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

February 4, 2014 § 2 Comments

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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]

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Repost – Merry Christmas, Colonel Sanders-san

December 24, 2013 § 2 Comments

Here’s a repost of something I wrote back in March of 2012—it was only my fifth entry—back when I had no followers and very few readers. It’s an interesting and timely story, and helps give me a break during the busyness of the holidays. May you enjoy the blessings of Christmas, wherever you are in the world.

SONY DSCIn the early 1970s, a Christian missionary school in Tokyo was looking for turkey for Christmas dinner. Finding none, a representative contacted the local Kentucky Fried Chicken and ordered chicken instead. A KFC employee suggested the company turn the request into an ad campaign, and Japan has never been the same since. Today, KFC’s Christmas Party Barrels are so popular that sales for December 23rd, 24th, and 25th usually equal half of what is sold during a normal month, and Christmastime customers wait in long lines to pick up their orders, placed as early as October. Very few in Japan celebrate Christmas for its religious meaning, as less than 2% of Japanese even call themselves Christian. Instead, consumerism is emphasized, and the focus is on gifts, decorations . . . and chicken from the Colonel.

(Lindsay Whipp, “All Japan Wants for Christmas Is Kentucky Fried Chicken,” Financial Times, Dec. 19, 2010)

[photo: “KFC Colonel Santa” by Kleemo, used under a Creative Commons license]

From Fukushima to Costa Rica: A Rocket Scientist’s Quest for World Peace

November 8, 2013 § Leave a comment

Next month, my son Peter will graduate from Missouri Southern State University. As part of his education, this past summer he attended the Summer Peace Institute at the UN-mandated University for Peace in San José, Costa Rica. As a recipient of MSSU’s McCaleb Initiative for Peace, he reported on his experience for the university’s student-run newspaper, The Chart. Following is one of the eight articles he wrote for the paper. I will post another of his articles on Tuesday.

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Satoshi Miyatani, from Japan, takes a break from classes at this year’s UPEACE Summer Peace Institute in Costa Rica.

Most of the students at the UPEACE-Berkeley summer program came from backgrounds in subjects like peace and conflict studies, economics, politics, sociology, law and anthropology.

Satoshi Miyatani, a rocket scientist, was one of the exceptions.

A recent graduate of aerospace engineering at the University of Tokyo, Miyatani now hopes to attend graduate school at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

But why did Miyatani choose to attend a program focused on peace?

Miyatani’s reasoning goes back two years to an event that was significant for him and for Japan.

On the afternoon of March 11, 2011, a magnitude 9.0 earthquake struck off the coast of Fukushima, Japan.

Miyatani was staying at a hotel in Fukushima at the time of the earthquake.

“I have never experienced such a big earthquake,” he says. “The ground was shaking. Everything was shaking.”

Tsunami waves caused by the earthquake battered Fukushima’s coast, even reaching Miyatani’s hotel. The hotel owner drove Miyatani to safety. Thirty minutes after they left the hotel, it was destroyed by the tsunami.

“I almost lost my life,” recalls Miyatani.

For the next week, he slept on a gymnasium floor made cold by the Japanese winter and ate only dry, tasteless cookies.

Before this near-death experience, Miyatani was only interested in developing machines, as most of his fellow engineering students still are. After this experience, he wanted to help victims of natural disasters such as he had endured. He resolved to study the environment and contribute to peace by applying his specialty in aerospace engineering.

Miyatani speaks humbly about his 100-page bachelor’s thesis, which addresses his change of thinking. He describes how satellites can be used to monitor the effects of natural disasters and inform disaster response.

His thesis focuses on the use of many satellites to maximize the information gathered and minimize the time of response.

For the first portion of the UPEACE-Berkeley program, Miyatani says, “Every day I can get a new idea from the lecture.”

His favorite lecture was given by Dr. Bryan Down-Uribe about the environment and climate change. Down-Uribe employed a more scientific approach than previous lecturers, using more statistics, graphs and charts. Miyatani says he was “used to this type of lecture.”

During the field work portion of the UPEACE-Berkeley program, Miyatani went with four other students to work with an indigenous Costa Rican family in Kéköldi.

After a long bus ride toward the Caribbean side of Costa Rica, he and his group hiked an hour into the jungle to reach the research center where they stayed during the field work.

Miyatani says the group worked hard every day— digging and building trails, counting frogs and repairing a bird observation tower.

They also had no electricity during the day time, but “we could survive,” Miyatani says, chuckling.

Drawing a larger lesson from his experience in Kéköldi, Miyatani says, “In the city, there are a lot of things such as supermarkets, Internet, electricity. Everything is useful, but, actually, I don’t think we need to use it.”

Miyatani feels the tension between what he is learning in Japan and what he has learned in Costa Rica: “My major is aerospace engineering, so every day I also study about technology, but there is no technology in Kéköldi.”

“I have no idea how to apply the idea to my life. I have to think more,” he says.

While he is thinking about how to apply his experience in Costa Rica to his life, Miyatani is also planning to commemorate the experience with his work.

As a rocket scientist, Miyatani has launched a satellite into a space and talks excitedly about launching more, proudly declaring what the name of the next satellite will be: Kéköldi.

Paris: The City and the Syndrome

June 11, 2013 § 2 Comments

from Trey Ratcliff at www.stuckincustoms.com

Though I often looked for one, I finally had to admit that there could be no cure for Paris.

These are the opening words of Paula McClain’s novel, The Paris Wife. Told from the viewpoint of Ernest Hemingway’s first wife, Hadley, the book shares the story of the young couple as they dive into life in Jazz-Age Paris.

I’ve not read the book, but I’ve read the first page, on the back of the most recent issue of the travel magazine Afar (which, by the way, I purchased with frequent-flier miles). The page is part of an advertisement, displayed on a Kindle Paperwhite held by a tourist overlooking the iconic white and blue buildings of Santorini, Greece. The caption for the ad reads, “Perfect for Getaways.”

It seems that some Japanese travelers have the same view of Paris as Mrs. Hemingway: It’s a condition in need of a remedy.

Back in 2006, BBC published an oft-quoted story about a phenomenon called “Paris Syndrome.” According to the article, each year, a dozen or so Japanese tourists have a psychiatric breakdown of sorts upon visiting the French capital. First identified by Hiroaki Ota, a Japanese psychiatrist in France, the syndrome is brought about when the realities of Paris don’t match the visitors’ romanticized expectations. While some of the symptoms sound like culture shock, others, such as delusions and hallucinations, are more extreme.

While some deny the existence of an actual syndrome, BBC reports that the Japanese embassy in France has set us a 24-hour hotline to help deal with the situation.

Below is a short documentary from John Menick, Paris Syndrome (2010). It takes a more in-depth—and sometimes sceptical—look at the condition, including interviews with French psychiatric professionals. Besides Paris Syndrome, the video also touches on such topics as Stendhal Syndrome, psychiatric portraiture, and historical views of travel-related mental illnesses. It even looks at Mehran Karimi Nasseri, the inspiration for the movie The Terminal.

So . . . what is the cure for Paris? While some are searching for one, most see no need. The author Gertrude Stein, a friend of the Hemingways from their time in France, saw the City of Light as a place that nurtured her creativity. “America is my country,” she said, “and Paris is my hometown.”

(Paula McClain, The Paris Wife, New York: Ballantine, 2011; Caroline Wyatt, “‘Paris Syndrome’ Strikes Japanese,” BBC News, December 20, 2006)

[photo: “Another Summer Day in Paris,” by Trey Ratcliff at Stuck in Customs, used under a Creative Commons license]

Video Poetry

June 7, 2013 § Leave a comment

Two wordless videos

One fast

One slow

Striking

Vivid

Lyrical

One from Japan

One from India

Hayaku and

Holi

(Brad Kremer, Hayaku: A Time Lapse Journey through Japan, 2010; Jonathan Bregel and Khalid Mohtaseb, dirs., Holi, Variable, 2012)

Book a Trip to Raoul Silva’s Island Lair

November 30, 2012 § Leave a comment

While working on my post about Last Chance Harvey, I needed to find the location of a conversation between Harvey and Kate. My search not only led me to London’s Somerset House but to a slew of sites on the topic of “movie tourism,” as well, where I found that travelers can also visit the place where the wedding was filmed—Grosvenor House—and the setting for one of the couple’s walks—Belsize Park.

Now these places are impressive in their own way, but none of them is quite as fascinating as a locale in the latest James Bond film, Skyfall: the evil lair of Raoul Silva, 007’s latest nemesis. While the scenes inside Silva’s hideout were shot in a built-for-the-movie set at London’s Pinewood Studios, the long-distance shots are of a real-life place located nine miles off the coast of Japan—Hashima Island (pictured above). Not only does the island look sinister—a pile of abandoned and crumbling concrete apartment buildings jutting out of the ocean—but its backstory could supply an unsettling script for a film of its own. Clark Boyd, at PRI’s The World, writes that the island’s “true history is even creepier than you can imagine.”

Boyd goes on to give an overview of that history in this audio story (or you can read the article here).

Also, for a more in-depth treatment, including more details about life on the island, you can read Brian Burke-Gaffney’s article in the magazine Cabinet.

Hashima Island’s story in a nutshell is this:

In 1890 Mitsubishi bought the small outcropping of rock  for the coal that lay below the seabed underneath it. As coal production increased, so did the need for workers, and in 1916, the company built the first of many concrete structures to house them. In time, over 30 multi-story buildings were constructed, and in 1959 they were home to 5,259 people, including Japanese employees, their families, and forced laborers from China and Korea. Its 1,391 people per hectare (2.47 acres) in the residential area at that time is thought to be the highest population density ever recorded in the world.

Many of the people who lived on the island died there as well. Burke-Gaffney reports that by mid 1949, around 1,300 residents had lost their lives—from mining accidents, exhaustion, or malnutrition. “Still others had chosen a quicker, less gruesome death,” he writes, “by jumping over the sea-wall and trying in vain to swim to the mainland.”

In the late 1960s, petroleum replaced coal as Japan’s preferred energy source. Then, in 1974, Mitsubishi closed the mine, and all the inhabitants still there hastily left.

Following is a short documentary by Swedish filmmaker Thomas Nordanstad. In the film, Nordanstad follows Dotokou Sakamoto, a Japanese man who moved to Hashima Island with his family at the age of four, as he visits, among other places, the “hotel,” where new arrivals awaited permanent housing, his school, and the crumbling remains of his family home.

At the beginning of the documentary, Sakamoto says,

Some people say that your roots exist in the place where you were born, but that’s not the case for me. My roots are here, in this place.

And at the end, he adds,

In Japan, things are being thrown away so easily, just like that. But you can’t throw away your memories. The roots sit there, in your heart.

While the bulk of the island is closed to the public, in 2009 observation decks were opened at the island’s edge, with the boat ride from Nagasaki and a tour costing about $50.

To find the rest of the venues featured in Skyfall, go to The Worldwide Guide to Movie Locations, the self-described “ultimate travel guide to film locations around the world.” It’s a great resource that ties detailed info on places with plot points in the movie. And if you want to look up a film that’s not included there, you can try IMDb (International Movie Database). The location info there is less specific, but its movie list is much more comprehensive. (Search for “Filming Locations” on a movie’s page.)

(Clark Boyd, “The History of Hashima, the Island in Bond Film ‘Skyfall,'” PRI’s The World, November 23, 2012; Brian Burke-Gaffney, “Hashima: The Ghost Island,” Cabinet, Summer 2002)

[photos: “Nagasaki Hashima Island (端島) Gunkajima Tour” (top and bottom) by Ronald Woan, used under a Creative Commons license]

Departures and Repatriations: Crossing the Great Divide

September 14, 2012 § 3 Comments

“Never die in Taiwan.”

That’s what the poor man at the American Institute in Taiwan said. AIT serves as a de facto US embassy in Taiwan, and I was there taking care of some routine matters. Others, like the student I met who had been so excited about navigating the city in a taxi by himself that he left his backpack and passport in the cab, had more pressing issues.

The man who turned away from the window in despair, who told us all, “Never die in Taiwan,” had just presented documentation concerning his recently deceased wife. He needed to prove that she had died to show that he wasn’t trying to remove his children from the country against her wishes. This was his second or third visit, and the person behind the window was sending him back for translated copies—from Chinese to English, or from English to Chinese—or for some other paperwork that seemed impossible to obtain. The man looked so defeated. The death of a loved one overseas must truly be a distressing experience, in so many ways. I can only imagine how hard it is.

Recently I was jumping around the Web and looked up repats just to see what was out there on the repatriation process, say, for returning cross-cultural workers. One of the top sites listed was repats.com. That seemed like just what I was looking for, but the text underneath wasn’t what I expected:

Funeral Repatriations – Rapatriements funéraire – Funeraire repatriëring

So repats.com is a funeral site. That means, I thought, that repatriation must refer to sending a person’s spirit back “home,” to heaven. What an interesting use of the word. But as it turns out (as most of you probably already knew), for funeral operators, repatriation means returning the deceased’s remains to the country of origin.

Obviously, there is a lot to take care of in this kind of repatriation process: There are laws to follow, the paperwork, the physical aspect of transporting the body, the expense, the disruption of normal day-to-day life overseas, the stress and grief, and the coordination of cultural and religious customs. Avalon Repatriation Services, located in the United Kingdom, gives the following overview of some of the varied practices around the world:

  • In France for example, a body must be embalmed and placed in a wooden coffin 24 hours after death.
  • In Islamic countries, it is the widely-held belief that the deceased should be buried before sundown or within 24 hours, without embalming.
  • In the United States, embalming is common practice. In many countries—when embalming does take place—it is a qualified embalmer’s job, whereas in some countries, for example Portugal and Spain, it is against the law for anyone but a qualified doctor to undertake this procedure.
  • Those of Jewish faith believe that the body should be returned to the earth it came from and are therefore against cremation.
  • Hindus cremate their dead, believing that the burning of a dead body signifies the release of the spirit and that the flames represent Brahma, the creator.

My misunderstanding the meaning of repatriation reminds me of the Japanese film Departures, winner of the 2009 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. It tells the story of an unemployed cellist, Daigo, who answers a newspaper ad titled “Departures.” He thinks he’s applying for a travel-agency job but instead ends up taking a job as a nokanshi, someone who ceremonially prepares bodies for burial. Daigo learns the trade from Sasaki, his boss, who becomes his mentor. And Daigo learns also to overcome opposition from his family and friends and to face his own fears, finding deep meaning in his new vocation.

This is a great film. It’s been one of my family’s favorites ever since my son brought home a copy. Just listening to the theme song in the trailer reminds me of the deep emotions that are explored in the story. I think it’s about time I watched it again.

(“Catering for Different Religions,” Avalon Repatriation Services)

[photo: “Go West,” by halfrain, used under a Creative Commons license]

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