Ba Da Ba Ba Ba—I’m Learnin’ It: Lessons from McDonald’s Abroad

Not long after we landed in Taipei in 2001, the head of our church’s missions-ministry team asked about our first impressions. Here’s what we sent to him:

people-people-people, stinky tofu, cell phones, smog, construction, dogs, Hello Kitty, noise, taxis, temples, night markets, McDonald’s, squatty potties, ATMs, squid on a stick, scooters, 7-11s, people-people-people

McDonald’s, an icon of American culture, played a big part in our time overseas, whether a familiar place for meeting with friends, a safe(ish) place to practice our Mandarin, or a dependable place for getting a meal. It was also a place for learning—or reinforcing—some valuable lessons. Here are some of them:

Language Acquisition Is as Easy as 1, 2, 3

Before moving abroad, as a family of six we’d become adept at saving money at McDonald’s using our savvy ordering skills: building our own meals out of single hamburgers or fish sandwiches, small fries, and waters. All that went out the window in our new home. Since we didn’t have the vocabulary for separate items, we just ordered by number, which meant each of us got a full meal, even our four year old (I guess we couldn’t say “Happy Meal” either). Ease of ordering trumped frugality. Bring on the giant cups of Coke.

Pride Goeth before the Spill

Most of the McDonald’s in Taiwan are multilevel, so after getting your food, you can then walk upstairs to eat. One day we were on a trip and stopped at McDonald’s and ordered our regular six number ones (or twos, or whatevers). That meant six burgers, six orders of fries, and six sodas. I was nervously carrying all the sodas on a tray up two (or was it 10?) flights of stairs, with extreme care. Then as I got to my family, I mimicked being out of breath and struggling to make it to the table. And of course, my theatrics made all the cups tip . . . and fall over . . . and hit the floor. I’m pretty sure it was all in slow motion. So I had to trudge back downstairs and try to explain what happened, using my book-one, chapter-five-or-so language skills, along with some extremely clever hand signals.

It’s the Little Things

I guess Coke at McDonald’s has given me a lot of memories, but not all of them were bad. I found out that after I’d placed an order, if it seemed as if the wait was taking too long, the person behind the counter would give me a small, Dixie-cup-size cup of soda. Sometimes I hoped for slow service just for that little cup of kindness.

Sharing Is Caring

Normally when I’m in a group sorting out our meals, I can’t help but compare who got the fullest container of french fries (to say nothing of claiming the orphan fires in the bottom of a take-out bag). But I’d see groups of high schoolers in Taiwan sidestep any fry envy by pouring them all into a pile on a tray and sharing them buffet style. Pretty cool.

Where’s the Beef?” Is a Valid Question

One time our local McDonald’s ran out of hamburger. Really. We had friends serving in Africa who wrote in their newsletter about how the axle on their Range Rover broke while they were crossing a river. Yeah, living overseas can sure be challenging. One time our local McDonald’s ran out of hamburger.

It Takes All Sorts

Taiwan is big on recycling and separating food waste from other trash. The trash cans at McDonald’s come in pairs—one for leftover food and one for cups, boxes, and wrappers. Sorting our throwaways after a meal quickly became habit while we were there, but we also readjusted our habits when we came back to the States. When in Rome. . . . I’ve often wondered how we’d handle the riots in the streets here if McDonald’s told us Americans to sort our trash.

It Really Is about Location, Location, Location

I’m not convinced that McDonald’s is all that popular in the States, but it sure is convenient. There seems to be one at every exit ramp. In Taiwan, there seemed to be one around the corner from (or in) every MRT station. And when we moved into a Taipei apartment that was just a couple blocks away from one, our small-town family figured we’d become city people.

It’s Glocation, Glocation, Glocation, Too

Like many international corporations, McDonald’s practices glocalization, so that while their menu offers mostly tried-and-true staples, it also branches out to the varied tastes of the people they’re serving. In Taiwan, that means things such as red-bean sundaes, hamburgers with toasted-rice buns, fried shrimp burgers and pork burgers, fried chicken legs, sweet-potato fries, and corn soup.

The More Things Change, the More They Stay the Same

Another glocalized item at McDonald’s is the pineapple pie. It’s a new take on the restaurant’s standard apple pie, while Taiwan’s apple-pie version is an old take on a standard. Remember back when their pies used to be fried, rather than baked? They’re still fried in Taiwan. Not as healthy, but mmmmmmmm.

When “foreigners” came to visit us in Taiwan, some of them would avoid McDonald’s at all costs. “That’s not why I came here,” they’d say. Others begged for a familiar meal after having their pallets challenged beyond their limits. Of those who ate there, many would claim that it just tasted different, especially the Coke. It all tasted the same to me. Now that I’m back in the States, it still tastes the same, and ironically, it makes me nostalgic for life on the other side of the globe.

I’ve written about McDonald’s before, in the context of globalization, and the confusion that that can cause. I referenced Den Fujita, who founded McDonald’s in Japan. In Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands, Martin Roll quotes Fujita as saying, “Once a group of Japanese Boy Scouts visited the United States and were asked by a local television station what their impression of America was. One boy replied, ‘I didn’t know that they had McDonald’s in the United States, too.” I have my doubts about the authenticity of the quotation, since there are several more versions of it floating around, such as when a Japanese boy visited Florida, a Japanese girl went to Los Angeles, a French girl came to Times Square, or a young boy visited the US from Indonesia.

Now I’m creating new traditions at McDonald’s—buying Happy Meals for my grandkids, saving money with the McDonald’s app and having my meals delivered curbside, and eating my own Happy Meals. (I just recently found out that you can upgrade your Happy Meal soda to a large for free, or at least a small upcharge. Sometimes it’s the big things).

While we were overseas, McDonald’s in Taipei introduced McCafe drinks, something that I hadn’t seen yet in the US. I’m sure it had come to the States earlier, but it didn’t originate there. That distinction goes to a McD’s in Melbourne, Australia. Today, when I ask someone to get together for coffee, for me it’s usually a euphemism for going to McDonald’s. Sure, my friend can get a McCafe Caramel Macchiato, but I’ll be drinking a Dr. Pepper, something that for ten years I could rarely get while in Asia.

All this has got me wistfully remembering my times reading a Chinese Bible with a tutor in the McDonald’s near Tai Da University or attending multiple “house church” meetings in McDonald’s in Taipei or just sitting at the oversize windows in our neighborhood McDonald’s overlooking Yonghe Road, people watching and praying.

Ba da ba ba ba. I’m missing Mai Dang Lao. And I’m still learning.

[photo: “Taiwan Mcdonald’s 台湾マクドナルド,” by yahiramatu, used under a Creative Commons license]

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Craig Thompson

Craig and his wife, Karen, along with their five children, served as missionaries in Taipei, Taiwan, for ten years before returning to southwest Missouri. His experiences, as well as conversations with other cross-cultural workers, have made him more and more interested in member care and the process of transitioning between cultures. Craig blogs at ClearingCustoms.net.

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