How to Avoid Being The Ugly American When Traveling Abroad

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A Brief History

On May 5, 1994, American teenager Michael Fay made international news when he was punished in Singapore for theft vandalism by the local custom of “caning.”  The case caused outrage in the United States that one of our own 18 year old citizens could be treated with corporal punishment for a youthful prank, but the rest of the world saw the offenses of Fay as an egregious affront on the hospitality of another country.  A protest by the United States got Fay’s sentence reduced from 6 strokes of the cane to only 4 strokes.

Digging Deeper

Michael Fay had been diagnosed with ADHD (attention-deficit hyperactivity disorder), although his lawyer claimed the malady did not contribute to his criminal actions.  Fay was not merely a tourist in Singapore, for although he was born in the USA he was living with his mother and step-father in Singapore while attending an American school there.  A rash of vandalism targeting cars had struck Singapore, with tires slashed, deep scratches inflicted, paint ruined with tar and other means, autos spray painted and even damaged with hatchets!  When the local gendarmes caught a 16 year old Chinese boy in the act, the suspect rolled over on some of his teen aged cohorts, including Fay.  Fay was arrested and pled guilty to the crimes of vandalism and petty theft, getting a 4 month jail sentence, a fine of 3500 Singapore dollars, and 6 strokes of the cane.  Caning, the whapping of the bare buttocks with a stout piece of rattan no more than a half inch in diameter, is a common Singapore punishment, usually reserved for male offenders under the age of 50, and also used to punish miscreants in the Singapore armed forces.  School children are also often treated to a caning for misbehavior, though with a smaller version of the cane.

When Fay was caned, he was stripped naked and bent over a trestle, with a rubber pad put on his back to protect against errant blows.  A doctor was on hand to observe and lend medical assistance if needed.  Fay reported the cane strokes drew blood and left scars, leaving his buttocks rather tender for several days, making sitting down painful, though walking was unhindered.

In spite of the outrage in the United States that one of their citizens should be treated to physical punishment, plenty of Americans and people around the world were more outraged that an American teen would feel free to engage in such vandalism in a host country.  In 2016 another incident of American youths misbehaving while in a foreign country also received international attention when US Olympic swimmers led by Ryan Lochte engaged in disorderly conduct and vandalism while in Rio de Janeiro during the Olympic Games.

Americans abroad engaging in boorish and embarrassing behavior seems to be a fairly common event or series of events.  We offer a small amount of advice to our fellow Americans on how to avoid causing other countries to hate Americans and how to avoid embarrassing the rest of us.

1. Learn to say “please” and “thank you” in the native language of the country you are visiting.

International students in Liechtenstein.  Photograph by Vrenibean.

If you learn no other foreign words, make it a point to use these 2 magic phrases that will help you avoid seeming like the Ugly American.  And of course, use these 2 terms as often as possible.  Be respectful and polite, even more so than when you are in the US, as respect and courtesy are often much more important in foreign countries. Learning one or two of the local customs for dealing with people may also provide a surprising touch when dealing with natives that the natives will appreciate, making your stay more pleasant.  Foreigners find polite and courteous Americans to be refreshingly different and will often treat such visitors extra nice.

2. Do not yell at the natives, or act like they are stupid if they do not speak English.

This is the cover art for the album Learning English, Lesson One by the artist Die Toten Hosen. The cover art copyright is believed to belong to the label, Virgin Records, or the graphic artist(s).

People in foreign countries have no obligation to speak English.  By speaking extra loud and slow while seeming to be quite exasperated does not make them understand any better, but it does make you look and seem like an idiot.  Imagine a foreigner doing the same thing to you while visiting the US!

3. Do not assume foreigners do not understand English just because they are not speaking it to you.

Young Jayaji Rao Sindhia, Maharaja of Gwalior, studying English, 1846.  By Ram Singh.

When native people are not speaking English to you, it may be because they either are uncomfortable with their level of English proficiency or because they just do not want to.  If you make the typical American mistake of speaking about them in disparaging terms you may well be understood after all, especially if you use common slurs and curse words.

4. Obey their laws and customs.

Map of the world with colour applied to countries with an official and legally sanctioned judicial corporal punishment, based on Judicial corporal punishment.  Countries coloured in are countries with judicial corporal punishment.  Map by Canuckguy and Gabbe (talk).

Just because you believe the laws and customs of a foreign country are “stupid” they still apply to you while you are there.  Respect lines, signs, and other indications of social control, and do not believe you are somehow entitled by your Americanism to do whatever you would do in the US.  You are obligated to obey their laws.  Period.  Although many foreign countries have what seems to be anarchy on the road, driving laws are often much more harsh and rigid than they are in the US.  Drunk driving especially will get you in massive trouble overseas, much worse than in the US.  Do not litter or damage property, or maybe you will find yourself with cane marks on your butt.  Drug laws in foreign countries are sometimes laxer and more lenient than in the US, but in some countries drug violations may get you a sentence of life in prison or even execution.  Know and obey the laws!

5. Americans do not merit special treatment just for being Americans.

Poster for the film The Ugly American (1963).  Artwork by Reynold Brown (1917–1991).

Do not expect or demand special treatment just because you are an American.  As reasonable as this may seem to you, nobody else in the world will acknowledge your inherent superiority and you will sadly be treated just like everyone else.  If you demand special exceptions and consideration you will be disappointed and will embarrass the rest of us.  This concept is especially important when dealing with local law enforcement.  The cops do not care if you are an American and “You can’t arrest me!”  Yes, they can and will arrest you, and maybe rap you in your big mouth while they are at it.

Enjoy your visits to other countries and by all means keep out of trouble and do not embarrass the rest of us.  Study a little about any country you intend to visit and respect the people, their customs, and their property.  (Note: California is NOT a foreign country, although it may seem like to the rest of the US!)

Questions for Students (and others): What is your favorite foreign country you have visited?  What country would you most like to visit?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

Bron, Marek. Travel the World Without Worries: An Inspirational Guide to Budget and Adventure Travel. Independently published, 2019.


Kinnison, Carrie. GlobeWandering on a Budget: Travel Tips for Grown-ups. Independently published, 2018.


The featured image in this article, Constantino Arias’s photo titled Ugly American, showing a late-1940s Batista-era tourist in HavanaCuba, was created in Cuba and is now in the public domain because its term of copyright has expired.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.