Ugly ah-MER-uh-kin

Every year, I attend a lovely dermatology conference in NYC–It is my favorite one to attend (great intimate meeting, compelling content, down-to-earth derms etc.)–but a huge part of why I so enjoy it, is because it is located in the heart of NYC. Cliche as it sounds, New York makes one feel more “alive”–or at least it does for me. Since it is filled with such a broad and beautiful spectrum of humanity, walking (which is my favorite activity there–at once meditative and stimulating to the senses) allows you to become immersed in it all. Also, being there by myself, it allows me to focus on observation–just soaking in the environment–and hence I think it feels a bit meditative.

So it was during an evening where I had the luxury of enjoying dinner all to myself, that I found the Japanese izakaya-ish restaurant, Sakagura.  (i will write a separate review next ;), and was also able to observe an interesting interaction that has led me to the topic of this post: “Ugly American.”  “Ugly American” is a phrase that my husband and I coined after traveling internationally and from unfortunately observing poor behavior from our brethren (not saying that only us Americans are guilty of this, but we happened to be the most frequent nationality exhibiting this behavior).

Seeing that Sakagura opened at 6:00pm, and that it tended to get crowded (reservations difficult etc.), I decided to mozy on over early. From the Yelp tips, it sounded like it might be a bit hard to find, located in the basement of a business (vacant?) building–hence why I made sure I arrived early as well. Upon arriving however, it was actually quite easy to find, with a doorman and with signs guiding you along the few turns and down the narrow stairs of the building.

I wander down the stairway and come upon the Sakagura entrance door with the closed sign still showing. Since I was about ten minutes early I decided to take a seat on a nearby bench. While scrolling on my phone, the elevator doors open and two very classically American ladies step out.  “Oh! They aren’t open yet! They say when making reservations to be exactly on time, but here they’re not even open yet!,” Lady #1 indignantly exclaims in a shrill voice. (In my mind’s response, I think “well thats because it is not 6:00pm yet, and it clearly says they open at 6…”)

I look up and notice there is also an older Asian gentleman with them (I later find out he just happened to show up at the same time as they did–and was not apart of their group). Lady #1 continues, including the man in the conversation, going on and on about how very difficult it is to find this place! (Again in my mind’s response, I think, “not really–there are clear signs directing you from the sidewalk all the way down here—the previous Yelp reviewers did not have that, and hence for them, it would have been an accurate statement to say it was hard to find).

Upon closer observation, I notice the man’s demeanor–he has this quiet and resentful countenance–I could sense his disdain towards these women, which thus made me realize that he was not apart of their party.

Lady #2 imperious that they are not yet open (the closed sign is still on the door, and again, it is not yet 6:00pm), barges open the door to the restaurant, and from where I sit, I hear their conversation. Lady #2 informs the staff that they have a reservation at 6:00pm, to which the staff politely responds, “It is not quite 6 yet, please wait…”—Lady #2 snaps “yes it is”—(and Lady #1 mutters “actually no it isn’t, we still have 4 minutes.”) Lady #2, unsuccessful, returns back out to the foyer and huffs “what poor customer service! They don’t know how to treat customers.”

Witnessing all of this, the Asian man, asks “how did you find this place” (read: how did your kind of ignorant, rude, oblivious and disrespectful people find this place??) Ever oblivious, Lady #1 cheerfully responds, that she found this place on the internet. To which the man responds with subtle contempt, “Ah, because of that it is now more popular. It is not as good as it was before–it used to only be Japanese workers and the customers were only Asian,” he pauses here, and pointedly gazes at her and Lady #2, but ever clueless, both ladies continue to complain shrilly about how hard it is to find this place, and how shockingly poor their customer service is, instead of just shutting up and patiently waiting for their originally agreed upon reservation time, and the already-established restaurant opening time: 6:00pm (i.e. not 5:53, 5:56 etc.).

Thus, observing this brief interaction and conversation of people, it brought to my mind the phrase “ugly American.” There is the obvious ugly which the women represented, and there is the more subtle and elitist ugly, which the man represented.

So a moment here on what I mean by “ugly ah-MER-uh-kin”…because indeed, I myself am an American. But what puts the ugly in front and the accent in “ah-MER-uh-kin”?

Specifically “ugly” embodies the following: It is this attitude of entitlement; it is the lack of regard for another person’s time, space, cultural differences–it is the blunt, callous imposition, the forceful “well I want it my way, or this is how it should be, and how dare you (other country, place, culture), not fit into the narrow box of my expectation;” it is the absolute lack of awareness or care, to acknowledge–to RESPECT another way of life, another way of thinking, another -period.

Indeed, the “ugly” in “ugly american”, is the choice to see and understand other things only through the narrow pinhole view of one’s own ethnocentric perspective.

So here, these ladies represented what I have seen countless other times in other countries during my travels, the cringe-inducing loud, lack of respect, entitled attitudes of mah fellow ugly ah-MER-uh-kins. When approaching a new and unfamiliar situation (i.e. seeing the closed sign, when it was definitely not yet 6), instead of respecting that hey they are entitled to be still closed since that is what their business hours state, they instead think NO all others must bend to my will, I get what I want, and I want it NOW…not later! Hmm come to think of it, very much like a spoiled little child.

And of course, the “ah-MER-uh-kin” accent aspect is merely poking stereotypical fun at an accent where one might typically find such pinhole perspectives.

On the other end of the spectrum there is the subtle and elitist “ugly American” represented by the Asian man. His language was dripping with derision and self-superiority (or maybe he sounded that way simply in response to his disgust with the woman’s rude behavior, which I could understand). But the real issue with him was his exclusionary statement (only all-Asian clientele at an Asian restaurant–and any “mixing of races” makes it bad), showing a lack of openness, a lack of respect for those that just really don’t know (although she was justifiably utterly annoying).

Openness & Respect–I think that is really what it comes down to, and what would help with both types of Ugly. Because Lord knows when traveling to somewhere totally different, one is bound to make a cultural blunder and indeed there are things that are so far out of one’s comfort level it is hard to have a good attitude all the time—But if one retains their basic respect, instead of relying on entitlement, then I think it’d help them act in a more gracious manner when faced with “not getting their way.”

So for the ladies, perhaps a little level-headed respect towards punctual people conducting business. If they want to open exactly at 6pm, you shouldn’t hate. And no, that isn’t them being rude or having poor customer service–it is about you not being patient and wanting them to bend their rules just to suit you.

For the man, representative of extreme “purists” or elitists that only 1 kind of ethnicity should be allowed to eat this food or experience this or that–be more open and respectful that they are curious enough to want to learn something new and try something different.


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