Ugly Americans, Ugly Chinese: the tourist trap

The original bad tourist: “The Ugly American” in 1950s Cuba.

Bashing Mainland Chinese tourists is rather fashionable in Hong Kong. The South China Morning Post is always eager to print something embarrassing about Chinese tourists. See for example the following two recent articles:

“Chiang Mai locals shocked by ‘rude’ Chinese tourists.” This article quotes a letter to a Thai newspaper by a Chiang Mai resident:

“[Chinese tourists] tend to drive speedily on the wrong side of the road, and often go against traffic on one-way streets. Chinese tourists also often stop in the middle of busy intersections – just to argue among themselves about directions. Some hotel and guesthouse operators are turning them away because they say Chinese tourists often rent a room for two, but stay overnight in a group of four or five. They also deplore their tendencies to litter and hang their clothing on the balcony railing.”

The article then goes on to supply a helpful list of (allegedly frequent) offensive acts by Chinese tourists:

  1. A tendency to not flush the toilet.
  2. Flouting traffic laws when driving, riding a bicycle, or parking their car.
  3. Being loud – even in five-star hotels.
  4. Littering, spitting, queue-jumping.
  5. Allowing children to defecate in public pools.
  6. Terrible English-language skills that lead to difficulties in communication.

“Outrage after Chinese men on Air France flight take wine bottles ‘to go’.” This article takes joy in pointing out how “uncivilized’ Chinese tourists can be by relating an anecdote about two drunk guys on a flight:

Two Chinese men on an Air France flight recently shocked their fellow passengers by snatching eight bottles of wine from the airline service cart, ignoring objections from other travellers on board….

Wen [Fei, a fellow traveller,] tried to stop them after they each took at least eight bottles of wine and stowed them in their bags – without asking the flight crew.

“I explained to them it was not OK and interpreted the flight attendents’ explanation in French, but they said it was none of my business, ” Wen told on Tuesday.

The two men, apparently drunk, then shouted at Wen in the Wuhan dialect, she said.

“They asked me to back off if I ever wanted to leave Wuhan in one piece,” said Wen.

This incident then prompted a number of “netizens” to fire off complaints about Mainland Chinese tourists. And of course, these complaints are also captured in the article:

“The Chinese are always loud and jump queues to get on a flight – even when everyone has a seat,” said a netizen.

But Americans are the original “ugly tourists.” As an American myself, I know that a small number of jerks make everybody else look bad. Key American tourist faults that appear on every “Ugly American” list include that:

  1. We are too loud.
  2. We are overly patriotic and too quick to assume that “the American way” is the best way.
  3. We assume that everyone else will speak English to accommodate us.

I’ve seen the folks who fulfill these stereotypes abroad. I know they exist. Just like I know the Mainland Chinese tourist who argues loudly and spits in public also exists.

But it’s (hopefully) just a smallish portion of American tourists who fuel the “Ugly American” stereotype. Just as it’s only a portion of Mainland Chinese tourists who fuel the “Ugly Chinese” stereotype.

At the end of the day, I suspect that both groups are disliked for being “upstarts.” A final quote from the Chiang Mai article illustrates the point:

When [a Thailand resident] asked a Chinese tourist why he came to Chiang Mai, the man in his 30s “stabbed a thumb to his chest and said ‘I am rich’.”

Americans have long been considered to be “uncouth nouvelle riche” and now Mainland Chinese are considered much the same.

Welcome to the club China.

27 responses to “Ugly Americans, Ugly Chinese: the tourist trap

  1. In many resorts around the Mediterranean, Russians appear to have become the new “ugly tourists”. There’s been kind of an established balance between all the Western European tourists which these “young upstarts” have now upset. And nobody likes to have their familiar world changed!

    • Interesting. I’ve also heard Western-Europeans complain about Russians showing up over here on beaches in Thailand and Hainan. Pitch-perfect observation about how nobody seems to like their familiar world to change!

  2. It isn’t only the Americans and the Chinese and the Russians. There are probably more of them around and are noticed more but I have seen “ugly” tourists from many countries around the world including France, Germany, Spain, UK, Australia…. I think the worst are the large ‘groups’ tours because they are fearless.

    • You are absolutely right that big group tours of whatever nationality seem to have the most negative impact. I was swamped by a big cruise group two weeks back and it was hell!

  3. Ah, the nouveau riche of the world–they can be from North America, mainland China, Russia, or anywhere else. I hope they learn a little bit about the world as they burst out like this.

  4. My experience has always reflected that Americans are generally too loud, even amongst themselves in their own country. After much thought, I think it’s a result of the cultural belief, inculcated from infancy, that we’re deserving of attention.

    As far as the Ugly American stereotype, I’ve seen them too and can’t really figure out where they come from. People who travel abroad are a self-selecting group who are interested in other things/people (right?) so their disrespect for other cultures has always mystified me.

    • We can be loud and ‘over-friendly’ I suppose. (I probably over-compensate by being a too quiet ‘low talker.’) The loudness actually seems to work well in China where everyone else is actually more loud! Doesn’t work so well other places.

      I also scratch my head at why the more obnoxious travelers chose to leave home at all. Maybe for the sole purpose of trying to feel superior?

  5. Ugly tourists from China, the US, and elsewhere perpetuate the stereotype, and so it’s up to the rest of us to try to dispel them when we are abroad. I find it quite funny (and understandable) that the SCMP always take such an anti-mainland stance when it comes to PRC tourists. I know that you are doing your part to break the stereotype of rude Americans, Jen, so thanks for this thought-provoking post and for being a good example of how respectful Americans abroad can act! We need more folks like you abroad to break the stereotypes!!

    • I’m trying, but the bus loads of American cruise tourists I encountered last week are “letting the side down.”

      And, hey, aren’t you over-due for your weekly post?

  6. I always thought British tourists were among the worst. When the summer comes they descend on the Mediterranean like a swarm of drunken locusts, breaking property and starting fights. Many times I’ve felt ashamed to be British when overseas.

    • As a Brit, isn’t it your patriotic obligation to complain about Germans waking up early to claim all of the sun beds with their towels? 😉

      • Haha, possibly. The thing is we British are starved of sunlight for about three-quarters of the year, so we have to be competitive in those moments where we have access to the sun.

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  9. Good article and refreshingly balanced. I travel with my Chinese colleagues to Europe and on every occasion they have made a point of fitting in as best they could. Not a trace of the arrogance I sometimes see in tourists coming from the old country. Naturally there are bad eggs in every bunch right? Nothing for it, just remind yourself that your own nationality has it’s own too. Feels like the author is from this school of thought, which I think is altogether too uncommon.

    One thing I did notice that really puzzled me was how Chinese passengers waited patiently for the captain to give the all-clear before unbuckling, standing and opening the overhead bins. On the flight back to Shanghai though the same passengers were up and yelling into phones the moment the wheels touched down.

    • Thanks for this refreshing and interesting comment! I despair sometimes listening to blanket negative statements about mainland Chinese tourists in HK. All nationalities have there ‘bad apples’ but most people do their best to fit in wherever they are.

      Great story about your co-workers changing their airplane behavior based on airport/local expectation.

    • There are uncouth people everywhere. I just saw a grown man pee in the middle of a children’s play field in Seattle, USA. But I know there are many “rustic” Mainlanders whose behaviors aren’t up to Hong Kong standards. Shanghaiese also complain about them. People change (but sometimes very slowly …).

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    • Glad you enjoyed it! Here in Hong Kong I get so tired of people complaining about mainland Chinese tourists that I really need to vent once in awhile (don’t these people realize that we are all annoying in some places/contexts? Every single one of us.).

      Would be very curious to here you and your husband’s thoughts on the different sorts of tourists in the world, as you have a front row seat!

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  15. Excellent comments. Why do dimwitted Americans feel entitled to slow up every Line (or queue as we say in Europe) with a multitude of demands, inane questions etc etc – notice – “Not on our time gringos!”

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