Walking around Delhi’s bustling Connaught Place, autorickshaws weave in and out of traffic while competing smells of street food spices and pollution fill the air.
Everyone around is well-dressed and walking with purpose. Out of the corner of your eye, you see something strange yet familiar. You turn to get a better look. Is that? Could it be? Ah yes, yes it is. The golden arches. You travelled 8,000 miles away from home just to find a McDonald’s. In front of the door, there is a large, colourful sign advertising not a hamburger, but a lamburger: The Maharaja Mac. You feel…conflicted. Somehow you are intrigued, guilty, homesick, comforted, excited, disgusted, curious, wanting-to-be-indulgent and wanting-to-be-outraged, all at the same time.
It turns out, you are not alone. In the text book Emotional Geographies, geographer Joyce Davidson (Queen’s University), sociologist Liz Bondi (Edinburgh University) and environmental ethicist Mick Smith (Queen’s University) dedicate an entire chapter to this complicated mix of emotions that Western travellers experience when they encounter fast food abroad. For the chapter “Guilty Pleasures of the Golden Arches: Mapping McDonald’s in Narratives of Round-the-World Travel”, they mined dozens of travel blogs written by Westerners who felt conflicted as they ate their unusual Maharaja Mac with their familiar French fries.
But even the most familiar American fast food joints can be surprisingly different abroad. In China and Vietnam, locals have to dress up and make reservations to dine at Pizza Hut. “When I’m out on a date and want to impress a girl”, 28-year-old lawyer Su Yi told Bloomberg news, “I take her to Pizza Hut.” In Hong Kong, upscale McDonald’s recently started offering wedding packages. In Japan, Denny’s serves dishes with foie gras and truffles. Also in Japan, Subway, which surpassed McDonald’s last month as the world’s largest fast food chain, does not just serve fresh ingredients, it grows them in its backyard.
The McDonald’s in China is a prestigious place to work. The corporation recently opened a Hamburger University in Shanghai. With an acceptance rate less than 1%, the management training program is harder to get into than Harvard.
In India, Taco Bell and McDonald’s are Hindu-friendly, substituting beef for chicken, lamb, potatoes or paneer (Indian cheese). In Muslim countries, Subway, Taco Bell, KFC and McDonald’s serve only halal meat. And there are plenty more examples of American fast food adapting to the local culture. Consider these unique menu items in McDonald’s restaurants around the world: a grilled kofta sandwich called the McArabia in Egypt, the Croque McDo featuring Emmental cheese in France, and the McFalafel in Israel. Even Dunkin’ Donuts, a chain specializing in one type of food, does its best to localize its menu. In Indonesia, franchises offer durian and lychee flavoured doughnuts, while in Korea, red bean paste is a popular filling and green tea and garlic are popular glazes.
Authors Davidson, Bondi and Smith point out that the odd pairing of global and local sensibilities is part of what attracts Westerners to fast food restaurants abroad. They noticed that many travellers were able to justify eating fast food in foreign countries because it both made them feel at home while allowing them to feel that they were trying something new. Explaining one family’s account of eating fast food in India, they wrote, “The Bombay McDonald’s is both globally standardised (the staff and customers are orderly, the fries and Coke are standard-issue and the bathrooms are clean), and local (they don’t serve beef, they serve pineapple instead of apple, and most of the patrons are Indian)…”
Even though we feel guilty for indulging in a superbly inauthentic meal, we can tell ourselves that we’re doing so in a local manner. The differences found in fast food chains abroad somehow make us feel as though we are participating in the everyday culture of a country. Or at least, that is what we can keep telling ourselves.