing any and all grievances against my country.

A few years later, when I moved to Greece just as the 2004 presidential campaigns were heating up in the U.S., I found that the questions hadn't ended, but had instead intensified. Athens's taxi drivers seemed to have a singular purpose: to determine, through intense questioning of their passengers, what kind of idiots (their word, not mine) could consider reelecting Bush. To meet friends at a cafe, I first had to survive a taxi ride cum interrogation.

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As a teacher, I found that America worked itself into every lesson plan, whether I wanted it to or not. "What do you think the main themes of To Kill a Mockingbird are?" I asked.

"That Americans are racist," a student replied.

"Do you think that's true?" I asked. "Are all Americans racist?" I wanted to dig deeper, to explore an issue that affects their culture as much as it does mine.

"Well they hate Muslims," another student responded. The others nodded their heads in agreement.

I reminded myself that they are teenagers, and that thus it is their job to be contrary, to make statements with the hope of getting a rise out of someone. Yet still it wore me down. Legitimate challenges—questions about Bush, Iraq, and Afghanistan—quickly dissolved into litanies of broad complaints encompassing everything from who won at the Grammy's to how quickly a hole appeared in the Gap sweatshirt they wore every day. Everything was America's fault.

On the first Tuesday of November 2008, however, the game changed again.






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