The story is familiar. College students and recent graduates, often armed with mom and dad's credit card for "emergencies," travel abroad, drinking to excess, participating in illegal or embarrassing behavior, and flying back home to share their stories on social media.
Ryan Lochte’s behavior in Rio de Janeiro further emphasizes a rowdiness of Americans abroad which instills a particular reputation around the world. The news story has all the makings of a learning experience for Americans. While easy to box the situation behind words of privilege, elitism, or immaturity, the broader truth is that many Americans who travel abroad carry a justified pride in America, but create a broader problem for our people internationally when that pride transcends into illusory arrogance.
Other countries have made significant efforts to socially police their people. In 2014, People’s Republic of China President Xi Jinping criticized the way that many Chinese conduct themselves overseas. Over several years now, international newspapers have been largely critical of Chinese tourists for their “boorish” behavior and flagrant disregard for cleanliness of local communities and apparent disrespect for a home country's monuments and property. If the Chinese are the litterers of the world, Americans are the world’s rowdy neighbor who comes over to borrow a bottle of ketchup but stays for a week to get drunk and pee on your garden gnome outside.
The metaphor is not that drastic in light of Ryan Lochte’s behavior in Rio de Janeiro. Families wealthy enough to send American young people abroad generally have the wherewithal to bail their “kids” out of trouble.
For Ryan Lochte a locked bathroom door doesn’t really mean locked to him and he kicks it open with the help of some friends. While on its face, shrugging off a broken bathroom door may be relatively easy on the scale of all crimes. The simple fact is the reason that we shrug them off is because they happened abroad. Defacing a mosque or destroying a Trump yard sign produces a degree of local outcry, but abroad there is collective apathy.
To correct course, there must be a dramatic change in the “ugly American” persona garnered abroad. As the quip often goes: seek to understand rather than be understood. As well we must seek to engage with the local culture abroad rather than appropriate it. While equipped with the knowledge of the strength and freedoms that America provides, a host country’s sovereignty controls when we are guests. And finally, learning from the culture and people of our fellow world citizen cultivates a knowledge that makes each of us renewed when we return to the United States.
For years, American tourists have been carrying the mantel of the greatest country in the world and dropping it. It’s time that we embrace and embody the gravitas, humility, and respect that this notation carries with it.
Tyler Grant is a graduate of University of Virginia School of Law and Washington and Lee University.
The views expressed by Contributors are their own and are not the views of The Hill.