Writers Burdick and Lederer had a 1958 bestseller with the roman à clef portrayal of the physically ugly but effective engineer in Sarkham, described like Thailand or Myanmar (known then as Burma) but alluded more of Vietnam. Published just when U.S. manifest destiny took a foreign policy liking to Indochina after the French debacle in Dien Bien Phu, the popular 1963 movie The Ugly American version starring Marlon Brando anticipated but did not stop the American disaster that followed.
(As a student in the summer of 1966, we worked at the Luau Restaurant on Rodeo Drive, Beverley Hills, when it was still hills before Beverley came along. Brando and Tahitian actress wife Tariia Teriipia came in for an early lunch when the hired help had not yet come, so I, the data entry office boy, waited on their table. Marlon the macho big guy on the screen was actually a burly version of my size. OK, he is three inches taller but I had been a fan since.)
A Burmese journalist in the novel said: "For some reason, the people I meet in my country are not the same as the ones I knew in the United States. A mysterious change seems to come over Americans when they go to a foreign land. They isolate themselves socially. They live pretentiously. They’re loud and ostentatious."
With a recent international survey rating Americans as the worst tourists in the world, not much evidently has changed.
Peace Corps Volunteers we associated with in the late '70s and early '80s picked up on the double entendre of the "ugly," and defined it as authentic American heart at work. It was true then, at a high cost. It still is.
J. Christopher Stevens, newly appointed U.S. Ambassador to Libya, became a fatal casualty in the smoldering political crisis that North Africa and the Middle East represents. An envoy to the conflict when the U.S. sided with rebel forces, he evidently paid with his life the unremitting wages of war.
Just when we were getting our dose of malaria around Lagoon Lagos in the early '80s, training community development workers that included Peace Corps volunteers sent over by the Cote d'Ivoire office to a demonstration project in Ijede, Stevens started teaching English in Morocco as a PCV. A specialist in natural resource management, he went on to study law, and his fluency in Arabic and French landed him back with the Foreign Service in the Middle East. A career diplomat, he was one of those who took his job to the field rather than polish it in the confines of an air-conditioned room.
Stephens, like his RPCV colleagues, had fire under his seat and idealism in his neural system. He might have run into the much-circulated Chinese quote in the trainings I was a part of that said, "Action removes the doubt that theory cannot solve." He might have also followed Harry Truman’s quip that anyone can accomplish great things if one is not too concerned on who gets the credit. A creature of his time, Stephens might have said something like, "have cellphone, will travel."
Caught in Benghazi, the anti-Gaddafi city that he helped protect when the dictator had the option to unleash Libyan firepower on the opposition, the ambassador reportedly expired from extreme asphyxiation.
The irony is that Ambassador Stevens was one of the rare career diplomatic real friends of the Arabic world. When posted to Tripoli as ambassador, Stevens sent out a taped message greeting everyone with the Islamic Salaam Malaikum. He served for two years as U.S. Chief of Mission in Tripoli prior to the Libyan insurrection of 2011.
The Islamic ire is the result of a low-budget movie, The Innocence of Muslims, by a rabid anti-Muslim Jew that depicts the prophet Mohammed in very low regard. With the pain of 9/11 turning into anti-Islam sentiment, this does not come as a surprise. When we circulated among conservative Christian faithful in Kentucky, North Carolina, and Texas, the object of derision then were the Jews. This time, a Jewish businessman returned with a vengeance, save his venom is directed against Muslims.
Our musing is interlaced with our tenuous connection with terms like "ugly American" and personae like Brando and Stevens in the news. Stevens was not yet a teenager in California when we fawned over the lunch menu of Brando and Tariia at a time when Brando had hit an unpopular and difficult decade in his movie career. Brando was not professionally recognized for his Ugly American portrayal. Yet, we remember him for his intense participation with the Civil Rights movement that helped define part of our political profile.
We would have been like a Stevens had we done well on our Foreign Service exam, but never mind. We remain partial to the PCV since the program initiated by JFK moved the glamour of the rite of passage of the young from bearing arms for Uncle Sam to a two-year service of American ingenuity and creativity at work in a field that could use such intrusion.
Now, as an American teacher among Chinese students who are, at once, enamored with things American but do not take on easily to the ways of the "loud and ostentatious" gringos, the style of the practical and commonsensical ugly American comes to the fore.
There’s one ugly American here.
Jaime R. Vergara (email@example.com) is a former PSS teacher and is currently writing from the campus of Shenyang Aerospace University in China.