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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

  1. Sissy Sanchez says:

    Maybe big brother is working overtime.

  2. I’m a Canadian Retiree looking at retirement in Ecuador. I have spent an inordinate amount of time and energy researching countries to specifically distance myself from the UGLY AMERICAN. There is lots of talk here about those who secifically fit the mould..
    Please tell me if Cotacachi and and the iImbabura state have already been over run with such animals. If so I’ll take my money, my interest in pure integration to the Ecuadorian world and move on. To me creating working groups to help the selfish makes no sense. .Simply make their lives miserable and they will crawl away.

    Sorry!!!!

  3. Hi Gary, Linda, and any expats reading this, Yikes! I would love to meet some expats and you and ask please, what would you put on your “do not miss if here only 2 weeks” list??? I love your site and presentation – my daughter and I are coming to Ecuador from Dec 2 to the 16th – very soon! I’m not sure what blog to use! – Do expats open their doors to meet us and hear stories? For the 2 weeks we have, can you give me a recommended route – we fly into Quito Sucre – we could start in Cotacachi, Santo Domingo, Banos, Cotacachi. I saw that Black sheep Inn is near the Lake Quilotoa in the Andes Cordillera but couldn’t tell if that was near Cotapaxi – Vilcabamba/Loja and Cuenca have been recommended – and you mentioned Isla Plata by Puerto Lopez –

    I was in Bahia in the summer of 1970 as an AFS student when it was a fishing village and have loved and wanted to return to live in Ecuador ever since! I am thinking about either joining the Peace Corps or retiring and doing volunteer work (I’m 60 in a week). It can be overwhelming – we love ecotravel areas but I also want to get a feel for where I could settle and purchase a “home base” with amazing scenery/landscape and accessibility.

    Thanks a million, Kate

  4. Great article !!! We all need to do some soul searching. I am just considering a move to Ecuador and in answering these questions I had 5 yes/true answers. However, each of those yes/true answers could be easily reversed with a little knowledge of the culture and a better understanding of acceptable behaviors. So now I understand that educating myself on the culture and learning the language is 1st priority. Thanks !

  5. This is a very good post Gary. Though I have not read The Ugly American which was written just after my birth, I can see how arrogant “First Worlders” might behave in an entitled, superior manner to “Third Worlders”. i despise the expressions first world, third world (where is the second world?) and the very existence of these lends truth to the arrogance of Americans who believe “We’re Number One”. Seems like America is quickly turning to number two – if you get my drift…
    Though my wife and I have only traveled for 2-3 weeks in 3 Latin countries so far (Peru, Costa Rica and just a few days ago – Guatemala), we would not be considered Ugly Americans because we respect the people and the culture of the countries we have visited and would rather assimilate slowly without changing or demanding change to suit our previous culture.
    Thanks for posting this and I sincerely trust that economically focused gringos won’t spoil Ecuador for the rest of us who are looking to visit/reside there someday soon.

    Bob

    BTW, I answered NO to all but 2 or 3 questions and the ones I answered YES to were based on me not living in Ecuador at this time.

  6. Wow great post – keep ‘me coming! I am in the beginning planning stages of moving to Ecuador and I’ve learned so much already! Thank you!

  7. We are having a problem getting all the comments on this post to show. This blog template is new and we had to change post widgets a couple of times. In the process, we just can’t get the others to show. Too bad as there are some great comments.