Are you an Ugly American? Part II

Drew Limsky

There are innumerable ways that Americans stick out when traveling, to the amusement and annoyance of the locals. Last year’s guide to sticking out was so popular that we’ve come up with some more ways that we embarrass ourselves when overseas.

Pushing back in China

In overpopulated China, people will push you. Grandmas, children, everyone. But it’s not meant as an aggressive act, and it would be a mistake to take offense or push back, especially when you look different from everyone else. Most non-Chinese Americans are conspicuous not only by their race, but by their (bigger) size, so retaliation will not go unnoticed. Either relax your body and let yourself be moved around, as I did on the ferry in Shanghai, or else plant your feet firmly, without hostility. The jostles are rarely energetic enough to cause you physical harm.

Not carrying change

Making change, especially for big bills, is just not a "thing" in many countries. And always have small change on hand for public restrooms in train stations, museums, and archeological sites. In Italian restrooms, once you drop your euro in the slot, for god’s sake step swiftly past the retractable plastic doors. I’ve seen those doors painfully close on many a dumbfounded American.

Getting impatient with the check

Don't get alarmed, annoyed, or impatient when the check isn't brought immediately after you take your last bite. It's considered impolite in many cultures to bring the bill too quickly. Unlike in America, where restaurants want to turn their tables quickly, in other countries lingering is encouraged or expected.

Eating in

Nothing is more rube-like and ugly American than being too lazy to leave your hotel for a meal. Hotel meals are overpriced, devoid of local color and often of substandard quality. Of course the exceptions are fine restaurants that have achieved a distinct identify, such as the two-Michelin-starred Le Cinq at the Four Seasons George V. And it would be silly to forgo the free, increasingly ample breakfasts available at most European hotels, some of which even offer hot food (it is common to obtain a bed-and-breakfast room rate).

Being a bad complainer

If you get a bad room in a hotel and want to change, make sure you have a specific, concrete complaint and use precise words that the hotel manager "gets." When I was given a room at a fine hotel in Barcelona's tony Eixample neighborhood, and it was small and dark, I wasn't happy. But I knew it would be the noise outside the window, from construction debris being dropped down chutes, that would get me an upgrade. And I knew to avoid emotional language and use a few words that Europeans favor: "unacceptable" and "impossible." And another word that seems to work wonders: "TripAdvisor."

Not greeting the shopkeeper

It's typical in America to walk into a shop and start examining the merchandise. It's an impersonal, corporate mentality. But in homey Greece, for example, there's a good chance that the person minding the store is the actual owner, so it's customary to greet the shopkeeper, and say admiring things about their olive wood crafts.

When in France, know some French

Learning a few phrases in French can be especially helpful. The French, unlike the Italians, don't easily give up their language to English, and they certainly won't converse with you in their native tongue if your French is imperfect. But you'll get less of a sneer if you make an effort.

Visiting Bali without blessings

There are Hindu shrines all over Bali, and experienced travelers will know better than to approach one empty-handed. So come prepared with little offerings; even better to use the tiny local baskets and fill them with flower petals and gifts. The Balinese are too polite to say anything if you fail to offer, but they’ll be very touched if you observe this ubiquitous custom.

Surfing on the locals’ waves in Hawaii

It’s possible, even likely, to be an ugly American in Hawaii (even though it’s the 50th U.S. state). Black socks, fanny packs—it’s a well-worn cliché. And even in laid-back Hawaii, you can get yourself into trouble by trying to surf on a locals’ beach. “Surf rage” is not unheard of. If you’re from the mainland, no matter what ethnicity, you’re “haole” (North American), and if you ride the wrong waves you may end up losing your teeth. Stick to Waikiki and other hotel beaches.

Taking notes in China

Also in China, take photos, but not notes (at least with pen & paper). Given the country's history of censorship and restrictions on the press, your note-taking might make people uncomfortable. Writing in public means that you're taking their situation too casually and rubbing your democracy in their faces. This is the only thing I did in Shanghai that caused people to stare. Take notes on your phone instead.

Finding chaos at kiosks

Have at least one credit card with a PIN code. Train kiosks in Europe are the last holdouts: either you need that European "chip" in your credit card (which we don't have), an ATM card or a credit card registered with a cash withdrawal code. In France, with all those labor strikes, there might not be a human to buy a ticket from, and then you’re stuck. Yelling at the kiosk doesn’t seem to work.