More innocents abroad

by Kenneth Champeon, Dec 1, 2002 | Destinations: Thailand

I cannot remember why I found myself chatting with a Californian at a bar situated on one of Thailand's coastal islands, but I do remember that the conversation veered suddenly to the British, and especially to their propensity for drunkenness, pugnacity, and condescension when travelling abroad. The Californian hastened to say that Americans had been cured of such behavior by what he termed the "Ugly American Syndrome", and evidently he meant that the world's steadfast loathing of American foreign policy, and its rather more fickle loathing of American people, obliged us to tread quietly. My American friends back home were shocked to learn that Canadians sport the maple leaf on their luggage so that no one confuses them with their hated southern neighbors; and that many of us conceal our nationality in order to avoid, inter alia, the inevitable jokes about our inarticulate President.

In any case, I began to envision a short story to be titled "The Ugly Englishman", in which a few gentle Thais decide to feed an obnoxious yob to the sharks, perhaps after the fiftieth time he has slurred orders at them in one of his unintelligible dialects. But I lost my motivation. And they have their reward.

This had not been the first time I had heard the phrase "Ugly American", and in every case it had meant an American abroad who is dumb, pampered, brash, and almost impossibly unaware of local customs and languages. And it is this kind of American that - as it happens - two Americans criticized in their 1958 novel The Ugly American. Surprisingly, the ugly American of the novel is not an Ugly American, but one of the novel's heroes: though physically repellant, he is crafty, down-to-earth, respectful, and willing to blend in and help out.

The Ugly American appears on a number of "required reading" lists found in guidebooks for Southeast Asia, where the novel is set. In 1958 the region was perceived to be a forest of upright dominoes, and "in all lands we [were] beset by an evil world-wide conspiracy": Communism, for those who just walked in. The French were still clinging to the remains of their empire in Indochina, though the novel recounts the fall of Dien Bien Phu and Hanoi to the Communists; and the Americans were merely serving as advisors and as generous suppliers of military and humanitarian aid.

The authors readily admit that their novel is propaganda, and the position they hope to propagate is that unless Americans are better informed about the countries they wish to influence, they will be outsmarted by their more savvy enemies. In this sense, the book was prophetic, for it predicted that without a radical revision of American policy and attitudes in Indochina, the Communists would prevail. The book is pro-American in that its authors hope unabashedly to advance American interests, but anti-American in its vicious mockery of American fools.

To advance their thesis, the authors invent a composite Southeast Asian country called Sarkhan. Sarkhan is a "rich country with over 20,000,000 people" and where "Buddhism is the prevalent religion." One Sarkhanese is named "U Nang" - "U" being a Burmese honorific. So far, so good. The authors are, however, on shaky ground when they write that "Buddhists and Moslems drink only fruit juice or water or milk." I can't speak for mythical Sarkhanese Moslems, but I do know that many Southeast Asian Buddhists seem to drink only whisky and soda. In any case, Sarkhan lies on the Pacific Ocean, like Vietnam, where, it would seem, Burmese honorifics would be in short supply. And Sarkhan also boasts "the mournful and exquisitely beautiful Plain of Tombs" populated by "intricately carved pieces of rock." This calls to mind either the Plain of Jars in Laos or Angkor Wat in Cambodia. No wonder the Americans in Sarkhan are confused.

Though billed as a novel, The Ugly American is closer to a collection of short stories, of which some are more successful than others. "Lucky, Lucky Lou #1" introduces the unforgettably dim-witted Ambassador Sears, who calls the Sarkhanese "strange little monkeys" and communicates in the folksy slang of a Nixon or a Bush Jr.: "I don't want to get into a beef with the Roman Catholics"; "He's a sharp cookie with his eye on the ball"; "I don't want to be torpedoed by a bunch of crackpot internationalists who don't know which end is up." The caricature is mostly effective, at times excessive; and the authors' own direct style and limited vocabulary unfortunately suggests the very simple-mindedness they hope to redress.

In "Everybody Loves Joe Bing", a Eurasian editor and publisher named Ruth Jyoti travels to America from her home in "Setkya", and is immediately appalled by the sparse international coverage in "two large San Francisco newspapers." Asks she, in reference to a critical Asian conference: "I wonder why the American papers do not report this Asian news? I notice that about 70 percent of the space is taken up with advertising and comics." Not to mention sports, the inevitable child-kidnapping or police brutality story, and news originating from the Associated Press and not from Reuters or the Agence France-Presse. This much at least has not changed.

Ruth meets a man from the US State Department, but he might as well be from Saturn for all he knows about Southeast Asia. He reads Life magazine; Setkyans can't afford it. He loves Joe Bing (an American in Setkya); Ruth thinks he's a "bastard" with "exactly the kind of loud silly laugh that every Asian is embarrassed to hear." (He's the one pouring liquor for all those sober Buddhists.) Ruth points out that because the Americans speak only English, the Asians with whom they socialize are necessarily unrepresentative.

The authors may have flubbed the lay Buddhist's attitude toward alcohol, but they do get a lot of things right. The Chinese of Sarkhan, for example, "considered themselves Sarkhanese and highly patriotic. And in a way which was baffling to the Occidental mind, they also considered themselves patriotic Chinese, and saw no conflict in this dual obligation." As with nations, so it is with religions. Asians also "dislike saying anything that is unpleasant. Intuitively they say what they think their listener wants to hear." This practice confounds the bluff Americans, where an Asian might view forthrightness as naive. Unlike the Russians, the Americans fail to acknowledge the power of "face" or prestige. And one must not forget the continued prestige of palmistry and astrology in Asian culture.

Some of the authors' observations about Asian-American interactions are deliciously wry, as when an American colonel attempts to learn the Sarkhanese national anthem "Nging Gho Hrigostina" (the initial "ng" sound is invariably one of the most difficult for foreigners to master.) And in the novel's "factual epilogue", a factual Thai uses the acronym "S.I.G.G." in reference to American tribalism and self-indulgence: "'We use it,' he said, 'whenever we are referring to an American cocktail party, dinner, or gathering of any kind. It means 'Social Incest in the Golden Ghetto.'" Ouch.

It would be difficult to say whether the situation has improved. Americans continue to have a mixed reputation in these parts, not least because of the legacy of the Vietnam War. Even the Thais sometimes complain that American tourists are boisterous or boastful. The casual dispensation of dollar bills helps to lower the volume of these complaints, but it does not, and cannot, silence them. "You don't know the power of an idea," says a Sarkhanese Communist in The Ugly American. "The clerks you send over here try to buy us like cattle."

Until Americans learn to think of themselves as part of the messy world presented by their television news, their bungled imperial adventure in Indochina will probably be repeated elsewhere. And the solution may be as simple as what Gore Vidal calls the mark of an educated man: bilingualism. For there's a joke making the rounds over here to the effect that a person who speaks two languages is called "bilingual"; a person who speaks only one is called "an American"; and this may partially explain why the world to Americans seems so alien and baffling. One answer to that ever-recurring and paranoid question "Why do they hate us?" is that it is natural to hate people who will not deign to speak in anybody else's tongue.

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Review of William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick's The Ugly American, Crest Books, 1961.

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