Food in the Global Context: Adaptation over Colonization | Gender, Sexuality, and Women's Studies
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Food in the Global Context: Adaptation over Colonization

                Adaptation is a necessary component of globalization.  This phenomenon can be seen throughout this week’s reading selections in a number of forms.  Sometimes the allure of “otherness” is what attracts someone to a specific cuisine.  This is emphasized in Krishnendu Ray’s “Exotic Restaurants and Expatriate Home Cooking: Indian Food in Manhattan,” which speaks of the “exotic fascination” and desire for “authentically hot” cuisine expressed by food critics in the early days of Indian restaurants in the United States (Ray 218).  Oftentimes, however, an element of customization or familiarity is required to draw popularity from a more widespread audience.  Rumi Sakamato and Matthew Allen demonstrate this in their discussion of the various localized transformations of Japanese sushi abroad in "There's Something Fishy about That Sushi: How Japan Interprets the Global Sushi Boom”.  This can also be seen in the unique additions to McDonald’s menus that are specialized for their respective countries.

                In the general discourse on national cuisines reaching foreign audiences, one viewpoint attempts to liken such developments as the popularity of McDonald’s in Hong Kong to a sort of American colonization process, with our country infiltrating theirs by way of food.  Likewise, Sakamoto and Allen refer to the imagined “Black Ship of sushi” through which Japan can be seen as exerting a long-awaited influence over the West (106).  However, this argument fails to take into account the complex machinations of cross-cultural transmissions on the global stage.  The American identity does not seem to be threatened by its adoption of international cuisines.  If anything, these imports serve to add greater depth to our culinary repertoire and diversity as a nation.  In the same way, neither are the identities of other countries being shunted aside by the introduction of typical American forms of fast food.  In the context of globalization, a mentality of us-versus-them overlooks the mutually beneficial nature of these types of cultural transactions.  Integration is a far cry from annihilation.  James L. Watson provides ample evidence of this in “McDonald’s in Hong Kong”.  “The people of Hong Kong have embraced American-style fast foods… but they have not been stripped of their cultural traditions, nor have they become Americanized in any of the most superficial of ways.  Hong Kong in the late 1990s constitutes one of the world’s most heterogeneous cultural environments… It is no longer possible to distinguish what is local and what is not” (Watson 79).

                Varying generational differences also reflect the adaptation inherent to globalization.  Cultures that were once fairly sheltered from one another are incorporated into a worldwide community as a result of constantly evolving communications technology.  Younger individuals are more likely to embrace these changes and therefore act as the catalyst for popularizing foreign cuisines.  The appearance of these establishments suits their needs of self-expression, such as forming their own identities by distancing themselves from older generations.  “McDonald’s became the “in” place for young people wishing to associate themselves with the laid-back, nonhierarchical dynamism they perceived American society to embody.  The first generation of consumers patronized McDonald’s precisely because it was not Chinese and was not associated with Hong Kong’s past as a backward-looking colonial outpost where (in their view) nothing of consequence ever happened” (Watson 86).

                While reading Watson’s research on Hong Kong, I was reminded of an article that was part of a past Anthropology of Food class.  John W. Traphagan and L. Keith Brown’s "Fast Food and Intergenerational Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns” discusses similar processes regarding McDonalds in Japan.  Although these two nations are home to distinct cultures and traditions, both China and Japan are marked by densely packed, fast-paced urban centers where time and space are at a premium.  The fact of globalization creates conditions in which citizens often lead hurried lives and work long hours.  In both Hong Kong and Japan, McDonald’s fulfills needs that result from these lifestyles.  For the Japanese,  “Eating and social patterns within such establishments suggest that they provide opportunities for intergenerational commensality, conviviality, and intimacy that are less evident in some of the traditional Japanese fast food establishments, where snacks and meals likewise are quickly served and quickly consumed” (Traphagan and Brown 119).  I remember being surprised by the ideas presented in this article, because with my limited knowledge of the subject, I assumed that the popularity of McDonalds in foreign countries was primarily due to the valuation of American pop culture.  However, it seems that the success of McDonald’s in China and Japan parallels the success of sushi in America and other industrialized Western nations.  These nations are not engaging in a back-and-forth colonization as much as they are utilizing each other’s native food products for their own purposes.  The example of Japanese consumers frequenting McDonald’s shows a use of the modern to maintain traditional values.  For many of them, McDonald’s is an ideal place to promote social and familial ties because it is clean, safe, fast, inexpensive, and above all, convenient.  It provides an easy opportunity to spend time with family and friends in an otherwise demanding environment.  Similarly, in Hong Kong, McDonald’s serves an important social function for the student population.  As a result of the limited availability of areas to study or associate with friends in this crowded city, large numbers of students are regular patrons and the restaurant becomes a “commercial space temporarily transformed into private space… When young people enter their local McDonald’s after school, many feel that they have come ‘home’” (Watson 106).   

                Another way in which adaptation can be seen in the globalization process is chronologically.  Cuisines and establishments may come into fashion in one capacity and later become transformed in some way in order to achieve (or as a result of having achieved) extended popularity. Sakamoto and Allen attribute the beginnings of the sushi craze on the American West Coast to “the new emphasis on healthy eating based on vegetables and fish rather than meat, alternative lifestyle movements such as ecology and hippie movements” (101).  Over time, the sushi trend spread across the country to diverse types of people, many of whom have no affiliation with the ideologies of those who first gravitated toward the cuisine.  An individual who picks up a tray of sushi at the local supermarket is as likely to be doing so for health reasons or desire for ecological soundness as they are due to convenience or taste factors.  A similar concept can be seen in the evolution of McDonald’s in Hong Kong.  Originally considered the domain of youth, embraced precisely because it was not Chinese, “eating at McDonald’s has become an ordinary, everyday experience for hundreds of thousands of Hong Kong residents.  The chain has become a local institution in the sense that it has blended into the urban landscape; McDonald’s outlets now serve as rendezvous points for young and old alike” (Watson 87).  American foods can essentially “become” Asian and vice versa either by process of hybridization or simply the passage of time.  ““Many Japanese, and especially younger Japanese, are unaware that McDonald’s is not a Japanese company… (It) is considered by many young and middle-aged Japanese alike to be a Japanese company” (Traphagan and Brown 120).  Also, naming conventions for sushi, such as California Roll and Philadelphia Roll, can give these items a decidedly American feel.  There are even hyper-localized versions, such as the McKnight Roll at Pittsburgh’s Sushi Tomo (named for the suburban highway it is located on, home to dozens of shopping centers in an area that is about as typical middle-class American it gets).

                Overall, I tend to agree with the ideas presented in this week’s writings on McDonalds in Hong Kong and the overseas sushi boom.  The authors make convincing arguments for the fact that foreign cuisines do not just roll into new countries like a steamroller, crushing the existing popular culture as it goes.  The influence of globalization can only go so far, because countries are likely to reject new forms of culture that clash too strongly with or cannot be adequately incorporated into their own.  What really began to interest me as I progressed through the readings was the notion of how this affects children.  Watson’s article discussed the popularity of McDonald’s among children becoming so pervasive that many begin to resist eating with their relatives at Chinese restaurants.  This strikes me as so different from how children in America behave.  Can you imagine a typical American eight year old refusing to go to Pizza Hut or McDonald’s and begging their parents to take them out for sushi or Indian food?  Unless this child has an ethnic background that incorporates these foods, or particularly worldly parents, this is unlikely.  In contrast, children in Hong Kong seem to revel in the variety of different cuisines available to them.  “Grade school children often possess detailed knowledge of fast foods and foreign (non-Chinese) cuisines.  Unlike members of the older generation, children know what, and how, to eat in a variety of restaurants… Many Hong Kong kindergartens and primary schools teach culinary skills, utilizing the lunch period for lessons in flatware etiquette, menu reading, and food awareness (taste-testing various cuisines, including Thai, European, and Indian).  Partly as a consequence, Hong Kong’s youth are among the world’s most knowledgeable and adventurous eaters" (Watson 102).

                Knowledgeable and adventurous are two words one would rarely apply to American children in terms of food.  Why is this?  It seems that while American children are eager to absorb some aspects of foreign pop culture (especially television and toy trends like Nintendo, Pokemon, and Mighty Morphin Power Rangers), they are hardly affected at all by the globalization of food, an import which could actually be beneficial for them!  This raises a few questions that I would be interested to see explored.  Are children in other cultures simply raised to be more sophisticated and cosmopolitan?  American children are notoriously picky.  Just take a look at American kids’ cuisine, showcased in the book passed around in class on Tuesday.  It is comprised of basically hot dogs, hamburgers, macaroni and cheese, chicken nuggets, and so on.  In a word: homogenous.  Many parents here are incredibly permissive about what their children eat due to time constraints, desire to avoid argument, lack of information, pervasiveness of junk food marketing and so on, resulting in a dearth of nutrition and variety in the typical youth diet.  How can we take the positive effects of globalization and encourage greater food literacy in American children?  These questions were partially inspired by a television program I recently began watching, which proved to be an interesting tie-in to this week’s readings.  In Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the famous chef travels to Huntington, West Virginia, which has been called the unhealthiest city in America due to its staggering rate of obesity and related deaths.  Compared to Watson’s description of the culinary enthusiasm of Hong Kong children, the lack of knowledge displayed in this video clip is incredibly disheartening and reinforces my concern for American children.  School lunch programs in this country, while of great importance to the health of students, are often limited by financial concerns and the refusal of children to eat certain foods.  How could we take steps to implement lunch programs more like that of Hong Kong?



Ray, Krishnendu. "Exotic Restaurants and Expatriate Home Cooking: Indian Food in Manhattan." The Globalization of Food. Ed. David Inglis and Debra Gimlin. Oxford: Berg, 2009. 213-26.

Sakamoto, Rumi, and Matthew Allen. "There's Something Fishy About That Sushi: How Japan Interprets the Global Sushi Boom." Japan Forum 23.1 (2011): 99-121.

Traphagan, John W., and L. Keith Brown. "Fast Food and Intergenerational Commensality in Japan: New Styles and Old Patterns." Ethnology 41.2 (2002): 119-34.

Watson, James L. "McDonald's in Hong Kong." Golden Arches East: McDonald's in East Asia. Ed. James L. Watson. Stanford, CA: Stanford Univ., 2006.

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