Cotacachi / Ecuador / Ecuador Culture / Ecuador Lifestyle / Living in Ecuador / Moving to Ecuador / View from the Roof

A View From the Roof: The Ugly American is Back in Ecuador–Are You One of Them? Take the Self-Test and See


I have always loved to read, but only a few books have left lasting impressions. These books to a certain extent have defined my character. I read one of them, “The Ugly American,” just as I entered high school in the early ’60s.

Published by William J. Lederer and Eugene Burdick in 1958, it was a seminal book that sold millions of copies and influenced a generation of travelers and public servants.  It is said to be the core work that inspired JFK to start the Peace Corps.  He even purchased enough copies to send one to every fellow member of the U. S. Senate.a-view-from-the-roof-photo-

I know it had a huge impact on me. I can remember the thought I had when I read it, and it still lingers today: “How can the people of the USA be so dumb?”  My next thought was, “I don’t ever want to be like that.”

The book focuses on the educated elite of the diplomatic corps who came to their posts with an American-bred arrogance and a belief that they were the emissaries of an empire. The citizens of whatever country they were stationed in were subjects of the empire who needed to show proper respect but who deserved none in return.

There’s this telling quote from a Filipino minister talking to an American official: “The simple fact is, Mr. Ambassador, that average Americans in their natural state, if you will excuse the phrase, are the best ambassadors a country can have. They are not suspicious, they are eager to share their skills, they are generous. But something happens to most Americans when they go abroad. Many of them are not average . . . they are second-raters.”

Linda and I have lived in Ecuador for 6 ½ years. We’ve helped scores of people make the move to Ecuador, and through our website, influenced a good number more to explore the possibility of a new life there. To a large extent, the people we have helped fall into the first category, “the best ambassadors a country can have.”

Unfortunately, another group whom I tend to call “economic refugees,” fall into the second category–“second-raters.”

Who are these second-raters and are you one of them?

Who are these people. My sense is that they are people who have been influenced by the idea that a couple can live in Ecuador on $600/month, and that it is some kind of economic paradise. They come with little preparation, do little cultural research, have little or no experience in foreign travel, and think that they are simply moving to another suburb of the imperial U.S.

The first shock comes when they arrive at the Quito airport and find out that no one around them speaks English. My God, what kind of world is this?

After a few weeks or months living in a vastly different culture, intense culture shock sets in. Hidden defense mechanisms emerge.

Anger is triggered at perceived cultural insults and they begin lashing out at whomever seems to be the transgressor.

Unfortunately, the Ugly American in the minds of many Ecuadorians becomes stereotyped. Ecuadorians are human too, and when they have a run-in with one of these cultural misfits, they tend to spread the word. Pretty soon, all expats become tainted by the fears and cultural discomfort generated by a few bad apples.

The website of a friend of ours in Cuenca, recently published a letter from an Ecuadorian who is displeased with gringos in Cuenca.  It is worth the read.

As an historian by education, I remember writing a paper in college on Norwegian immigration to Minnesota in the 1880s. One of the first lines in my paper was, “The immigrants came to Minnesota to start a new life in a new land. But as rapidly as they could, they re-created what they had always known; their own schools, their own churches, their own political and legal systems.”

This re-creating what we already know is a normal human tendency. We feel safer when surrounded by the familiar, the comfortable, the understood.

It takes some work and desire to integrate into a new culture.  It also takes courage to let go of your pre-conceived view of how life should be and open yourself to new ideas, new perspectives and a new language.

While living in Cotacachi, I interacted with three different Peace Corps volunteers.  I have been incredibly impressed with all three of these selfless young North Americans.

They arrived in country with a good grasp of the language and worked hard to improve their skills.  They are not do-gooders. 

They came to Ecuador to share their skills and talents in whatever way their Ecuadorian clients wanted.  They came embracing the culture, the people and the language.  They came with a desire to fit in, to accept and to appreciate what is here, and to assist where needed.

And each of them have been perceived by the Ecuadorians they are relating to as wonderful people of great value to their lives. This tells me that cultural adaptation can be taught and learned.

Another powerful quote by the novel’s protagonist: “Whenever you give a man something for nothing, the first person he comes to dislike is you.” The Peace Corps volunteers understand this message, but many new expats do not.

A North American tendency, when seeing something perceived through personal cultural conditioning as out-of-whack, is to spread money around.  Money will make it all better.  Pay higher wages for domestic labor, give tips that leave the receiving waiter gasping in astonishment, don’t try to fit into the bargaining culture that exists in the markets, but rather pay the asking price or even more because “these poor people need more money, and I have so much than they do.”

One of the worst transgressions the Ugly American is guilty of is expressing anger, judgement or displeasure violently and loudly in public when something doesn’t meet his or her approval. This is a ghastly cultural faux pas in Ecuador.  I imagine it ranks on par with slapping your wife in a restaurant in the U.S.

An interesting article circulated on the net a few weeks ago out of Cuenca. It was by an expat who was reporting on “Obnoxious Gringos,” and was promoting the formation of a behavior modification group among gringos for the purpose of banding together to change the behavior of these Ugly Americans.    Hopefully they won’t resort to shock treatment, lobotomies and drugs.

The person said in part: “…The majority of the OGs (obnoxious gringos) seem to be Unhappy Economic Refugees from the north who came to Ecuador because they thought they could live on the cheap in a facsimile of their own country and who are distressed with the cultural and economic realities. They blame the Ecuadorians themselves for their unhappiness instead of directing their vitriol at those individuals and organizations that misled them in the first place.

“If you join the Behavior Modification Group (BMG), you agree to a zero tolerance policy when you hear the complaints of such gringos…Ana Lucía Serrano of the Ministerio de Relaciones Externas reports that her office is receiving increasing numbers of complaints from Ecuadorians who want the government to “do something about the gringos…”

Whether behavior modification will work is questionable. Chances are the behavior will get worse instead of better. Once we recognize the problem, and read articles like this one, we can ask ourselves the question, “Am I an Ugly American?”

How do you tell? A self-test follows.  You can check your level of cultural adaptation in private.  A little soul-searching will do all of us good.  Sometimes it’s just a matter of realizing that you are following an old cultural pattern, unconsciously, and then determining to behave differently.  We might all want to make the effort, especially if faced with enforced behavior modification.

If all your answers are no or false, then you’ve adapted well to Ecuador culture and very likely enjoy a wonderful Ecuadorian experience. If you have 5 or fewer yes or true answers, you have some work to do, but can very likely adapt if you want to. But if you more than 5 yes or true answers, then you need to do a serious evaluation of why you are living in Ecuador.  It may not be much longer before you run screaming back to North America.

The Ugly American Self-Test


1. Do I over-tip? (do you even know the tipping rules?)
2. Am I afraid or adverse to bargaining when is appropriate?
3. Do I see most Ecuadorians as being beneath me–inferior, poor or unfortunate?
4. Do I become very frustrated when I try to communicate with a person and he doesn’t speak English?
5. Do I give money to every beggar who approaches me on the street?
6. Do I never give money to beggars who approach me on the street?
7. Do I think most Ecuadorians are trying to rip me off?
8. Do I pay more for domestic labor than the going wage?
9. When I am speaking English to an Ecuadorian and they don’t understand me, do I raise my voice and speak louder?
10. Am I frustrated when Ecuadorians don’t arrive for appointments on time or at all and complain to all my friends?
11. Do I think it’s not necessary or important to learning Spanish?
12. Have I ever expressed my anger at an Ecuadorian in a public place?
13. Do I spend a good part of my time in conversations with gringo friends talking about the negative idiosyncrasies of Ecuadorian culture?
14. I have  no Ecuadorian friends.
15. I have never Googled “Ecuadorian Culture” on the internet to see what I could learn about my adopted country.
16.  Have I ever threatened to sue an Ecuadorian?

17.  I don’t care what Ecuadorians think about gringos. If the answer to this one is “yes” or “true”, then you are definitely a part of the problem. Another word for this is arrogance. It is probably the complaint most registered among Ecuadorians regarding expats in their country.

This list could go on ad nauseum. But I think you get the point.

The choice we made to live in Ecuador was a big one. Most of us would agree that we want to live a peaceful, abundant life.  Yet each of us must be contributing to that peace and abundance as well as expecting to receive it effortlessly.

The reality of the situation is that our lives and our investments in Ecuador can change quickly and dramatically when the number of Ugly Americans in Ecuador reaches critical mass. The change required begins within, with self reflection and more than a little humility. Residency in Ecuador also comes with the responsibility to educate ourselves and to help educate others when we can, just as I am attempting to do in this article.

Complaining about the culture can become habit-forming. I know because I have done it. But when you notice it happening frequently in your groups, instead of jumping into the blame game, you can simply say something like, “Yes, things are different here, but that’s one of the reasons we came to Ecuador, to experience and embrace a foreign culture.”

This shift in focus can lead to a discussion about cultural differences you have noted, what you find difficult and how you have adjusted.  Out of this can come an understanding of the cultural differences we find in Ecuador, perhaps even creative ways that we can change our behavior without having to be modified by an outside group.  This can be your “educational contribution” to your friends.

A university in Otavalo recently started a course for gringos to help them integrate into society. What an outstanding idea! I heard that more than 20 people signed up for the sessions. If anyone reading attended these sessions, please comment below on what you learned and share your experiences with all of us.  

Remember, Ecuador is a wonderful country.  But that can change dramatically and quickly unless we are willing to embrace Ecuador culture.

Read Linda’s webpage on how to be a responsible global citizen.

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28 Comments

    • Hambone, I watched your video and agree with much of what you say. You’ve had a great many experiences in Ecuador and other Latin American countries and a lot of wisdom to share. Your humility in admitting to the mistakes you made is refreshing. We expats living in Ecuador can learn from you but unfortunately we usually have to learn from our own mistakes. At least we can commiserate together later. You say you returned to the states with your tail between your legs. . . are you now Hambone Littlertail?

      I recall our excursions into the Intag when you were looking for paradise there. You have a lot to share with our readers about that experience, too.

    • Hi Ray,

      Thanks for your comment. You are right, most expats here are respectful of the Ecuadorian culture. The number of expats living in Ecuador who are rude and obnoxious are few, but they do exist and I have witnessed them several times. But like they say in sales, one satisfied customer will tell two or three people, but a dissatisfied customer will tell 20 or 30 people.

      It is the same thing with this subject, and here Ecuadorians are no different than people anywhere. A general tendency of most humans is to complain loudly about the things we don’t like. Right now, it seems that Ecuadorians are starting to complain about gringos.

      But the point I was trying to make in the article is that the little things that we are not even aware of can be just as damaging as the big things, i.e. over-tipping, over paying, throwing money around, etc.

      One of the things expats complain about extensively is being over-charged for goods and services. What they don’t realize is that trying to make as much money as you can on a sale is part of the Ecuadorian culture, especially among rank and file providers.

      A goal of a sale is actually to try to get as much money as you can for the product. Hence, if one dislikes bargaining, or forgets about the need to bargain, then the merchant goes away thinking, “what an idiot to pay so much,” and the expat when he finds out what the going price was thinks, “what a crook.” When in reality, all it was was a clash of cultures that affected both sides negatively.

    • Hi Jean,

      Thanks for your comments. The biggest issue most people have to over come is to first become conscious that there could be/is a problem. By your comments above, you have already taken that step. Now, the issue becomes the same as any other issue in our lives when we identify a problem–we set out to determine the best way to find a viable solution. Your life history has demonstrated that you certainly are a problem solver. Just put your already known skills to work to solve this one. No problems, mon.

      In fact, thank you for so succinctly identifying the exact purpose of the article–to make people aware that, By god yes, there might be a problem, and it might be me–I think I will check in..

      Gary

    • Thanks for your thoughtful reflections, Susan. I agree with you that there is a process of integration and assimilation that can be overlooked during the move to Ecuador. When we understand that it all takes time, we can be more gentle with the way we handle our process and less judgmental about how we think others are handling theirs.

      It’s so easy to get caught up in the excitement of finding a place to live and with the newness of cultural difference. We can find ourselves out of balance. In my own experiences in Ecuador, I’ve watched as I let the inner processes of meditation, contemplation and important communication skills take a back seat. For so many years I made my connection to Source the most important focus of each day but in Ecuador there was always so much to do, to see, to understand. My inner work was neglected and that was reflected in more outer chaos.

      Your last paragraph about the rewards of being a beginner, living frugally, learning from the past, gaining perspective–these are all easier to do when I am focused inwardly. But even then, the inner states have to be grounded in actions that reflect that awareness or I don’t integrate them very well.

      With your training you are in a very good position to help expats integrate and assimilate. When those feelings or attitudes you mention get triggered in me–irritation, anger, impatience, overwhelm–it’s much harder to integrate if I stuff them down and don’t find a healthy way to express or release them. Since one of the first things I was told when I came to Ecuador was that expressing anger was not socially acceptable, I realize that that cultural attitude makes it even more difficult for Westerners, even those who may know how to handle the so-called negative emotions in a healthy way.

      It is my prayer that we two cultures can find a new, more loving way to express, heal and integrate our emotional differences. Perhaps Cultural Consciousness Groups would be an answer.