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Sunday, March 18, 2012

The Not So Ugly American

              "He wished he had inhabited more of his life, used it better, filled it further."
                    from "The Amateur Marriage," by Anne Tyler, author of "The Accidental Tourist"

Many books and movies have prompted reflections on not only traveling, but how we tend to approach other cultures. On some levels how we engage other cultures is something of a Rorschach test; we project our values and assumptions onto a panoramic screen featuring our traveling experiences. As we travel we might ask ourselves: To what extent do we stay in our own personal "comfort zones" of language and customs that recreate "home?" Or conversely, do we stretch beyond the familiar into "learning zones," experiences that may cause us to feel insecure, unsure or downright uncomfortable during our sojourns? Yet by leaning into those spaces, and embracing the other culture, even in small ways, we create countless opportunities for learning and growing.

In "The Accidental Tourist," by Anne Tyler, the protagonist, Macon, navigates safely within the cocoon of rituals that comprise his comfort zone. His embrace of the cavalcade of people and cultures around him is encumbered by the heavy baggage of the unresolved, tragic and untimely death of his young son. Any meaningful engagement with local culture, on his part, is truly accidental.

For most of us, the term "ugly American" has come to have a pejorative meaning, a metaphor for insensitivity and arrogance on the part of Americans. Ironically, the main character in the novel by that name (Burdick and Lederer) was, in the eyes of the locals, a plain looking American, who rolled up his sleeves and respectfully engaged the native people of the fictitious Asian country, Sarkan. His behavior was anything but, what we would normally consider, arrogant.

Recently, I gave the Korean students in a writing and communications class I am teaching an assignment. I asked that they read my blog, Korean Bookends, select one posting, and send me an e-mail with their critical appraisal of the piece they chose. One bright young woman, Eun Hye, made reference to Antoine De Saint-Exupery's marvel, "The Little Prince," saying in her response...

"And if you don't mind, I want to share a quote from the 'Little Prince' as the fox speaks to the little prince...

 'To me, you are still nothing more than a little boy who is just like a hundred thousand other little boys. And I have no need of you. And you, on your part, have no need of me. To you, I am nothing more than a fox like a hundred thousand other foxes. But if you tame me, then we shall need each other. To me, you will be unique in all the world. To you, I shall be unique in all the world'"

Then she continued,

"Like this quote, Korea was a mere country to you when you were shocked in the packed and smelly bus on your first day. (If it wasn't, sorry for my hasty assumption.) But I think you didn't close your mind, and didn't establish any stereotype after the awkward situation in the bus. As a result, you made Korea as your friend, and now this country is unique to you. And that's maybe why you could not smell the odor of Kimchee; you got used to living in Korea and then, you came back to Korea."

"I personally have several places I tamed, and I was tamed by," she confided. "They can be just some small rural areas to many others. But to me, they are the places of my childhood, and my family's laughter. Thanks for reminding me of those places. And your stories made me look back on my life. Because I'm now around the same age as you were when you made your first visit to Korea.  I've lived my life mostly indoors, wondering about the outside world alone in my room. And lastly, thanks for being a friend of Korea. With not only this story, but also the "Bookends On a Lifetime," and the other 3 stories, I could feel your lifelong affection toward Korea. And I really think I am lucky to have you as my professor now."

I was both grateful and moved by Eun Hye's insights. Indeed, to tame and to be tamed during one's travels, to experience another culture as unique, without fear of losing one's own uniqueness, requires more than a modicum of courage. The reward, of course, is the world itself.


  1. Beautiful, this idea of taming! It is the growth of relationship, the banishment of fear, an opening-up to possibilities.
    How sensitive and smart your student is... Lucky you :-)

  2. Pamela-
    Indeed! Ms. Eun Hye (Grace) is an exemplary and creative student. Many students in our writing class are doing some amazing writing. I am indeed a fortunate teacher.