Selling U.S. Products Abroad: Malign, Moral, or a Chance for Mutual Learning?

Learning from us

To many activists, McDonald’s is as Malign a multinational as they come, Exhibit #1 of U.S. cultural imperialism.

James Watson, chaired professor of Anthropology and Chinese Society at Harvard, was intrigued by this hostility to McDonald’s among activists (and within his own cohort at the American Anthropological Association) -- so intrigued that he and four colleagues embarked on several years’ worth of research to determine how McDonald’s was being received by everyday people in five countries in South Asia.

The results, as published in his book Golden Arches East (1998), might surprise you.

It turns out that, on the whole, McDonald’s is wildly popular -- even though nobody’s really wild about the food.

Basically McDonald’s gives East Asians things that their own cultures won’t, don’t, or can’t (quite yet) -- things that actually-existing East Asians happen to prize, despite activists’ widely-publicized attacks on the company.

Quality control, for one -- something we Americans now pretty much take for granted. “McDonald’s’ strict quality control, especially regarding potatoes, became a hot topic of discussion” all over China, Watson says. Many East Asian restaurants are now trying to emulate the company’s “unwavering” standards for food freshness.

McDonald’s’ clean toilets are not to be sneezed at, either. “McDonald’s is widely credited with starting a revolution of rising expectations among East Asian consumers who had never experienced high standards of public hygiene in the catering trade,” Watson says delicately. “In Taipei, Beijing, Seoul, local restauranteurs had to match this new standard or watch their customers go elsewhere.”

Table manners are becoming less formal. Young people, in particular, are feeling freer to touch certain foods with their hands.

Attitudes toward work have changed among the young. Like many Americans, I worked at a series of low-prestige jobs (dishwasher, truck loader, cannery worker)...