Reading “McDonald’s in Hong Kong,” I realized I’m a bit more cynical than James Watson about the spread of Western fast food around the world. I suppose it’s good whenever you become aware of your feelings and assumptions, be they romanticizations or cynicism. While I’m still not thrilled about McDonalds and Burger King calling into every port in the world, this week’s reading have helped me understand this aspect of globalization on a deeper level.
I understood Watson’s article to mean that McDonalds is like a cultural symbol. Just because other cultures adopt a particular symbol (or an approximate version of it), that does not necessarily entail that the meaning associated with it will be the same. For example, I generally associate the brand McDonalds with the word “unhealthy”. People on the other side of the world may interpret it as an “oasis” (Watson, 117) where one can find rest amid sanitary surroundings.
Still, I retain some of my original hesitation in regard to global fast food. I think foods carry tons of underlying meaning, and this meaning can’t always simply be transferred from one food to another. I can’t imagine McDonald’s being on the table at a Korean ancestor memorial ceremony for example. But the fact that McDonalds is making so many inroads into urban Asians’ daily lives suggests at least the possibility that McDonalds as a cultural symbol is replacing other cultural symbols. That means there’s at least the possibility that certain “original” symbols are declining, and there’s no guarantee that the traditional cultural meanings associated with those symbols will survive in new forms. After all, symbols don’t just express meaning; they also reinforce meaning. And so, even if the new meanings are not necessarily “American” (as Watson argues), they aren’t “traditional Chinese” or “traditional Korean” meanings either.
Then again, who am I to choose for them…