In recent weeks, Russia has shut down a number of McDonald’s franchises, saying health inspections have revealed dangers to customers. But some observers say the move may have more to do with rising conflict with the U.S. and efforts to ramp up anti-Western sentiment.
It’s easy to view McDonald’s as a symbol of American culture. But whether that’s a good or a bad thing—and whether it’s an accurate depiction at all—can depend on where you are and who you are asking. Maoz Azaryahu, writing in Israel Studies in 2000, took McDonald’s as a symbol of changing Israeli culture, in contrast to the collectivist, pioneering spirit of the nation’s early history. “In the mid-1990s, shortly after their introduction into the Israeli market, the proliferation of the golden arches of McDonald’s epitomized the Americanization of Israel,” he wrote. For religious Israelis, the non-kosher chain restaurants represented a threat to a uniquely Jewish nation culturally independent from foreign influences. But for the secular elite, embracing American-flavored institutions, including McDonald’s, were part of becoming a modern, enlightened country free of “Jewish tribalism” and “religious fundamentalism.” Even an iconic American fast food place can become something different when it shows up in another culture. Writing in 2003 in Crossroads: An Interdisciplinary Journal of Southeast Asian Studies, Ronald A. Lukens-Bull describes a forty-foot inflatable Ronald McDonald sitting in the position of a meditating Sufi saint in downtown Jakarta.
In East Java, a decoration on display during Indonesia’s 50th anniversary celebration showed Ronald and Friends “riding a tank and waving Indonesian flags on bamboo stakes in celebration of their victory over the Dutch.” Indonesian McDonald’s restaurants sell halal meat, rice meals and a chicken porridge dish they call “McBubur Ayam.” Like other Indonesian restaurants, they cover their windows during Ramadan to obscure those breaking the religious fast. During American military actions against Muslim nations, the president of master franchise McDonalds Indonesia had store managers display pictures of him and his wife in Muslim attire and noted the need to identify the company as Indonesian, not American.
On the other hand, sometimes being American is a key marketing strategy. James L. Watson writes in a 2000 issue of Foreign Affairs that parents in Beijing see trips to McDonald’s as a way to help their children connect with the rest of the world. “To them, McDonald’s was an important stop on the way to Harvard Business School or the MIT labs,” he writes. The first McDonald’s franchise in Hong Kong began in 1975 with a similar appeal to pro-American sentiments, Watson writes. Signs were in English, signaling the chain’s status as “an outpost of American culture, offering authentic hamburgers to ‘with-it’ young people eager to forget that they lived in a tiny colony on the rim of Maoist China.” Twenty years later, the restaurant’s image had evolved. McDonald’s was firmly established among middle class customers, signs were in Mandarin, and few Hong Kong university students even realized that the brand was made in America.