Friday, August 11, 2006

Welcome to China. May I Take Your Order?

For a frightened American traveling in a strange land, finding familiar fast food restaurants evokes the same feelings one experiences upon unexpectedly meeting an old friend.

"Why, hello McDonald's! So glad to see you are doing well! Why, yes I would like some McNuggets. So kind of you to offer."

"Starbucks? Starbucks, is that you? It is! Imagine finding you here!"

It's a nice feeling, but occasionally, there'll be that certain something about this friend that'll take you aback. A receding hairline and a pot belly on the once-prom king. An expensive Italian suit on a former stoner.

Seeing familiar Western food brands and chains in Beijing is something like that. Here's a list of random observations about variations in American food brands and chains in China.

  • An American who wanders into a McDonald's in China will be tempted to try several curious items on the menu. Underneath the bun of at least half of their burgers and sandwiches is a coleslaw-like mass of shredded lettuce, with bits of red cabbage mixed in for confetti-effect. There are more chicken-based foods than beef-based, as poultry is the meat preferred by the Chinese. You can order a cup full of corn instead of your usual French fries, and the apple-pie one is familiar with in the States appears in Beijing McDonald's filled with purple goo (what is that… berry-flavoring? Grape?)
  • Aside from the menu, what will strike Americans as especially strange about the McDonald's and the other top fast-food chain in China – KFC – is the size of these places. Most McDonald's and KFC locations are big enough to seat over 500 people, and they're usually packed to the gills around dinner time.
  • If you happen to find a Pizza Hut in Beijing, you'll discover it to be an upscale-establishment, with cozy booths, classy d├ęcor and romantic lighting. Want a drink? Take a look at their wine list, or order yourself up a cocktail. Gourmet pizzas include some that are stacked high with seafood and drizzled with wasabi sauce. One of the very few pizzas atop which you'll find pepperoni is the one labeled "The American Special". And for dessert, you can have tiramisu or cheesecake.
  • The Forbidden City is a sprawling palace complex that was home to the imperial ruling families in the Qing and Ming dynasties. The ancient location is packed with history, and is a symbol of the grandeur and splendor of Chinese architecture and aesthetics. You can find the Starbucks next to the Palace of Heavenly Purity.
  • Speaking of Starbucks, your favorite Frap comes in 3 sizes in China: Short (a serving so small, the average coffee-guzzling American could get away with downing 3 of these before feeling that coveted caffeine kick), Tall, and Grande. No Venti!
  • A walk through the aisles of a supermarket will eventually bring you to the potato chip section. You'll find Lay's and Pringle's brands, but missing will be your standard cheese flavors. Instead, pop open a bag or a tube of chips with the following: Tomato Flavor, Italian Beef Flavor, Mexican Chicken and Tomato Flavor, and a really popular one - Crispy Drumsticks Flavor. Betcha can't eat just one!
—Jennifer Chang