Golden Arches East

Although the strident criticism against American fast food has died and 34 McDonald's restaurants have quietly opened in India, critics of globalisation don't tire of reminding us that the world is increasingly becoming a copy of America. McDonald's amazing success in a hundred countries has impressed business students for years, but to others the expression McWorld conjures scary images of cultural imperialism and a uniform, standardised, homogenized consumer world.

Does the introduction of American fast food undermine local cuisine? What impact does it have on local cultures? To answer these questions five anthropologists set out to do ethnographic studies of McDonald's in five East Asian countries and published their results in a book, Golden Arches East, edited by the Harvard anthropologist, James Watson. Their conclusion: McDonald's has become divorced from its American roots and become a local institution for an entire generation of affluent consumers in East Asia. Rather than fast food for the masses, people in the Far East have transformed these restaurants into leisure centres, after-school clubs, and meeting halls. It has also generated vigorous local competition, such as the Genki Sushi chain.

Those who contend that McDonald's will turn Russians, Chinese, and Indians into Americans are in for a surprise. In India we know that the company quickly changed its menu to vegetarian McNuggets and Maharaja Macs (with mutton instead of beef). But the Chinese have changed the entire concept--their McDonald's are leisurely places to hang out, for romantic evenings and courting girls, and for children's birthday parties. Young painters and fashion designers even used the Tiananmin Square outlet to display paintings and clothes. Used to an average American spending 15 minutes at a table, management had to redo profitability based on the average Chinese spending 45 minutes. “American fast food has obviously slowed down in Beijing,” reports Yunxiang Yan, the anthropologist from UCLA.

Fast food is not a new idea, of course. Dhabas have been with us for generations; so have street vendors serving pao-bhaji and idli-dosas. Chinese commuters hurrying home from the train station are used to their deft noodle cutters. The British have fish and chips; Turks have kebabs, and the Japanese their famous station ekibento boxes. The American innovation, however, is the reliability of fast food—in the way it is hygienically prepared and served in sanitary spaces with clean toilets. Indeed in Taipei, Beijing, Seoul, and Hong Kong, local restaurants complained that they had to invest in new bathrooms as people began to equate the condition of the toilet with the state of their kitchens.

In some countries the queue in which one stands to order food is the innovation most appreciated. As we know too well in India this civic virtue does not come naturally to human beings. McDonald's has also realised that the Dutch, the French, and Russians resist queuing, while Hong Kong residents glare snobbishly at mainlanders who have not learned this art.

Used to being treated with contempt for decades by socialist public service workers, Beijing residents love the smiling service and the feeling of equality inside McDonald's. Chinese women, used to waiting on their men, note that customers and employees both stand when ordering (rather than one sitting and the other waiting) and customers clear their table afterwards.  They contrast this with a Chinese restaurant where one has to constantly prove one's superiority by ordering more expensive dishes than the neighbouring table to save face.

Some scholars attribute McDonald's success to social changes. China's one child policy is promoting a child-centred consumer culture. More and more women are working, who regard McDonald's a friendly, alcohol-less place to meet their friends. Still, it is extraordinary how rapidly people who primarily ate noodles and rice with chopsticks have taken to eating hamburgers and french fries with their hands. The verdict on the cultural issue is, however, ambiguous. Instead of undermining local cuisine, American fast food spawns vigorous competition, improves the hygiene and habits of local restaurants, and adapts to local ways. The issue, I think, is health—it's unhealthy.

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