Starbucks Abroad

I had lunch with SF University High School schoolmate Quinton Ma, the other day. It was a pleasure chatting with him about old times and going to college (he’s headed to New York next year!). Before heading back to work, I stopped by Starbucks (there are over five in the vicinity of where I work) to pick up a cold drink which in conjunction with good air conditioning can help soothe the unbearable heat of the Hong Kong summer. I asked Quinton if he wanted anything and he responded, “I don’t really believe in Starbucks.” Oh, excuse me. I somehow managed to forget that San Francisco anti-globalization attitude that I too once had. As an expatriot, I have a newfound appreciation for the American chain as a place of cultural neutrality. No matter that I love Chinese food in all its variety, I need a break sometimes, even in the distorted cultural reality of Hong Kong. While I didn’t visit KFC or McDonalds once in Shantou (over four months stay), I definitely can see and agree with this perspective on why Americans frequent American franchises abroad, offered by Yahoo columnist Rolf Potts.

As a traveler, there is nothing wrong with the Starbucks and McDonalds of the world. I don’t think they necessarily need to be the negative incarnation of globalization especially when it comes to big cities. Sure, many would argue that these establishments are replacing vibrant cultures with an overarching (like the golden arches?) American culture. I agree that they are to some extent, but I don’t think that this globalized culture will ever replace local cultures entirely not even mostly. Of course you don’t want a big McDonalds in some small village or inside of a historical site. For now just cut the Americans abroad some slack.

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