By Dr. Lee Dubs
Author's Note: For the purpose of narrowing the field of subject matter in this article, the term “Americans” is used to refer to people from the United States. There is a specific Spanish adjective for U.S. citizens – estadounidenses – which does not have an equivalent in English. The word “americanos” in Spanish refers to almost everyone in the Western Hemisphere and is not, therefore, synonymous with estadounidenses. Spanish speakers often use “norteamericanos” as a synonym for estadounidenses, but the geographical term North America in English includes Canada and Mexico. To avoid confusion, in this article the word Americans will refer only to people from the U.S. The term North Americans will include Canadians. Also, the word “gringo," in Ecuador, is a neutral term that refers to North Americans.
“These people are so damned slow!”
“They’re all a bunch of liars.”
“I want my coffee RIGHT NOW!”
“These people won’t even speak English; they can but they won’t!”
“In thirty days we can run this town.”
“We need to make some serious changes around here.”
“Why can’t these [word omitted] speak English like the rest of the civilized world?”
“You gringos are all alike; you think you are better than we are.”
All of the above — except the last one — are samples of recent statements and exclamations made by Americans in Cuenca. Some were yelled loudly in a crowded restaurant or a bank and some were pronounced in frustration to other Americans. The final example was a retort by an Ecuadorian, reflecting the growing annoyance felt by Ecuadorians in Cuenca — and probably all of Ecuador.
In their blockbuster and highly influential 1958 book, The Ugly American, Eugene Burdick and William Lederer identified an attitude of Americans abroad which they saw as harming the U.S. in its battle to win the struggle for the hearts and minds of Third World peoples in the cold war against Communism. In the book, a Burmese journalist says, “A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious.” In 1958 most Americans abroad were there temporarily; they were travelers or workers who later returned to the U.S. In the early twenty-first century, however, millions of Americans reside abroad, away from their cultural comfort zone. Since the publication of that 1958 book, the term “Ugly American” has been used to describe a frequently observed American mind-set and pattern of behavior abrod which people in those countries — including other Americans — find objectionable. A definition of such ugly American behavior is given in Wikipedia as, an “innate arrogance and the failure to understand the local culture.”
North Americans who live in Cuenca are observing increasing numbers of contacts with newbie expats who spend much time complaining about life here. In fact, many visitors who have been in Cuenca only a matter of days report encountering North Americans who regale them with a list of what is wrong and what should be done. The nature of their complaints can be summed up succinctly: they find things here to be inferior to the way they are “back home.” As much as they may resent the current financial or political situation in the U.S., these overwhelmingly monolingual economic refugees fiercely hold to the belief that American culture is superior to all others. They did not move to Ecuador because they like Ecuador; they moved here because it costs less, and they do not like it. They want a U.S.-style retirement on the cheap without the need to adapt to a culture they feel is not up to their standards. Many believed the exaggerated financial claims they had read before moving to Ecuador and now they are resentful. It isn’t as cheap as they were told and it isn’t like moving to another State in the U.S. The options that they see are to complain – perhaps in the hope that things will change — or to try to create a Little America and ignore the locals as much as possible.
Puritan settlers in the New World emphasized the role of religion in daily life and often meted out severe punishments to those who failed to comply with the rules. Obedience to God’s laws eventually led to a strong psychological association between God and America. The late U.S. historian Henry Steele Commager, in his book Meet the U.S.A., spoke of such an association when he told foreigners that Americans believe that God stands astride their country, with one foot on each coast. Americans sing “God Bless America” with frequency and place bumper stickers with the same message on their cars. The word “God” is even inscribed on U.S. currency and, during the Cold War, God became part of the pledge of allegiance to the country. Large numbers of Americans argue passionately that there should be prayers at the start of school classes and sporting events and that the Judeo-Christian Ten Commandments should be posted in public locations, including schools and court houses. Many churches in the U.S. have American flags near the altar, in spite of the constitutionally accepted separation of church and state. There does seem to be a relationship between God and the United States in the minds of great numbers of Americans, who often argue that America “was built on Christian principles,” by hard-working, God-fearing, English speaking settlers. If God is not specifically an American, at least He is on “our” side. God deserves much of the credit for the perception of so many Americans of their nation as Number One on the planet in almost every major category. In the minds of many Americans, God and the USA go together, and God has helped make their nation superior. To them, the land of the free and the home of the brave also has achieved moral superiority over all others. It was once said that what was good for General Motors was good for America. A similar prevailing attitude was that what was right for America was right for all countries, and that others wanted to be just like Americans.
In the 1960’s and 1970’s, the Dutch psychologist Geert Hofstede’s job with IBM was to travel the world to interview employees, with a lengthy list of questions to help identify cultural differences in areas such as how people solve problems, how they work together, their attitudes toward authority, etc. Today, Hofstede’s Dimensions are widely used in the study of cross-cultural psychology. One part of his study is called the “individualism-collectivism scale,” which, among other things, affixes a culture’s way of measuring success or failure and whether that measurement is based more on individual achievement or collective effort. Americans will not be surprised to learn that their country scored at the top of the individualism end of the scale. In the United States, you create your own success or failure.
Commenting on that ranking in the 2008 book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell writes, “Not surprising, the United States is also the only industrialized country in the world that does not provide its citizens with universal health care.” Americans expect Americans to take care of themselves and not look to others for help, even when they need it. Failure is blamed on the individual. An exception is a major unavoidable tragedy (e.g., hurricane, tornado, terrorist attack) that affects large numbers. Unlike in early America, where neighbors helped neighbors, in twenty-first century America there is much resentment and strong opposition to helping those at the bottom end of the economic scale, especially in the form of assistance from the government. The rationale is that it is their own fault: the unemployed don’t want to work; mothers receiving public assistance shouldn’t have children they can’t afford; those on food stamps are lazy; and people who live under bridges have chosen to do that. Whether or not to provide help to the needy has even become a hot political issue in America, evoking passions that affect the fate of those running for office. Politicians who have ever supported universal health care find themselves having to defend their actions. Individualism is prized in a society that believes more than do others in taking care of oneself and expecting others to do the same.
How might such strong feelings of “individualism” in American culture affect attitudes toward cultures and countries — such as Ecuador — at the other end of Hofstede’s scale? How many Americans look down on cultures where, for example, there is a strong collective sense in problem solving and achievement of goals, which may take more time? Do awareness of and experiences with such differences turn into resentment? Do those Americans who most strongly feel self-sufficient and “individualistic” also feel superior to those whose culture prizes group effort? Do people from a country filled with small nuclear families harbor ill feelings toward cultures which value large extended families, where decisions are often made after prolonged discussions involving the matriarch or patriarch? Do members of a “time is money” culture resent the slower pace of a country where time is to be enjoyed in the company of others, where people close shops in order to take long social lunch breaks, and where they wait patiently in long lines at banks and to be served in busy restaurants? Do Americans who are accustomed to direct communication patterns chafe in a society where speech is circular and an answer to a question is often the “good” answer, rather than the “correct” one? How do gringos react when they discover that “mañana” often does not refer to the next day but to a nebulous point in the future?
Last year I wrote an article entitled, “Who Are All These Gringos, Anyway?,” in which I categorized the large numbers of North Americans rushing to Ecuador. Based on several years of observations and discussions, I listed what I saw as different categories of gringos who are here, their motives for migrating, and their varied behaviors after living here. The conclusions were as objective as I could make them and were generally positive. I did, however, point out two groups that were relatively small at the time but which we now see expanding rapidly: First are the growing number of gringo residents who are seeking ways to supplement their income in Ecuador; and second are the North Americans who are unable to adjust to a new country and a new life, willingly sharing their unhappiness with those around them. This article focuses only on the latter group.
Two visiting North American sociologists, both of whom are studying migration from the U.S. to South America, were in Ecuador last year and told me they had found my observations to be in line with their early findings. One told me specifically that they are beginning to see in Ecuador negative trends that have occurred with American movements into Mexico and Central America. The seeds of future inter-cultural problems are now being sown in Ecuador. In two words, more and more American immigrants are bringing with them a combination of arrogance and ignorance when interacting with the local culture. They spend much of their time belittling their new culture and demonstrating a “We are superior to you” sentiment. The term “Ugly American” has been reincarnated.
What, exactly, do we mean by arrogance among so many American expats? Simply put, it is an attitude of inherent superiority over members of the native population and their culture. In an article in an AARP magazine a decade ago, some American retirees living in a community in Mexico spoke of their refusal to waste their time learning Spanish, of their determination to remain in their walled community away from locals, and their habit of expecting their Mexican maids to do their work — like shopping and laundry — for them. Some bragged that they almost never left their American compound. The only consistent concern expressed by interviewees was getting their Social Security checks on time each month. Some spoke positively about the locals, but most did not mention relations between Americans and Mexicans.
Hypocrisy is often evident, especially when it comes to language. One element of the frustration exhibited by many newbie ex-pats is the fact that Ecuadorians speak Spanish and few speak English. Americans who objected to immigrants in the U.S. who do not speak English have themselves become immigrants who do not speak the national language. In fact, some have expressed the view that all they need to know is English, and they surround themselves with English speakers as much as possible. They interact with Ecuadorians only when absolutely necessary and often through a translator. This tends not to be true of expats who have been here longer and who study Spanish and make efforts to use it. Harm to the image of North Americans is wrought by those monolinguists who say, “I have no intention of studying Spanish,” demanding that Ecuadorians speak English with them.
How else might such arrogance be manifested? Not only are long-time North American expats tired of listening to new expats who expect “these people” to use English with them; they also weary of those who call Ecuadorians liars and thieves and who complain about the taxis, the traffic, the food, the weather, the banks, and almost everything else. It is not difficult to locate malcontents who bend ears with their litany of complaints about life here and who also rant about how the economy has become so bad in the States that they had no choice but to live elsewhere. A commonly heard phrase is, “I’m here because I can’t afford to live in my own damned country.” They stay in Ecuador because it’s cheaper to live here, period. They are seeking the American Dream outside of the U.S. Many are frustrated, insecure, unhappy people who — when they are not blaming the U.S. government for their plight — take it out on the Ecuadorians.
A look at some U.S. history might provide some insight as to the origins of today’s Ugly American arrogance. It is logical to start with olde England, where a rigid class and political structure produced a top layer of privileged aristocracy who felt superior to those below them. It was a system which became the norm for all residents. British colonizers around the world carried with them sentiments of superiority when they claimed to “civilize” other peoples throughout the world. Christian missionaries even instructed the locals on “civilized” sexual intercourse, now called the missionary position. European colonists and explorers who went to the Americas generally enjoyed a higher social status than they had experienced at home. Even indentured servants soon worked off their debts and moved up the class ranks. After all, the new place was full of “uncivilized” natives, a euphemism for inferior. Eventually, economic and cultural superiority were joined by a sense of racial superiority as well.
The British were a colonizing political entity. British colonists, soldiers, governors, and missionaries crossed the oceans to create what they considered a more civilized, British-like, world. The arrogance in such an attitude is obvious. Those who crossed the Atlantic to the New World had lived with the notion of socio-economic differentiation and they carried it with them; but now they were the ones on top.
Sanitized history books, romance literature, and even later Western movies presented the “noble savage” in a positive light, but European colonizers — from the Spanish and Portuguese to the British and French — used the native populations to their own benefit and they eliminated resistance as they expanded their domains. Religion was even used to justify enslavement and brutality, as if the colonizers were given God’s permission to conquer and to expand their own influence into the uncivilized world.
A term that was coined by U.S. newspaper editor John O’Sullivan in 1845 — Manifest Destiny — was utilized to explain rapid westward expansion to the Pacific Ocean that involved herding the native populations into reservations or simply killing those who resisted or got in the way. O’Sullivan explained that it was “America’s manifest destiny to overspread the continent,” explaining that America “had been chosen” to expand, drive out the wilderness and establish civilization. Everyone knew, of course, that it was God who had done the choosing. The Homestead Act of 1862 even allowed Americans to legally claim almost any western land as their own after farming it for five years. Hardships were many, and the phrase “rugged individualism” became synonymous with being a hard-working, God-fearing American.
Whether through purchase of territory from other nations — the Louisiana Purchase, Florida, the Gadsden Purchase, Alaska — or through outright confiscation following war — Mexico in 1848, Spain in 1898 — the U.S. continued to expand its territory as it “had been chosen” by God to do. The European colonizing nations in the Americas made use of what were considered to be inferior races to do their dirty work. Iberian slave traders even argued that the indigenous were not authentic humans with souls. Whether by abusing the native population, by hauling captured Africans across the ocean, or by using mistreated Chinese laborers to build a railroad, there was “progress”, and God was calling the shots. The aristocracy of olde England were the new Anglo Americans, without the official trappings of inherited privilege.
Feelings of Caucasian superiority exacerbated both subtle as well as overt racism in the expansion of America. Those who were “different” were considered inferior to the descendents of the original British colonists, a sentiment that has never entirely vanished from American society. “Lesser” immigrants — African, Oriental, Italian, Latino, and others — have felt the brunt of racism in America. Those who “look” more like the original settlers have usually been more accepted. It was the Japanese Americans, not the German Americans or Italian Americans, who were assumed to be a threat and who were sent to concentration camps during World War II, a violation of the Constitutional rights of American citizens that was accepted as a wartime necessity. Interestingly, not a single case of Japanese-American betrayal was ever found, which led the Secretary of State to declare that it was only through the sneakiness and cleverness of the Oriental race that they were not caught.
An early example of official American arrogance occurred in the early nineteenth century. Uneasy over continued European involvement in the Americas, especially as the Latin nations were breaking from Spain and Portugal, President James Monroe — in an overt display of American bullying — declared in 1823 that the European nations were required to stay out of the western hemisphere and that the U.S. would look after “our southern brethren.” History books in American classrooms spoke of the Monroe Doctrine in positive language, as an example of American beneficence. The subsequent history of American exploitation and political dominance in Latin America is legendary – except in most American textbooks.
I have made references to American history as taught to its young people. Most older Americans will recall heavy doses of selective propaganda during childhood. History lessons focused on the development of what we were told was the best country in the world. It is not wrong to teach youth to love their country. In Ecuador, one cannot graduate from high school without swearing fealty in a special ceremony where each student must drop to one knee and kiss the flag as it passes by. The U.S. is not the only country to instill loyalty, though it may be more subtle than in some other nations. Along with “duck and cover” drills in school in case of an atomic attack, we were taught that the “bad” countries — especially the godless Communist Bloc nations — told tall tales to their youth. Little did we realize at the time that we were undergoing something comparable. We learned that God was on our side, that U.S. presidents were morally perfect — George Washington could not tell a lie and Honest Abe walked miles in snow to return a few pennies to a merchant — and even Superman fought for “truth, justice, and the American way.” We felt that we were somehow better than the rest of the planet.
As youth we had not yet developed the analytical skills to comprehend the nature of propaganda. As we matured, revelations and rumors began to surface: President Eisenhower’s admission that Francis Gary Powers was actually spying; President Kennedy’s alleged dalliances in the White House; the Watergate scandal that brought down a president; and the government lies about the Vietnam War.* These were a shock to Americans who grew up believing in America’s moral superiority. Some Americans refused to alter their deeply ingrained patriotic views while others vocalized their dissatisfaction and desire for improvement. The former group advocated “Love It or Leave It,” while the latter said, “Love It and Change It.” That polarization has never completely healed.
*Note: I attended a 1980’s speech by General William Westmoreland in which he admitted that the American public was lied to throughout the Vietnam War. He justified the lies as necessary at the time to maintain support for the war; but the fact is that the lies were, indeed, told. Many still refuse to accept that fact.
Who are today’s Ugly Americans? They are those who live in a country and culture which they believe to be inferior to the country from which they migrated, and who let others know it. We know that all their lives they ingested the belief in America’s universal superiority and blessings from God. What is the fault of Ugly Americans abroad is that they make those feelings and beliefs obvious. They offend the local population and infuriate other American expats. When people from the U.S. who live in Ecuador scream in bank lines and restaurants, make accusatory generalizations on blogs, call taxi drivers thieves, and speak of taking charge and improving the culture, the Ugly Americans are evident. They are the bad apples who risk spoiling the entire barrel and turning the locals against all gringo immigrants. They do not care, obviously, but the majority of the gringo community does care, and that majority is becoming agitated, asking each other, “Who are these people?”
One legitimate complaint among expats in Ecuador is the crime rate, which is increasing significantly along with the rush of “rich” — as criminals see them — North Americans into the country. Those who write articles and blogs whose purpose is to persuade gringos to move to Ecuador make no mention of such robberies, especially the growing number of assaults on foreigners. Most complaints, however, are baseless.
Americans cannot always be blamed for growing up believing that their country’s political and economic systems, their language, their heritage, their way of life, and even their God, are all the “right” ones. However, most educated adults outgrow the propaganda and accept the validity of differing views and cultural norms. The latter are expats who become world citizens, not parochial bigots. When any of us elects to live in another country and still refuses to accept the adopted culture, its language, and its people, another Ugly American has shown up.
Americans continue to migrate south, some even leaving gringo establishments in Mexico, Costa Rica, and Panama to head for Ecuador, as this country continues to be “pushed” as the best place to retire. Uruguay may be next. An American told me that Uruguay is a better country to live in than Ecuador because, “they look more like us.” I rest my case.
Editor's note: Lee Dubs first visited Cuenca in the early 1960s and has been a full-time resident for the past eight years. A retired language professor from North Carolina, he and his wife, Carol, are the owners of Carolina Bookstore on Calle Hermano Miguel at Calle Larga. Lee can be reached by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.