Responding to Article #14 of The Globalization Reader, “McDonald’s in Hong Kong”
A portion of this article focuses on the categorization of certain foods into either snacks or meals, based on the food culture of Hong Kong. Here, just as in every other society, food functions as a total social phenomenon; that is, it takes on a meaning and significance beyond its immediate benefits (i.e. sustenance) and becomes an important part of culture, in everything from education to religion. Particularly in many Asian cultures, food plays a useful social function by establishing meals as a platform for interactions between family and friends, which Watson describes several times throughout his piece. However, the way in which residents of Hong Kong think about and view a particular food can also influence its social purpose.
Near the beginning of the article, Watson explains how the perception of McDonald’s products as snacks (siu sihk in Cantonese) automatically delegated them to a certain niche of food culture; at the time they were first introduced, they were seen as exotic and quirky snacks that provided a novel experience, but not anything as substantial as a traditional fan meal would. This observation immediately brings to mind the Sapir-Whorf hypothesis. This theory, developed by Edward Sapir (an anthropologist) and his friend Benjamin Whorf (a linguist and insurance worker), argues that language does not only influence how people view the world around them, but actually determines it. While many anthropologists believe the concept of “modified Sapir-Whorfism” to be more correct (postulating that language does influence our view, but does not wholly determine it), the basic idea is clearly important in the context of this article. It seems logical that the number, specificity, and range of words we have for a particular thing would change how we see and understand it, especially when we can see the same situation demonstrated in United States culture. For example, while granola bars might constitute a quick bite for someone in a hurry, few regard them as the basis for a truly satisfactory meal; in recent years, the idea of “breakfast bars” has attempted to change this, but manufacturers have remained largely unsuccessful in bringing the product into what might be considered the arena of traditional American breakfasts. Similarly, McDonald’s struggled to assert their food as a contender among the traditional meals of Hong Kong. The shift came only with younger generations, who began to subscribe to the larger global perception of fast food, while elders stayed true to their dim sam restaurants.
To me then, this first stage of integration of McDonald’s food into Hong Kong exemplifies globalization in the best way possible: a new product was introduced, and quickly incorporated into local culture, but as such, was still subject to the cultural restraints and perceptions held by the people of the area. As Watson points out, the food neither dominated nor erased traditional Hong Kong foods, but instead carved out its own niche in the restaurant market and contributed to new cultural structures and patterns of consumption. All in all, a very positive experience. Of course, that is only true of the food; McDonald’s business practices, environmental effects, and corporate corruption mean that the company itself is an entirely different story.