The ugly Sri Lankan-American

There was one ugly incident during my recent holiday in Sri Lanka. We traveled around by two coaches and stayed at hotels. Naturally, when the 75 of us descended on a hotel all at once, the hotel receptionists were really busy trying to check everyone in as quickly as possible. I tended to wait in the lobby until the crowd dissipated before going to the counter but at one hotel, I saw one of our party who is not a close relative of mine and whom I did not know growing up in Sri Lanka (let’s call him K) gesticulating angrily at the receptionist for some time.

Later on I spoke with my cousin’s son (let’s call him M) who had also been standing at the counter during this exchange and he said that this man had been angry because in the confusion the receptionist had accidentally returned his passport (used as ID by the foreigners) to another member of our party. This was a minor error that could be, and was, easily corrected since the receptionist knew who had got the wrong passport and the person given it would of course return it since a wrong passport was of no use to him and he would have wanted his own one back. And we were all in the same travel group too, further minimizing any potential damage.

But K had been furious at this mistake and kept yelling at the receptionist for his error and at one point had even thrown a pencil at him. M was upset about this behavior and was tempted to speak up but not wanting to create a scene at a family gathering, had kept quiet. But he was later angry with himself for not speaking up at K’s bad behavior and so later in the restaurant he went up to K and said that he should not have behaved that way towards the receptionist.

At that K got furious with him and said that he was perfectly justified in behaving that way and asked M who the hell he thought he was for a young whipper-snapper like him (M is around 30 and K must be around 70) to correct him. And then he delivered this kicker: “I am an American and so I can treat these people any way I want.”

All of us who heard this story from M were appalled. Because apart from the fact that no one has the right to treat anyone else this way, you have to understand that the hotel staff we encountered everywhere were all exceedingly friendly and polite and bent over backwards to be nice and helpful, rushing to open doors and carry our bags, smiling all the time. The hapless receptionist at the receiving end of the abuse was very young too and to his credit kept his cool and did not respond in kind though it would have been perfectly understandable if he had done so.

The irony was that K was born and brought up in Sri Lanka to Sri Lankan parents and only emigrated to the US as an adult. And yet he had managed, by some process of osmosis, to acquire the stereotypical characteristics of the proverbial Ugly American, the sense of exceptionalism that they are superior to people of other nations and can treat them like dirt. Conversely, young M was born and grew up in the US (three of his four grandparents were native-born Americans and only one was born in Sri Lanka) and this was his first visit to Sri Lanka.

Later a few of us went to the hotel manager and apologized to him for the awful behavior of the member of our party and asked him to convey it to the receptionist. We felt that it was the least we could do.

People in the service industry or people who are in subordinate positions to you deserve to be treated particularly considerately because they are in no position to fight back. They are bound by their jobs to take on the chin whatever the customer throws at them. Unfortunately some people take this as an opportunity to be abusive. Such people are despicable and beneath contempt.


  1. says

    They are bound by their jobs to take on the chin whatever the customer throws at them. Unfortunately some people take this as an opportunity to be abusive. Such people are despicable and beneath contempt.

    Abusing service-workers also creates a culture in which such abuse is expected, or even enshrined -- people learn that’s how you’re supposed to treat people that were unfortunate enough to be born into different status. There are a lot of class issues and economic inequality issues tied up in the whole thing.

    In truth, a wise person of wealth and power wields them so lightly that people who serve them think “I hope he doesn’t go up against the wall when the revolution comes” Because K, in your story, almost certainly would earn a tumbril ride.

  2. Jockaira says

    Mano, I commend you and others of your party on having the sometimes rare civilised sense to see that a wrong has been done and to offer at least, an apology which is mannerly and nice.

    K’s feeling of privilege might be pretty much the same as a recently converted. In K”s defence, it should be noted that he was 70 years old and may have been suffering the onset of geriatric senescence

  3. Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden says

    before I spent a summer in France, I heard endless tales about how rude the French are. I was not a native speaker of French, but had had basic French in elementary school as well as 5 years of high-school French and a couple French pen-pals and a foreign-exchange student who lived with my family for a while, and another who lived with my best friend’s family for the whole school year. That was the extent of my French. You could say I was a **really, really good** speaker of US high school French, but I deserved no higher praise than that, and lacked a lot of basic, functional vocabulary because of the way high school french is taught (I could say I was sick, but could I say that I had strep throat, or cancer, or hypertension? No.)

    So I go to France to stay with the family of the short-term exchange student who had stayed with my family. Fun times, but the first week was a whirlwind of catching up on vocabulary I should have learned years ago. Luckily, I had the right accent and a good ear, having been listening (for over a decade) to French teachers that largely had Parisian accents. So I picked things up quickly, and once I acquired the ability to think in French and say it nearly at the same time (rather than translate everything said to me into English, formulate a response in English, and then translate it back) I found it wonderfully easy to communicate. Certainly people realized I was not a native speaker, and certainly I had to ask many times to have it explained what this menu item was or how I would recognize that landmark that everyone should already know. Nonetheless, people were patient and kind and as friendly as you could wish.

    Then, the Ugly Americans came along. I can’t tell you how embarrassing it was to see their sense of entitlement. One man was asking for a piece of tech that, being tech-curious myself, I had read about. The only production examples available were sold in Japan. Nowhere in the world outside of Japan was it possible to buy these things. But the man walked into an audio shop where I was buying headphones and proceeded to ask, in English, if the shopkeeper had any. The shopkeeper didn’t speak English, so the man asked again, much louder, still in English. Though the shopkeeper didn’t speak English, from his business he probably recognized “tape” and he certainly recognized the US version of “digital” -- which is the same word in both languages. Digital audio tape never became a big thing because the tech to have recordable CDs (CDR/CDRW) was developed almost as quickly and CDs were much more durable (and you would want them anyway, so it meant one less component in your system). But the guy did sell audio equipment, so I think -- I’m not sure, but I think -- that he already had it figured out when he told the guy he didn’t have any.

    It’s also possible he just wanted the big, USAmerican jerk out of his store, but who knows.

    I stepped in to calm the jerk down and offer to translate so he wouldn’t take it out on the shopkeeper. Well, actually, first I told him that the shopkeeper had said he didn’t have any and that I knew from industry mags that such things were only available in Japan. But he insisted that I translate, so I got him calm first, then pretended to translate. I apologized greatly to the shopkeeper and said that I was from the US and that this guy didn’t represent me. I explained what the man wanted and that I had read it was available only in Japan. The shopkeeper said he thought he knew what I was talking about, but that he’d never seen such a machine, so he thought it was quite believable that they were available only in Japan.

    Several times I interrupted our longer conversation to give bits to the Ugly American. He gave me things to say to the shopkeeper which were irrelevant and often rude or inflammatory. He made it clear that he didn’t believe that the shopkeeper understood his request and that the shopkeeper must not know anything about high-end audio despite being the owner of a high-end audio shop. This, apparently, didn’t cause the man to think that he might not want to buy a new-fangled machine from this shop -- I mean, why buy tech from someone who has no idea what the thing is and thus can’t help you if something goes wrong? Eventually, however, I shooed the man away with assurances that he thought came from the shopkeeper that audio-tech distributors had not yet gotten a hold of such things in France and so that it was useless to try to buy them in that country. I hoped to prevent a similar scene at other audio shops, though I have no idea if I was successful.

    The shopkeeper “rounded down” (he didn’t say discounted or put on sale) the price of my headphones…by about 20%.

    I have nothing but good things to say about French people and how I was treated in France. About USAmerican tourists? Well, the good things I have to say are much less universal.

  4. atheistblog says

    Take the examples of US politicians, US right wing nationalist, and few jerks, paint 300 million americans as exceptionalism jerks. There are lot of very nice Americans who are the majority usually travel around the world. Jerks are very small minority. And those jerks are not unique to US.
    So, what about just stop with portraying your friend as jerk ? If you ever read any of my previous comments you would know I am more progressive liberal than you are, but this is non-sense.

    Hey, look here are some Americans too,
    If I am like you, then I should portray all americans are like these artists, nice and honest.
    I think your story has no objective value, it actually reflections of yours.

  5. Mano Singham says

    Crip Dyke,

    You seemed to have displayed a great deal of patience and tact that would have been beyond me. The ‘lost in translation’ tactic you used was once the basis for a series of hilarious Doonesbury cartoon strips where Duke, the US ambassador to China, makes a speech to his Chinese hosts that is highly insulting and inflammatory except that his translator Honey tells the audience something else entirely.

  6. Holms says

    So, what about just stop with portraying your friend as jerk ? If you ever read any of my previous comments you would know I am more progressive liberal than you are, but this is non-sense.


  7. lanir says

    I made a paperwork mistake when I went to university in Canada. Their government would have been perfectly within their rights to deport me immediately but the people I dealt with used their discretion to allow me time to resolve the problem, which I did. Along the way the local staff told me I was the most polite American they’d ever dealt with, which seemed odd to me. It was my mistake and being a belligerent fool could not have possibly improved the situation for anyone. The bizarre idea that I might have secretly had all the power in that situation never occurred to me; the staff could have deported me at any time they chose to stop dealing with me. They were more understanding and polite than that but it was certainly an option open to them.

    I think the core humanitarian thoughts behind human rights issues are at play in both the issue of service personnel treatment and in the ugly American sense of entitlement that some people have. I think the concept of being better than other people unfortunately pervades American society whether it’s rich people being better than poor people (eg. the idea of “welfare queens” or “moochers and looters”), the poorly disguised racism of the anti-immigrant movement (or more specifically the anti-modern-immigrant movement because their family roots don’t count), or the weird heirarchy in business where people are valued less because of where they fall in an org chart (eg. a damn good secretary and a damn good manager have the same skillset; both can make the people they work with look amazing at their jobs but one is artificially valued more).

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