Fighting the stereotype of the 'Ugly American'

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Ron McMullen, guest columnist

Do you consider yourself to be arrogant, greedy, and violent? Me neither, yet a majority of Australians, Britons, and Spaniards this spring told the Pew Research Center they view Americans as arrogant, greedy, and violent. Most Greeks regard the People’s Republic of China more positively than they do the United States. Last year, according to Pew, only 43 percent of Argentines reported they had a favorable view of the United States, as did merely 15 percent of Russians and 14 percent of Jordanians. When Pakistanis were asked by Pew in 2011 if they viewed the U.S. more as a friend or an enemy, fully 69 percent said “enemy.”

And these surveys were taken during the globally well-regarded Obama Administration — just imagine what the results might be next year. How can we Iowans help improve the image of Americans worldwide and put our best foot forward? Some folks might choose to join the Peace Corps, volunteer with International Habitat for Humanity, or go on a medical mission abroad. A fun and accessible way that you can act locally is to join the Eastern Iowa-based non-profit organization called CIVIC (the Council for International Visitors to Iowa Cities). CIVIC organizes visits to the Iowa City-Cedar Rapids area of global rising stars and opinion leaders who travel to New York, Washington, D.C., and yes, sometimes even to Iowa to learn about the United States.

For example, CIVIC volunteers helped facilitate the visit of 25 Mandela Washington Fellows, promising young entrepreneurs from across Africa who attended programs at UI’s Institute for International Business for six weeks this summer on a program funded by the State Department. CIVIC members hosted five “home hospitality” events, inviting Mandela Washington Fellows to their homes for a real American home-cooked meal, including one iftar (an evening “breakfast” during the Muslim fasting month of Ramadan). CIVIC members drove the international visitors to a Cedar Rapids Kernels baseball game and fireworks on July Fourth, got them involved in a Habitat for Humanity home-build for a resettled Congolese family, organized an outing to Kalona, gave City of Literature walking tours of downtown Iowa City, and escorted the Fellows to NewBo City Market and the Mother Mosque in Cedar Rapids, among many other activities.

The Mandela Washington Fellows loved Iowa and getting to know Iowans, in part due to the CIVIC volunteers’ outreach. One Fellow later wrote to a CIVIC member, “My heartfelt thanks. This city has been such a nice and pleasant place for us. We could not have been placed in a better place indeed. We appreciate your accessibility, hospitality and friendliness. As we prepare to leave, we pledge to be ambassadors of the USA….”

Want to get involved, join the fun, and show the world what the United States is really like? (OK, Iowa is actually the best part of the United States, in my opinion.) On September 15 CIVIC will be celebrating its first 30 years with a “Founders and Future” international-themed dinner at the Terry Trueblood Park Lodge in Iowa City (check out CIVIC’s Facebook page or website for details). If you’d like to help dispel the all-too-common international perception of the Ugly American, support CIVIC.

• Ron McMullen, a former U.S. ambassador, teaches at the University of Iowa. Comments: McMullenRK@gmail.com

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