The story of McDonald’s in Beijing is a little different than in Japan or Hong Kong. For starters, the first restaurant did not come for another twenty years after the McDonald’s in Japan opened. Also, the conversation turns into one concerning social space. Even truer than in Japan, Beijing consumers do not admire fast food for its taste or for the speed in which it is consumed. Yunxiang Yan (2008) studied on the one hand, how spatial context shapes consumers’ behaviors and social relations, and how, on the other hand, consumers appropriate fast-food restaurants into their own space.
Before fast food in Beijing, three levels of restaurants existed: (1) exclusive luxury hotels that served foreigners and privileged domestic guests, (2) formal restaurants that were public spaces for elites to socialize and for ordinary citizens to hold special occasion family banquets, and (3) small eateries, known as canteens, that mainly served workers that had to eat outside of their houses due to job requirements. Because of the limited assortment of restaurants, the majority of Beijing residents rarely ate outside of their homes. The earlier restaurant’s approach was focused around a mentality of feeding rather than serving. When Western fast food arrived in Beijing it was apparent their principles were much different. Consumers were able to experience a new culture symbolized by foreign food, spatial arrangements, and American-style service and social interactions. (Yan, 2008: 506-07)
The cultural message that was accompanied with eating at fast food restaurants trumped the aversion to the actual food. It was an experience, eating out at McDonalds, one in which parents were willing to spend about 1/6 of their monthly income on in order to treat the family to a meal. McDonald’s was considered quintessentially American, and thus, mothers and fathers were enthusiastic about providing their children an opportunity to observe this. Unlike local restaurants, McDonald’s expected the customer to seat themselves and to clear their trash after eating. Resident had learned these behaviors by observing foreigners’ behaviors. Yan (2008) said that informants whom he interviewed felt more “civilized” than other customers who did not dispose of their own garbage because they knew the proper behavior.
Beijing consumers thought the appearance of restaurants and the friendly service were most shocking distinctions from Chinese restaurants. Bright lights, shiny counters, lightly colored tables and chairs, stainless steel kitchenware, and most important clean bathrooms, awaited customers when they entered McDonald’s. The cheerful environment was entirely different than the traditional Chinese restaurants. Even more so, customers felt a sense of equality when being served because both the server and the servee stood during the transaction. All of these things added up to the creation of a new social space for the people of Beijing. McDonald’s became a place where teenagers, woman, and families could all go and feel comfortable eating a meal without being judge or feeling pressure to act abnormally. The restaurants changed acceptable social behaviors in Beijing but not without the residents affecting McDonald’s as an organization.
The creation of a multidimensional social space by the fast food industry has changed the demographic of consumers. Emerging from this social space are new consumer groups that utilize the restaurant in different ways. McDonald’s offers a spacious environment suitable for students to come and study for exams. Teens are found lingering around the restaurants after school socializing or in the evenings on romantic dates. Women choose McDonald’s because they take pleasure in ordering their own meals and enjoy quiet time eating alone. The efficiency of service is evidently not important to Beijing diners; the average dining time in Beijing is 25 minutes during busy hours and 51 minutes during calm periods. (Yan, 2008: 513) The climate-controlled, friendly environment encourages customers to linger. Managers in Beijing have accepted this difference in cultural inclination and have acclimated justly. They have not tried to educate consumers to accept American’s views of fast food, eating fast and leaving quickly.
The relationship between the consumer and McDonald’s in Beijing consists of compromising. Customers have adapted to the organizational cultural norms of seating themselves and clearing the tables, while McDonald’s management has accepted the residents of Beijing’s differing conception of what fast food means.
Though a fairly peaceful relationship exists between McDonald’s and the Asian nations in which it expands in, it is evident that, since its founding in the East, there have been obvious cultural changes in the populations. Whether purposely imposing or not, McDonald’s success is based largely on its ability to adjust local opinions into accepting its business model. Throughout the world various groups have formed in protest of McDonald’s and the changes the organization has on local communities around the globe. In my final post I will examine the emergence of the Slow Food movement in response to the fast pace culture McDonald’s has created.
To read about the Slow Food Movement click here!
If you missed last post, McDonald’s in Hong Kong, click here!