Thoughts on cultural imperialism

Last year, my home city, Lahore, Pakistan, witnessed a new phenomenon: McDonald’s. For well over a year, people had been whispering incessantly about the new phenomenon. Those in the know were hip: “Oh, I know the new owner of McDonald’s, just was at his party last night,” a calculated tidbit to make you popular amongst your friends.

I myself watched the proceedings with wry amusement, laughing at my “provincial” friends (those who were studying in Pakistan instead of America or England). I did feel a slight pang of pain when I realized that, had I not come to America for my higher education, I myself would have been one of the people eagerly awaiting the opening of a new McDonald’s.

Well, McDonald’s did open, and on opening day there were so many people at the door that they broke down the door. The euphoria, predictably, was short-lived. People complained that Mc Donald’s only served “burgers and fries.” Also, “their burgers are so-so…” Well, “What did you expect?” I asked a few of my friends. “You know, something different,” was a standard response.

Meanwhile, the British Council was getting worried. They instituted seminars on global cultural imperialism and the necessity of preserving one’s culture and heritage…read, the Raj. The Goethe Institute simply closed down its office in Pakistan, due to lack of funding, the French Center scaled down its operations for some time, also citing lack of funding. Meanwhile, the American Center was going stronger than ever. Only the British instituted any sort of fight against the creeping American influence. Right now they have the edge. In Pakistan, we call ’em chips, not fries.

The slow spread of American culture abroad is not just limited to food. This summer I went bowling, the latest fad floating around town. The bowling alley is expensive by Pakistani standards and only the very rich can afford to go to these new establishments. Or you could be like me, take a credit card, use it abroad, return here and work to pay off your summer expenses. Since a dollar is worth 50 Pakistani rupees, it works out well. This way you can enjoy yourself extensively. Anyway, the overcrowded bowling alley becomes a great celebrity hangout.

There are many who charge that the mushrooming of McDonald’s and Taco Bells all over the world is an unhealthy sign (I believe Williamstown itself would be a great example of that). The cultural flow is not all one way. The KFC, McDonald’s and Pizza Hut restaurants abroad have developed special recipes to cater to local tastes. I am happy that there is at least some sense of adaptability to the local culture.

Going to New York City, I can eat at one of any number of Indian restaurants (incidentally, most of them are owned by Bangladeshis). Unfortunately, many restaurants mellow down their spices to cater to local American taste. So ever time I put in an order I always holler out “extra hot.” Since each restaurant has its own policy on how hot “normal” restaurant fare is, at times I get loaded with more spices than I can handle. Not that I mind that much. I stayed on campus during spring break and was cooking with my friends (in four hour marathons) and they were laughing at my desire to pour paprika into every dish possible.

Much of my rant there has been about food. I was surprised when the dining hall first served “Indian” food on campus. They were serving (and still do) rice and daals. Unfortunately, what they serve here as rice and daals similar to something called “Khichri” back home. Khichri is served to sick people, but it is something like porridge here.

I only shudder to think of the day we will have an Indian fast food chain in America. More “Khichri” please?

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