‘He went to the wrong McDonald’s.’
The fact that this sentence was said in Cairo can tell you a lot about the world we live in. It tells us something about just how ubiquitous it has become – a point of bright colours and American food/values which stands out against whatever background it is placed internationally, drawing customers eager to emulate Americans and the American way of life.
But before I elaborate, allow me to place this quote in context. On Saturday evening I had two choices – either go out with my American flatmate to an Independence Day party, or go to an authentic Sudanese meal with someone who I met back in 2007 during my first time in Cairo. I was put off the former partially because it seemed less culturally unique, but also when it was pointed out to me that as an Anglo-Japanese person, they would have two reasons to dislike me – the Revolution and Pearl Harbor. In fact, the only way it could be any worse is if I was a Muslim. So I think it’s fairly predictable for you to guess that I went to the Sudanese meal.
I was instructed to meet at 5pm outside McDonald’s, from where we would head to the Sudanese meal. If ever there was a stark contrast of Western and African food, this would be it. As I heard the instructions to meet there in my mind, I visualised it in my mind – I could see the Golden Arches set against that red backdrop, standing out against what is otherwise a relatively dull area. It seemed a good place to meet – very distinguishable at least. And so I dutifully made my way to stand outside that McDonald’s for 5pm. I hung around a bit, and no one else seemed to be there. Then, my mobile went off:
‘Where are you?’
‘I’m outside McDonald’s …’
‘You most certainly are not!’
It transpired that unfortunately I had had the wrong McDonald’s in mind – hence the above quote given in explanation when I had rushed to the right one sheepishly. And so once we had all made our way past Pizza Hut, KFC and Costa Coffee, we got to our host’s house and ate. The food was great, and refreshingly different.
But McDonald’s influence over my evening was not over yet! Our host’s young son (a delightful boy) had a bunch of cars of all different sizes and shapes. But one stood out to me. It was bright yellow and appeared to be being driven a clown. Ronald McDonald to be precise. Stacked in it were bright yellow chips, a hamburger, and a cup with the Golden Arches emblazoned on them. Even here there was no escape from that infamous yellow M.
Its omnipresence helped me to come up with a (definitely not academic) definition of developing countries after my first visit to Cairo. A developing country is one where it is more expensive to eat in McDonald’s than it is to eat local food, whereas in a developed country, McDonald’s is cheaper than local food. So whereas in England, McDonald’s is a cheap option, in Egypt, McDonald’s holds a status such that Egyptians will actually dress up to go there, a proud father perhaps, paying for his family to engage in what I suppose could be called an American Daydream. It’s hard for us to imagine dressing up smart for McDonald’s, but because of this it helps us see the cultural crevasse that can divide even a globalised world.
I don’t want to simply use McDonald’s as an easy target (since there are no end of other valid targets). But in the same way that its logo’s prominence almost defines its successful business model, it can also form the basis of its criticism. My Third World Law almost seems like a counter to Friedman’s Golden Arches Theory of Conflict Prevention – the law (which was, I should emphasise, even tongue-in-cheek for him) that no two countries with McDonald’s in them have ever gone to war against each other. It’s not true by the way (for example, Israel’s war with Lebanon, 2006). But more importantly, whereas Friedman uses McDonald’s as a logo defining globalised business leading to globalised freedom and peace, I am using it as an example of globalised business leading to globalised divides between the developed and developing world.
You could start to defend McDonald’s and many of the Western companies in Egypt by pointing out that they go out of their way to over employ people so that wages can be spread around more, rather than being concentrated to a few lucky people. I don’t want to draw conclusions that are too swift or monotonous, but these are very significant and interesting issues! At the very least, it’s a lot of discussion for a simple geographical mistake. Food for thought I guess! I just hope it’s not fast food!
This blog will resume its normal intellectual vapidity as soon as possible.