Is It Culturally Arrogant to Hate Seeing American Chain Stores Abroad?

Here at Casual Kitchen I often criticize elites who "know better," telling us what we should buy, what we should like and even how stupid we are.

Today, however, I'm going to criticize myself after coming face to face with my own elitism (and hypocrisy even). It was after reading this quote from The Locavore's Dilemma by Pierre Desrochers and Hiroko Shimizu:

True, the world is becoming more homogenized as each city or town increasingly features the same stores and restaurant chains. This reality hurts the sensibilities of well-off tourists, cultural critics, and activists who would rather have each location be more "authentic"--except typically for the one where they personally reside, which must readily offer the best of everything.

I'll admit it: it thoroughly bugs me to see, everywhere, the same USA-based chain stores and restaurants. McDonalds, Starbucks, KFC, Taco Bell, and so on. "Generica" to use the derisive term.

And if I were to try and analyze exactly why it bugs me, I'd probably fall back onto the quote by G.B. Shaw: "I dislike feeling at home when abroad." Shaw was an elitist too by the way.

Unfortunately, in the USA we've gone far beyond Generica. Now, here, you don't just see the same chain stores in every town and city across the country. You see the same shopping plazas, the same gas stations, the same department stores, the same strip malls, the same convenience stores, the same grocery stores. In the past year, I've done three major road trips (to Ohio, to Omaha, and to central Florida), and, to me, even our homes, apartments and office buildings--nearly all architectural structures!--are starting to look exactly the same.

Granted, Generica is barely getting off the ground in some countries. But it's clear where things are headed. I'll give an example: At this point there are three Starbucks in Gdansk, Poland (fortunately, for now, there are none in the old town tourist district). Do you think in the next few years there will be more? Or fewer? And for how long is Gdansk's old town district likely to remain Starbucks-free?

So, here's where I bring up my hypocrisy in front of all my readers. Stipulated that it bugs me to see Starbucks everywhere in the world. And stipulated that it depresses me to know that in places like Gdansk, there are Starbucks (and many other examples of Generica), and in time there are going to be more.

But who the hell am I to say that the people of Gdansk should or shouldn't have Starbucks? Gdansk doesn't know or care what I think, nor should it. Much like a stock I might buy, Gdansk doesn't know who I am.

Most importantly, Gdansk is for the people there, not for me. I'm just an annoying tourist who, while passing through, happens to come down with a really bad case of the sads because some chain store, inexcusably, made him feel at home while abroad. The nerve!

What this really boils down to is disallowing for others the things that you dislike.

It's one thing to talk about how you wish places like Gdansk, Poland would hold onto the types of cafes, restaurants and shops that they've had in the past, and you hope that exported American chain stores won't displace them. But it is culturally superior, even arrogant, to decide for others what they should choose for themselves.

And yet as aware as I am about the hypocrisy of feeling this way, it still bugs me to no end to see American chain stores and restaurants throughout the world. I can't get past it.

Readers, what do you think about all this?

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Anonymous said...

Wow, I never realized that either. (I have bemoaned the homogenization of America.)

I wonder how many of us choose the chain? (Caveat, we end up at a non-chain) Where I live we drive by a local diner, a local restaurant, & probably some other local eateries off the main drag. Have we ever stopped there for a bite? No we go to the brew pub that we found (we are willing to try out local beers).

If we were not wanting beer, would we choose one of those local joints? No, we invariable go some place where we know what we are going to get, or at the very least we go to a strip mall and choose something there...

With all of that said, when we travel, we aren't "that" adventurous either. (We also do not choose the Generica option either for the most part. KFC on at least 1 Caribbean island = "Keep Fat Coming" according to our local driver.)

Anonymous said...

Keep in mind that boring chains make many people happy otherwise they wouldn't exist. Lots of Starbucks addicts out there. And I can tell you that in many poorer Caribbean islands a family dinner at KFC is an envied respectable "middle-class" thing to do.

These chains that offend our American 'sensibility and taste' can actually bring efficiency and scale to the local markets that may not have existed before. Can be good for the locals. Of course they may also be sucking out any profits but thats another story altogether.

Recognize that for the locals this is viewed as 'progress' and 'prosperity'.

Freshen up your list of undiscovered places. There are many out there.

Resistance is futile. haha

Janet C. said...

Well, in all fairness some of the chain places in other countries at least try and cater to the tastes of the residents. I always find it interesting to try these "local" choices in places like Tokyo....but I usually choose local places as well. And although there is a Starbucks on practically every major intersection in Tokyo, there are also some amazing independent coffee places (that happen to serve amazing French pastries. Tokyo is big on amazing French pastries. The chocolate croissants there rival those of Paris. Seriously). I guess you can figure out where I breakfast when visiting my son there....

My rule of thumb is always to try the local places. To me it makes the trip. Sometimes we'll pick a particular food or dish and compare various versions. My husband was in Taiwan on business recently, and as soon as he discovered that soup noodles are delicious and cheap there he made a point of trying and comparing all the local places near where he was staying. He enjoyed the food and had fun doing it!

Of course, you have to recognize that some countries have a distorted view of our food and food choices. In Tokyo you need a reservation a month in advance to eat at KFC for Christmas. Turkey is almost unheard of in Japan, so when they think poultry they think chicken. And when they think American poultry they think KFC. So if you are going to have a big American Christmas dinner with poultry and mashed potatoes, you think of KFC. The first time my son brought his Japanese fiancé (now his wife) to the US for the holidays, he insisted on a large traditional Christmas dinner at my sister's house a few hours after they landed in SF on December 25th...just so that she could see what a "real" American Christmas was like (Not that there is such a thing as a "real" American Christmas, especially in our Protestant/Jewish/Hindu/Muslim/who knows mixed-religious family...:-)

Oh, and speaking of the Japanese and KFC, I just read that Tokyo is going to be the location of the first KFC buffet ever. So that they can have even more of that "American" about Keeping the Fat Coming!! lol....

Marcia said...

I think there are nuances to this.

Going back, I remember that my college boyfriend's dad would not eat at a chain. It was his one rule. We vacationed together once, and I remember that distinctly.

As a parent of 2 young children, we often go to chains when traveling, for the comfort factor.

I am generally amazed on road trips about how everything looks the same. But one day, my SIL got into an argument with a HS friend on facebook about chains. She had "checked in" to Applebees. Her HS friend was part owner in his dad's local pizza place and lambasted her for not "dining local".

(First of all, I remember distinctly mid-high school that they stopped making their own sauce, and the food went down hill. But I digress.) She pointed out that she works for a big corporate entity. Big companies aren't all evil. We need a mix of big and small. Big companies often have leverage enough to provide things like benefits and 401k matches and vacation time that smaller companies do not.

Anonymous said...

Sometimes those golden arches can be a small sigh of relief when traveling. I was traveling with my parents, who are nervous fliers and our flight was delayed. Finally made it over to London, and they were HUNGRY, yet nervous about unfamiliar food, enhanced by fatigue. easing into British food by a McDonalds in london helped transition them to British food in a familiar environment. And they eat at mcdonalds once every 5 years at home:)