Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Vol. CLIV, Issue 5
Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Whitman news since 1896

Whitman Wire

Shedding my ‘ugly American’ status

Harrison BarryI am an ugly American.

Or so I’ve been told by people who are not Americans. Being told this as an insecure 17-year-old was devastating. Convinced that I was beyond the reach of people who might make such drastic oversimplifications of my character, I was shocked into a crisis of personality. How, I asked, does one become something that isn’t American?

This was a question that haunted me for years. For one thing, I’ve never been out of the country long enough to see what non-Americans act like. The process through which I might transform myself into a rugged internationalist, or a person without a country, eluded me because the original question: how do I become something that isn’t an American?: is falsely predicated. The real question I should have asked myself was, “How do I become something that isn’t ugly?”

After all, even the most seasoned travelers, eyes fading with jet lag and suitcases shedding little memento stickers like a dog sheds fur, sometimes have overbearing personality flaws. They sometimes exclaim, “What? You’ve never been to Rome?” as though the crumbling physical remnants of a long-dead empire in a city pulsing with reckless drivers are the lifeblood of the modern person: and for the longest time, I believed that Rome or some other sophisticated, urbane and, above all, foreign place could solve my problems.

I’m downright positive that it can’t. For better or for worse, we are trapped as Americans. A sense of place helps us to define who we are, and we take those places with us when we travel. When we visit Rome, we are struck first by how unlike it is from the lush Pacific Northwest, the humid East and the enormous expanse in between.

Then we are struck by the language: and it was in the study of language that I discovered where my thinking had gone astray. I began taking German in my sophomore year here at Whitman, which was tedious at first. Learning a new language is hard, especially when a professor has five hours a week in which to teach it. The homework was boring, time-consuming, and it was always in the way of my seemingly more important homework assignments.

As my skills have improved, I’ve noticed that my interest in language has increased. In the same way that my housemates tell me they can now apply chemistry or physics to the real world (and they do in the most colorful manner), I can apply my new language to a world refreshed by an infusion of new words and enhanced meanings. In English, for example, a picture hangs on the wall in the same way that my shoes rest on the floor. In German, however, changes in one object’s relationship to another have an effect on its linguistic representation.

Tiny differences like these abound in the space between English and German, and I have no doubt that every new language we learn has the power to reinvent the world as we see it. In that way, German has proved to be my salvation: Learning it has forced me to try to understand and interact with a new culture, and being reminded daily that most of the rest of the world doesn’t speak English has opened my eyes to the ways in which language colors the lens through which we look out at the world.
The “ugly American” takes America with him wherever he goes and has the nasty tendency to superimpose America onto everything else, because he has no other eyes to see with. Some Parisians walk past the Eiffel Tower every day, and it has become to them as commonplace as Starbucks might be to us. I’m horrified to think that someday, that Parisian might walk past three Starbucks per Eiffel Tower on his way to work.

Having a new set of eyes has given me a new perspective into myself, and I am simultaneously in love with the self I’ve become as well as amused at the person I used to be. I am also keenly aware of many of my flaws. More than anything, though, I feel more curious about people than I ever have. Whitman College is a small place, but it amazes me now that I can walk past the same people every day for a year without so much as learning their names. It’s distressing to think about how disinterested we’ve become.

If we take this disinterestedness with us when we travel, it’s no wonder that people call us “ugly.” We stand in awe of the Forbidden City, cameras flashing, not realizing that for thousands of people, the Forbidden City lies in the realm of the mundane. Next to the landmarks, people seem small and harmless, but while we raise our voices in their museums (confident that we are not understood, yet always dismayed when somebody doesn’t understand us) and order hamburgers that aren’t on the restaurant menu, those small, harmless people are forming opinions about us that reflect the ignorance of seeing the world through only one pair of eyes.

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