Once upon a time, not so very long ago, I was a grad student and I spent
most all of my time reading. It got pretty exhausting, actually, and when I graduated with my MA, it was with a certain degree of relief. Over the past five months, I’ve enjoyed reading what I want to, and at my own pace.
But when I started reading The Cultural Politics of Food and Eating (you know, for funsies), the grad student in me swooned. I had missed the sound of (good) academic writing, the flow of a well-crafted argument, the sound of obnoxiously academic phrases like “cultural symbolism.” Once a grad student, always a grad student, I suppose.
As I was reading Yunxiang Yan’s “Of Hamburger and Social Space: Consuming McDonald’s in Beijing,” I came across an argument that complicated my previous way of thinking (something any good essay should do, as I try to explain to my students). I grew up in a family that treated McDonald’s as a treat, a special occasion. Consequently, it was never a part of our regular eating habits, and the fast food chain fell off my radar completely once I was diagnosed with celiac. Once I started reading about the chain’s treatment of its workers other issues, I was positive: I didn’t like what the company stood for and was up to. Its probably a knee-jerk reaction at this point. McDonald’s = bad.
Everything has a context, though, and McDonald’s Chinese context has some darkness to it. James Watson, author of “China’s Big Mac Attack” in the same anthology, argues that “McDonald’s appeals to China’s new elites because its food is safe, clean, and reliable.” These essays do a good job of explaining the nature of the native Chinese restaurants that represent McDonald’s competitors — from high-end, traditional restaurants to work unit’s shitang, or cafeterias. The cultural structure and role of these shitang mean that they’re less concerned with customer service and cleanliness than American-based restaurants such as McDonald’s. Compared to these, McDonald’s is a clean and quiet space with employees dedicated to pleasing customers.
This appreciation for McDonald’s is not only about its smiling employees. The problems Chinese restaurant patrons face with the threat of dirty kitchens and adulterated foods make McDonald’s ills seem relatively insignificant. With the threat of melamine and other adulterants in food, and the inconvenience of unreliable and unfriendly service, the almost boring predictability of McDonald’s must come as a welcome respite.
I still believe McDonald’s causes more problems than it solves, but its role in different cultures can’t be broken down into simple categories of good and bad.
For a useful article on Chinese food adulteration, see: http://www.merinews.com/article/food-adulteration-becoming-common-in-china/144900.shtml
For a good, brief blog post explaining the danwei system that includes the canteen or shitang, see: http://thelifelibrarian.blogspot.com/2008/09/work-unit.html