Average Americans, in their natural state, are the best ambassadors a country can have.
So says “The Ugly American,” the 1958 novel by Eugune Burdick and William Lederer, with a film version starring Marlon Brando following in 1963. When I was an intern at NCIV in the summer of 2004, one of my assignments from Sherry was to read “The Ugly American” in its entirety and pull from it ideas that might be crafted into an op-ed extolling the virtues of international exchange. Brando had just died that July, and Sherry’s thought was that recalling one of his lesser known roles might make for an interesting article hook.
Our finished article (I thought it was pretty good) didn’t get picked up by a paper in the end, but it was still a useful exercise—not only for the chance to write with Sherry but also because I got to read a book and get paid for it. And “The Ugly American” is a good read, quick but incisive, and still highly relevant. Yes, it provides fodder for us exchange types and our argument that it’s only through direct contact that barriers are broken down and misunderstanding conquered. But the book’s real contemporary value lies not necessarily in its recognition that Americans must engage the world (in many ways this has become a foregone conclusion, especially among the younger generation) but in its understanding that this engagement must been done thoughtfully, respectfully, and (not to put too fine a point on it) well.
In other words, “The Ugly American” recognized in 1958, when it lambasted its diplomatic characters who never bothered to learn Sarkhanese, the language of the fictional country it portrays, what is still imperative today: when engaging the world, whether through our post-college year abroad or our official foreign policy and aid programs, it’s not enough to just show up. We’ve got to put in the time to learn the language too.