Over the past couple of days, it’s been really quite hot in Melbourne. During my lunch break, I had a sudden hankering for one of my guilty pleasures…a Starbucks mocha Frappuccino. Yes yes, the name sounds incredibly wanky, and I feel like a bit of a douche anytime I say it out loud, but these things are freakin’ delicious! (Minus the whipped cream on top incidentally as that’s just…excessive)

So as I was standing in Starbucks; along with several Asian customers, a thought occurred to me; are these other customers locals, or are they drawn here because its familiar to them? In our own countries, fast-food chain restaurants are generally looked upon as nothing more than junk food outlets. You dont expect a fine dining experience, and usually, walk away feeling somewhat sick in the guts. Despite the lengths that McDonalds have gone to create a better image for themselves, there’s nothing prestigious about their restaurants. When overseas; particularly in a super foreign country, these junk food outlets take on a completely different appearance – they suddenly become bastions of the familiar and in particular, a reliable location to go to the toilet!

In a country such as China, the toilet situation can go from bad to worse. While in many cities it’s not particularly hard to find them, as you go further out, the humble squatter is the least of your problems. The worst scenarios I found, were toilets either lacking doors – or worse again – not even any dividing walls around you! Toilet tangent aside – there’s an unspoken yet always known rule; if you need to go, go find a McDonald’s. Western food chains are immediately familiar as no matter where you go on the planet, they are the same design.

There is an incredible number of western food chains on the Chinese mainland. In any sizable city (aka – every city), you’ll find at least 5-10 McDonalds and KFCs. You’ll find more Starbucks in China than practically anywhere else on the planet – excepting maybe the USA itself. Places such as Starbucks; which often has a name for its poor coffee, are thriving in China; the Chinese not knowing any better. Melbourne went from having many Starbucks to just a handful; the coffee culture simply not accepting the ‘fast food’ style of coffee. Another formerly numerous food chain in Australia; Pizza Hut, is likewise all over China, with several American chains also joining them, such as Papa Johns (who we don’t have in Australia incidentally).

Now, that all being said  – these places are so commonplace now, it had me starting to think – do the Chinese; when traveling overseas, now find a McDonalds, TGI Friday, Pizza Hut, KFC or Starbucks as familiar and comforting as we do? Do the Chinese see a McDonald’s as a reliable port of call if they need to go to the loo – or perhaps, a way to get familiar food in what to them, could be a very foreign environment? Has the humble food chain – which in many countries has a somewhat low opinion; certainly on the health front – transcended it’s traditional roots and become some form of cultural comfort zone?

My answer would have to be yes.  If I see someone from a foreign country in one of these city fast food outlets; particularly if they’re speaking another language to each other, I can’t not think about whether they have come to this place because like us when we travel, it’s familiar – thus, comforting in its own way. While I haven’t yet spoken to any travelers regarding this, I would be highly interested to actually find out.

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6 Responses to “McCultures”

  1. Austin Guidry Says:

    I completely agree with you, man! When I visited Beijing near the end of my 7 month stay in Lanzhou, I freakin went McDonald’s crazy! It was exactly as you said, a bastion of familiarity. Besides the fact that McDonald’s is cool because it’s foreign, the quality and taste of the food is actually dramatically improved in China. McDonald’s is actually tasty in China, whereas in Tyler, Texas, USA, my hometown, it’s terrible and a last resort. I was actually thinking of doing a post like this on my blog, but I don’t want to plagiarize or anything, so I’ll write about something else and link to your page after I talk about it, cool? Great post, man

  2. Marcus Says:

    Nah you’re right mate, write about whatever you wish, we all had similar experiences 🙂

    I actually didn’t eat much Maccas while in China, though our oasis of western food was definitely TGI Fridays – and you’re right, it definitely tasted better there. I had it back here and was completely underwhelmed, but it made me wonder if it was actually lesser quality food here, or just the fact that in China I often felt seriously over Chinese food at times, and _needed_ a good burger or the like.

    One thing I noticed, the KFC’s in China had the same fries as McDonalds. In Australia at least, KFC chips are absolutely delicious – they’re thick, potatoey and super tasty – but in China, they’re just the same standard McDonald’s fries – the ones that taste good, but often make you feel sick afterwards!

    What’s your blog URL? I’ll check it out and link to it. I saw one of your vid’s and really enjoyed it, was all so familiar despite the different city. Have been meaning to check more of them out.

  3. Austin Guidry Says:

    I know!! I had KFC when I visited Xi’an, and I was sad that they didn’t have the thick chips that they did back home!!

    Thanks, man! I’d appreciate that! I don’t post as much as I used to because I’m back in the States and sort of in a “Life After China” mindset myself. It’s hard to keep in touch with those feelings, the language skills, the people, everything, once you’re back home.

    As far as going back…..I’ve applied for the American Peace Corps so I can do some volunteer work in China…just hoping to get the call, you know?

    My blog URL is —–yeah, it’s freaking long, but everything else I tried was taken 🙂

    The YouTube account is — I have some misc. footage that I’ve been meaning to put into a rough-cut video, but all of the major ones that I wanted to put up are up.

  4. spans Says:

    When we were all riced out in China (even though we were only there for a few weeks) I had a big mac. Normally I hate maccas, but man, this big mac was so good it still brings a tear to my eyes. My memory has even been altered, I am pretty sure it was sparkly and and I was basking in its gold glowing aura, and each bite played magical tunes and stars rained down from the sky while unicorns wearing hello kitty hats danced by.
    Knowing how good it is there stops me eating it anywhere else. Definitely a good way to end my relationship with maccas. That is, until our next China visit…

  5. Marcus Says:

    The thing that I cant understand – now at any rate – was when we lived there, I got over dumplings almost instantly – yet here…the amount of dumplings I eat on a regular basis is somewhat scary. There though? Couldn’t think of something I wanted less of…..

  6. Tom Says:

    I just had a “Prosperity” Burger for lunch from McDonalds today. It was horrid. There are some things the foreign chains shouldn’t attempt (local products); though they have to if they want to succeed in crazy markets like Hong Kong.

    Having just spent 2 weeks back in Australia – it makes me realise how much better *all* the food is back there (even fast food). While the local food has a different flavour (and by all means, some of it is so good), the quality, the sanitary, the freshness and many other points just is lost here.

    Also, I just read “Red China Blues” ( – Highly recommended) – it was showing that when the first McDonalds opened in Beijing at 9am one morning – everyone was buying Big Macs – they saw it as genius – they could sell burgers at breakfast!

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