Doing the Culture Slide: Living with the Confusing Effects of Globalization

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Donald McDonald at an iCon’Chicken event in Japan

The culture slide. It’s not a dance for expats—though sometimes it may feel like it.

Culture slide is the name I’ve given to the confusion and shifts in thinking brought about by globalization.

It’s when your kids grow up in Taipei and think that Giordano clothing stores must be from Italy (they’re actually from Hong Kong) and they must have outlets in the US (they don’t). Likewise, Napoli sounds Italian, but the pizza chain is Taiwanese. Then there’s NET (from Taiwan), Fnac (from France), and B&Q (from the UK). And as much as they may feel like GAP, Best Buy, and Home Depot, the kids didn’t find any of them when they traveled to the US.

It cuts the other way, too. Back in the States, we think we should be able to order corn soup and extra-spicy extra-crispy chicken at KFC. . . and tuna and peas should be available as toppings at Pizza Hut. And we’re pleasantly surprised to find out that IKEA and Yoshinoya are in the good ol’ US of A, too—even if they haven’t made it to our part of the country yet.

That last part reminds me of a story attributed to Den Fujita, founder of McDonald’s in Japan. In Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands, Martin Roll writes about Fujita 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.’” Maybe you’ve heard that story before, but that time it was a Japanese boy in Florida or a Japanese girl in Los Angeles or a French girl in Times Square or a European boy or a little boy from Indonesia. It’s all so confusing.

Donald McDonald

Ahhh, McDonald’s, the king of globalization, and the instigator of so much culture slide.

Not only does McDonald’s localize their menus wherever they go—which might make Germans think that all the world’s restaurants have McCurrywurst—but they’re selections also cross borders in some fairly strange ways. A couple years ago, Germany’s McDonald’s introduced bubble tea, a drink with chewy tapioca balls that was invented in Taiwan. Here’s the commercial:

As others have pointed out, why is the actor yelling, “Bubblezzaaiii”? Is he trying to sound Japanese?

So that brings us back to Japan, the country with the second most McDonald’s restaurants, next to the US. Fujita brought “Donald McDonald” (it’s easier to pronounce that way) to his country in 1971, writes John Love in McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, with the idea that the restaurants would have to look “100 percent Japanese.” Love quotes Fujita as saying, “If I insisted that this was something that came from America, the Japanese would say, ‘This is American, and we don’t like it because we don’t like Americans.'” It seems that in Fujita’s eyes, they didn’t disdain all things Western, as he’s also credited in Love’s book with telling reporters,

The reason Japanese people are so short and have yellow skins is because they have eaten nothing but fish and rice for two thousand years. If we eat McDonald’s hamburgers and potatoes for a thousand years, we will become taller, our skin will become white, and our hair blond.

It will be some time before that can be proven or disproven, but it didn’t take nearly as long for McDonald’s in Japan to warm up to its American roots. Right now it’s in the middle of a campaign with throwback menus featuring “American Vintage” food from the ’50s, ’70s, and ’80s—or at least it features what some in Japan think is vintage American food. The offerings include a burger with two beef patties, an egg, and mashed potatoes between the buns (’50s), “Hot & Groovy” chicken sandwiches topped with salsa (’70s), and sandwiches with the addition of BBQ sauce (’80s).

Now that’s the way, uh-huh, uh-huh, I like it, uh-huh, uh-huh.

Sing Along with Me: “Baseball, Hot Dogs . . .”

I’m just glad that here in the US, we’ve got a pretty good handle on who we are and what is ours. We know that McDonald’s is a genuine American export, even if the menu changes around the globe. We also know that no matter how much the world tilts on its cultural axis, we’ll always be able to count on things like baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Remember that chorus from the Chevy commercial in 1975?

To review, that’s baseball (where all the balls used in the Major Leagues are made in Costa Rica), hot dogs (which originated in Germany), apple pie (first made in England), and Chevrolet (which is the third-best-selling auto brand in the US, behind Toyota).

In 2006, Chevrolet came out with a new version of their song, once again advertising America’s “favorite brand.” The chorus was updated with several new versions, such as “stolen bases, goat-cheese pizza, bottled water, and Chevrolet.” The commercial ended with the tagline “The world has changed. But the love affair continues.”

I can’t attest to the love affair, but, boy, the world sure has changed.

Step, two, three, four. Doing the culture slide.

(Martin Roll, Asian Brand Strategy: How Asia Builds Strong Brands, New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006; John F. Love, McDonald’s: Behind the Arches, New York: Bantam, 1995; Michelle Lynn Dinh, “McDonald’s Japan Serving ‘American Vintage’ Burgers Starting This January,” RocketNews24, December 28, 2013)

[photo: “iCon’ Chiken FES._064,” by TAKA@P.P.R.S, used under a Creative Commons license]

Anne Frank: The Immeasurable Value of a Red-Plaid Diary

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If Anne Frank hadn’t died in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp in 1945 and had gone on to survive the normal maladies of life, she would have turned 84 on June 12 last week.

It was on her 13th birthday, 71 years ago, that she received the gift of a red-plaid autograph book and began using it as a diary. The first words she wrote were,

I hope I will be able to confide everything to you, as I have never been able to confide in anyone, and I hope you will be a great source of comfort and support.

She then continued to chronicle her life as a young German-born Jewish girl living in Amsterdam under the tyranny of German occupation, as she and her family hid from the Nazis in a set of secret rooms. After two years, in 1944, they were discovered and deported to Auschwitz.

In describing the role of her diary, Anne is also defining the roles of a good listener: A rare confidant who values acceptance over judgment (realizing there will be time for editing and feedback later). A safe friend who reflects back what is heard, allowing the speaker to work through her problems rather than forcing quick solutions. A concerned companion who offers silence—like blank pages—to be filled with another’s valuable stories. An empathetic advocate not afraid to hear raw emotions and honest truth.

May we all be givers of that kind of comfort and support. May we share the qualities of Anne’s red-plaid diary. May we be that kind of gift to someone who needs to be heard.

(Anne Frank, Trans. Susan Massotty, The Diary of a Young Girl, Eds. Otto H. Frank and Mirjam Pressler, New York: Everyman’s, 2010)
[photo: “Anne Frank Diary at Anne Frank Museum in Berlin,” by Heather Cowper, used under a Creative Commons license]

An Adult Cross-Cultural Kid Creates “Home” in the “World’s Smallest House,” and You Can Too

When he was a child, Van Bo Le-Mentzel’s family relocated as refugees from Laos to Germany. Now an architect, he is redefining home.

“All my life,” Le-Mentzel tells CNN, “I was confronted with the question, What is home? Where do I belong to? Where is my home base? And where do I want to settle?”

One of his answers is his creation, the “one square meter house.” With it, he says, “I can settle wherever I want, because this is the one square meter that nobody is allowed to touch. It’s mine.”

Not only does he want do-it-yourselfers to build their own One SQM Houses, he also envisions them placed in public places in urban areas, each available as “one square meter of freedom,” a place to calm down, concentrate, pray, cry, or “whatever.”

Le-Mentzel is giving away plans for constructing his “world’s smallest house” (which, when completed costs about $300) at Hartz IV Möbel. The site also offers instructions on several other DIY projects, including the Berliner Hocker (Berlin Stool), shown in the video below. It’s a stackable modular bookshelf (a frugal man’s BrickBox?) that, with it’s asymmetrical design, can also serve as a desk, end table, and chair—I think he’s sitting on one inside his house in the video above.

Here’s to creativity spurred on by a cross-cultural life.

(Doug Gross, “Architect Designs ‘World’s Smallest House,'” CNN, July 25)

Books in Their Natural Habitats

When we were in Taipei, one of our favorite trips was to visit the huge Page One bookstore at the base of the world’s tallest building, Taipei 101. Time moves on . . . Taipei 101 is now the second-tallest building, Page One has been downsized—and we don’t live there anymore. Oh well.

If you like books, and the places where they reside, Emily Temple at Flavorwire has served up some great photos of libraries and bookstores around the world. Books haven’t gone out of style yet. Here’s hoping they never do. These are some amazing places:

For the next collection of photos, I suggest the biggest and most cluttered used-book stores in the world. Any nominations?

By the way, did you know that today the US is celebrating World Book Night? Here, world means “the US, Britain, Germany, and Ireland.” Night means “day” and “afternoon” and “evening.” And book actually means “book,” as volunteers in the US are giving away 500,000 paperbacks (in Great Britain, they’re handing out 1 million). Anna Quindlen, World Book Night honorary chairwoman, says the event is “like an intellectual Halloween, only better. . . . We’re giving out books, not just Mars bars.”

(Bob Minzesheimer, “World Book Night Celebrates Reading with Paperback Handouts,” USA Today, April 22, 2012)

[photo: “Books,” by Brenda Clarke, used under a Creative Commons license]