Slumming the Golden Arches at Yahoo! News

This week, my newest Yahoo! News travel column, Slumming the Golden Arches, focuses on a curious question: Why do travelers so often seek out McDonald’s overseas, when they would never eat there at home? The answer, I posit, lies in the fact that the Golden Arches create a smoothly standardized absence of place and culture — a neutral environment that allows travelers to take a time-out from the din of their real surroundings.

Moreover, overseas McDonald’s franchises are often a curious reflection of their host culture:

At times, an international McDonald’s franchise can serve as a kind of measuring stick for cultural nuance. In China, where familial identity is a core virtue (and where a sexually ambiguous bachelor-clown mascot might seem a little weird), Ronald McDonald is known as Uncle McDonald, and he has a wife, Aunt McDonald. In parts of Bangkok, where the laid-back Thai concept of sanuk (lightheartedness) threatens fast-food efficiency, McDonald’s staff members use James Bond-style digital countdown clocks to ensure the food arrives in a timely manner. In Cairo, I witnessed young, middle-class Muslim couples going on chaperoned first-dates in a McDonald’s; in Tel Aviv, the teenage staff got so flustered when I ordered non-kosher cheese on my Big Mac that they forgot to add the beef patties.

In the course of the essay, I admit that I, too, occasionally seek out McDonald’s overseas (and I note that, within certain hipster circles of indie travel, admitting you eat at McDonald’s is extremely uncool — kind of like confessing that you eat your boogers). I also dole out a few pointers for dealing with fast food on the road:

1) Street food is the true fast food.
Remember that fast food didn’t originate with Ray Kroc: Street vendors, who cook local delicacies right in front of you, mastered the art centuries ago. Any city or region you visit will have plenty of street-food specialties: samosas in Mumbai, roasted sweet-potatoes in Quito, crepes in Paris, kosher-dogs in New York, sheep’s-brain-and-falafel sandwiches in Damascus, mandu dumplings in Seoul. And fresh squeezed juice from a guy pushing a cart always trumps a Super-Sized Coke.

2) Save franchise food as a last resort.
Visiting a McDonald’s to temporarily escape the urban hubbub of Kiev or Curitiba or Kuala Lumpur is perfectly normal — but eating there every day is silly and escapist. Granted, travel can be taxing and disorienting, but overcoming these challenges make a journey invigorating. One visit to a Burger King or KFC per week on the road is plenty; any more is a cross-cultural copout.

3) McDonald’s (and other fast food) is easy to avoid.
Irritated by the fact that you can spot the Golden Arches from the Acropolis, Tiananmen Square, or Copacabana Beach? Not to worry: McDonald’s doesn’t make Greece any less Greek, China any less Chinese, or Brazil any less Brazilian. Just hike a block in any direction, and it will be easy to find authentic local food (and the farther you get from the tourist attractions, the cheaper that food will get).

Full text of my “Slumming the Golden Arches” column online here.

Posted by | Comments (8)  | June 6, 2006
Category: Rolf's News and Updates, Travel News, Vagabonding Advice

8 Responses to “Slumming the Golden Arches at Yahoo! News”

  1. Dusty Says:

    In India, aloo tikki (mashed potato ball) is a hot seller at Mc Donald. It is mashed potato ball, fried and sandwiched between a burger. Yes, no beef is served in India. In addition to the aloo burger, you get a chicken burger and a fish burger. The usual fries and coke of course.

  2. Dan Says:

    Well I’ve been in Japan a little over three months now. I’ve managed to avoid McDonald’s (as I don’t eat it in my home country) but somehow ended up in Kenta (KFC) for lunch one day.

    I was on a superfast lunch break, dived in for a quick bite, and soon remembered why I adamantly avoid this style of take out in Australia.

    That’s not to say I don’t enjoy a bit of fast food- I often buy takoyaki (octopus balls) from neighborhood stands, and love to eat from the street stalls in Kobe Chinatown.

  3. almendro Says:

    In Spain, McDonald’s sells beer. And gazpacho. But best of all, the apple pies are still fried (in a nod toward ‘heathfulness’–who are they kidding?–the pies are now apparently baked in the US).

  4. pam Says:

    On a very humid stopover in Singapore, I found myself in a Starbucks. I was jetlagged, it was very hot, I had a screaming headache, it was All Too Much. There I was in the overly air conditioned Starbucks that looked just like the one around the corner from my Seattle home. I felt totally relieved. I make a conscious effort to avoid this sort of crutch when traveling, but every now and then when weight of the air is so heavy I think it will crush me, I want an iced latte in an absolutely undemanding location. It gives me a chance to catch up with myself. I used to think only sissied did such things, but now, a brief (and rare) shift back to the familiar fortifies me for what’s next.

  5. Sheila Scarborough Says:

    Here, here; I agree with Pam.

    I don’t usually seek out overseas Mickey D’s (well, unless I have a kid in tow who needs a bathroom, then I’m thrilled to see one) but sometimes when traveling I need to know exactly what I’m going to get. Maybe, just for a few minutes, I do not WANT to be surprised.

    And the travel snoots who have a problem with that can plant one on my Quarter-Poundered posterior, because I’ll rack up the “where I’ve been” points with anyone.

    Not that I’m defensive, mind you….

  6. Lloyd Says:

    Since my travel is within the US via my RV, the last resort is a fast food chain or restaurant chain of any variety. Getting off the main drag I have found some great meals — and bargains. There have been times when it was a bad deal. However, my curiosity desires something other than the expected.

  7. francesbean Says:

    I think the only time I would consider McDeathwish would be when I am completely disoriented in another country.

  8. Macaca Says:

    The differences between two things very similar make them more interesting. The way the Chinese (or Thai or Brits or whatever) follow the McDonalds (or Starbucks or KFC etc) brand give so much insight into the way these people are. You can reverse this too: what will be the main differences be for a Thai or Chinese customer in your own local McDonalds?

    Also a small national version is fun (albeit a bit less exotic): how does your local McD in a main city compare to a smaller one? Are there different kinds of people working there? Is it dirtier? Smoother service or not? Quality of the food? Would the franchise management acknowledge these differences, and what’s McD-Global’s policy about this?

    I like your point on the “absence of place and culture”, it makes McD Global almost a science experiment: Build the same standard styled fastfood-shops in 20 countries, add some locals, and observe differences. Then substract the standard influence and your remainder is the uniqueness of those peoples.