Sunday, August 17, 2014

The Critical Mom and the Ugly American

We enjoyed a glorious day at Machu Picchu climbing the ruins of the sacred city and hearing spicy comments from our guide about conquerors ("You all--Egyptians, Romans, English, Americans, write about killing to make civilization.  You have to kill to create civilization.  But Incas don't write about it.  For Inca, is personal information!"  Here he brought his fist to his chest in a heartfelt way, and the academics from the Decolonization conference laughed in relief.)  But on the train ride from Machu Picchu to Ollantaytambo, we encountered a well known-type:  the Ugly American.  He strode into the car opening windows and slung himself into his seat, just as my husband began to request that he change his seat from aisle to window so that we could talk with our friend.
"This here's my seat!" he bellowed in a Texas accent.
Our friend, crushed at the window seat by his imposing thigh and sitting across from his terrified-looking wife and daughter, looked alarmed.
"You got a problem with that?" the Texan yelled at my husband, who answered, "A gentleman would allow a lady to change seats."
"Well, I'm gonna get the conductor now, 'cause I might get violent.  A gentleman would let me sit in my seat."
At this point my eldest son announced, in German, "Everyone burn your American passports!  We're going around the world as Germans from now on!" 
"Are you talking' 'bout me in a foreign language?" asked the Texan loudly, squinting at us.  He fetched the conductor, who began to talk to my husband in Spanish, advising him to calm the man down. 
Meanwhile the man leered at our friend, saying, "por favor, darlin'" and she then explained in her perfect Spanish to the conductor that of course the man could have his seat and there was no problem.   The man looked murderous and stuck his other leg out into the aisle, claiming as much space as it was humanly possible to do.
I've encountered this type so frequently that I sometimes tell people I'm Canadian and was grateful when one of the Indio vendors on the street in front of our Cusco hotel asked me if I were Argentinian.  At the National Library in Ireland, years ago, hordes of Americans lined up to find their ancestors, and had no patience with the relaxed attitude of the Irish, who never got angry when red-faced, huge Americans banged the bell repeatedly, expecting instant service. 
We sat through the ride to Ollantaytambo wishing we could do something for our friend other than pass her Kleenex--she wept throughout, being a sensitive sort, and after the ordeal was over imagined the man as a character in a Quentin Tarantino movie who gets murdered at the end.  "And his daughter runs away!"
The daughter was the one for whom I felt the most.  The mother seemed catatonic, the daughter eager to defend her father.  When she overheard me telling my younger son, who asked why the man acted that way, that he was drunk, she shrilled, "He is not drunk!" as if she desperately wanted to convince herself of the fact.
Our friend later reported that he spent the ride making racist remarks about mestizos and abusing his wife and daughter, ordering drinks for them and then drinking them himself, and I urged my husband not to remonstrate, because I knew that the man was capable of punching someone out or much worse.
When I went to the bathroom, I explained to the conductor that I was worried the man might try to injure my husband, and could he please just be around as we exited the train.  He did so, and I was most grateful to him.
But I longed to take aside the daughter, who was about seventeen, and apparently on a pre-college trip with her parents, and tell her: "Listen:  you don't have to stay in your family.  You can leave them behind and make your own life.  I had a father like yours--a man who got drunk and made scenes in public and insulted people.  I had a mother who ignored his bad behavior and like your mother showed her fear of him all the time.  And it took me a while, but I left them behind and made my own life, and you can too."  I thought about my situation  at seventeen with a father like that--the original Ugly American--and I felt extremely grateful for my husband and my three children and how we can laugh together and enjoy a ride on a train even with a drunken yahoo across the aisle, because we can leave him behind.


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  3. I was grateful when one of the Indio vendors on the street in front of our Cusco hotel asked me if I were Argentinian

    That is not necessarily a compliment, considering Argentine attitudes towards other countries in South America- and the awareness that Argentina's neighbors have of these attitudes. A common Argentine saying is "South America begins north of Córdoba," North of Córdoba, a city in northern Argentina, one finds increasing proportions of indigenous/Indian people in the population. I recall hearing Argentine tourists in La Paz and Quito talking about the "dumb Indians" in those countries.

    Consider another Argentine saying. "Bolivians came from the hills, Brazilians came from the trees, and Argentines came from the boats." IOW, Bolivians are indigenous, Brazilians are monkeys/blacks, and Argentines are immigrants.

    And having extensive experience with both Bolivians and Argentines, I can inform you that many Argentines also consider Bolivians to be "dumb Indians" - and Bolivians greatly resent this attitude. Such as the Bolivian working for a multinational in his home country, which would have afforded him the opportunity to work outside Bolivia. His take- he would be glad to work in any other country- except Argentina.

    Not all Argentines have this racist attitude. I know of several Argentine-Bolivian marriages. But a substantial number of Argentines have decidedly racist attitudes towards others of their continent.

    Consider another Argentine saying. "Bolivians came from the hills, Brazilians came from the trees, and Argentines came from the boats." IOW, Bolivians are indigenous, Brazilians are monkeys/blacks, and Argentines are immigrants.

    Racist attitudes in Argentina have diminished in the last 50 years. A substantial number of the last 50 years featured not economic growth, but economic stagnation and decline in Argentina. Te result is that the Argentine economy is no longer head and shoulders above those of its neighbors- and the Argentines realize it.

    In my extensive experience as both a worker and a tourist in Latin America, I saw little of the Ugly American in action. As a backpacker, I associated with low-budget travelers of many nations, nearly all of whom made attempts to speak Spanish. The only instance of ugly tourist I saw was a French Canadian who got a local rather angry when the French Canadian made a move on his girlfriend. [I had evidence of his arrogance when he once tried to correct me for using what was not the correct present tense of a verb. I informed him that as the situation involved doubt, I was using the subjunctive mode.]

    I worked with people from Latin America, Europe, Canada, and New Zealand- and the US. I didn't encounter any Ugly US Expat workers. However, I did encounter some Ugly Brit Expat workers. Such as drunken Scotsmen. Such as the Englishman who complained about there not being enough expats off the job- he didn't want to socialize off the job with the locals.

  4. Thank you very much for your comments. Here's hoping the vendor didn't see me as "Argentinian" in the sense of looking down at other South American countries. Frankly, the impression may have been gleaned from the poncho I was wearing (one of those supposed-to-be-alpaca-but-really-acrylic. But it was pretty, and more important, warm, so I bought it.