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THE Lowly Peon


When East Meets West 
13 February 2011, 5:06am

There's something very interesting happening here. So many of the cancerous brands we've come to know all too well — McDonald's, Starbucks, KFC — have metastasized to China, a place where, just a few years ago, an outsider would hardly have recognized any advertisement, sign, or awning. And even stranger is the fact that they are considered upper class establishments.

"If you really want to impress a girl, take her to McDonald's for your first date."

I recall a trip I took a few years back, in early 2006, to Chengdu, the capital of Sichuan (or as your foodies may know it, Szechuan). The goal of the trip was for the three of us to adventure, alone, to a new city, to navigate to one of China's most famous mountains, climb it, and then head home. The top of this mountain remains one of the most beautiful things I've ever seen, and waking up to see the sunset one of the most rewarding. The climb took just over two days, including the eight hour loop we didn't realize were making as we started, and after a certain elevation, the only food we could find were locally grown — hardly ten feet away from where we ate — vegetables, rice, water that was laboriously carried up the mountain daily every day by the patriarch of the shop, and lots of baijiu, the 65% alcohol that you can smell from yards away from the monks who drink it like water to stave away boredom.

By the end of the climb, some 50 miles and 12,000 vertical feet later —we took a bus down from the top, having not realized there was even that possibility until we neared the top and met women in heels — we were starving for some good food. Tired of fried vegetables and rice, we decided to try something western. after all, we had been living in Kunming, practically a country village, and Chengdu had two Starbucks! Surely the idea of getting western food in a big city like Chengdu was too tempting to forget.

And what did we find? A Pizza Hut. That's right. The restaurant chain I hadn't visited since my stomach immediately rejected, violently, the double cheese with stuffed crust pizza I ate there in fourth grade on our road trip to Colorado.

We had each heard stories of these western chains in China. Several people had told me if you want to really impress a girl (and her family), you should take her to a McDonald's for your first date. We walked in and it was startling how familiar it was, and wasn't. The napkins were cloth. Waiters floated around like it was a five star restaurant. The lighting was comfortable, and it didn't smell like most Chinese restaurants but instead like a place at which I wouldn't mind eating.

We decided to really live it up, feeling as we'd earned it after the long climb. Foolishly, we didn't pay much attention to the cost, as we had gotten used to paying a few cents for any meal we had. I don't recall exactly what the bill came to, but I remember swearing never to go back. The food was exactly as bad as it is in the states. The cloth napkins didn't fool me after our overpriced Cokes came in paper cups. The floating waiters didn't fool me after our food was served a little cold. And the atmosphere didn't fool me once I had a taste of that pizza, reminding me of why I hadn't been there in so many years.

The best coffee in town

If you've ever been to a Starbucks in a different country, it's somewhat startling. A times I've been in the forbidden city, a Japanese temple, or the Tsuen Wan line of the Hong Kong MTR, only to walk through a single door and find myself back in my hometown getting an overpriced cup of coffee.

I've never much cared for Starbucks. I've never been impressed by their coffee or the clientele, though it has always amazed me how successful their marketing is. The idea that, much like Hilton said so many years ago, you could be anywhere in the world, but when you're in their shop, it feels like home. And it does.

Unfortunately for coffee drinkers, coffee has a different meaning in places like Hangzhou. Coffee shops generally open just before lunch, have sandwiches and salads each loaded with mayonnaise (in fact, mayonnaise is called "sala" in Chinese), and are occupied only by businessmen trying to impress their clients by showing how "international" they can be. Coffee shops in Vietnam a equally foreign, usually located in an open garage, open just after dark, with lawn chairs for the prostitutes who await your business's.

As a result, Starbucks is really the only coffee shop, in the way we know it, in these parts of Asia. (Though sometimes they open their doors around 10am, well after the posted hours of 7am.) The coffee is far from delectable, but like a good Subway franchise, you know exactly what you're getting when you find yourself far from home.

And the growing middle class

It's two o'clock in the afternoon here in the Starbucks on the north side of Hangzhou. It's packed. It took me five minutes to find a table. Only a few years ago, this would have been the only quiet place outside of home on a Sunday afternoon, as the prices are so high — $3 for the typical Chinese person is enough for a day's meals, why would anyone spend it on a cup of coffee? — and coffee was only becoming popular. Yet now, as I look around, I can count eleven iPhone 4s, I saw at least four iPads while looking for a table, and the guy next to me has a MacBook Pro.

It seems the middle class in China is growing quickly, and they don't have an idea of where to spend their earnings. Or perhaps it's just that killing time in a Starbucks makes you part of the middle class — like the McDonalds my friend took his wife to on their first date.

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