HANGZHOU, China - In new surroundings, the familiar can be especially welcome. Compared to the U.S., many things in China are different - to begin with, the language, food, and many customs. Chopsticks are used instead of forks and knives. Young children wear pants with slits in the back in place of diapers. And as many people get around on electric scooters as in cars.
When so much is different, it can be gratifying to find familiar foods, places, and brands. Fortunately for expats, Chinese people have a great interest in things foreign, which means that places such as Starbucks, Subway, and H&M can be found throughout China. Chinese professionals like to meet their friends at Starbucks, and the coffee shop is even a popular date spot (perhaps because many items sold at Starbucks cost more in China than in the U.S.). Subway restaurants in China are decorated similarly and serve the same menu as in the U.S. I order the same turkey sub on honey oat in Hangzhou as I would in Escanaba. And as I would in Boston, I can shop at H&M and Zara.
Some Western restaurants adapt their products for their Chinese customers. KFC has been particularly effective at this, and their success can be seen by the fact that there are KFCs in 650 Chinese cities and a new restaurant opening every 18 hours. But going to KFC in China is not so much like going home: KFCs in China are known for their dark-meat chicken, soybean milk, egg tarts, and fried dough sticks. Other brands that are mid-range in the U.S. have up-market appeal (and often prices) in China, such as Haagen-Dazs and Pizza Hut. McDonalds, as in most countries around the world, is a popular place to go for a hamburger and French fries.
Cities like Beijing and Shanghai are international to the extent that they have multiple American sports bars and Indian buffets and import-oriented grocery stores stocked with Baked Lays, macaroni and cheese, and Splenda. But familiarity comes at a price - I've paid as much as $15 for a box of my favorite cereal. Fortunately, local Chinese grocery stores stock Chinese-market versions of familiar products like Dove chocolate, Skippy peanut butter, and Lays potato chips at reasonable prices. You'd have to go to an expat-oriented grocery store to find sour cream and onion flavored potato chips, though - Chinese-market Lays potato chips come in flavors such as "American Classic," blueberry, and hot and sour fish soup.
Sometimes I speak wistfully to other expats of wanting to see "real China" or to do "real" Chinese things. It can be hard to believe that I am living in a foreign country when I have the option of eating at a Mexican restaurant, using Pantene Pro-V shampoo, or buying a package of M&Ms at 7-Eleven. But plenty of Chinese enjoy drinking coffee at Starbucks or watching movies like "Inception" at the movie theater, making the concept of "real" China and whatever its opposite would be called seem misplaced. It is important, of course, to spend time exploring a foreign culture, and there are things to do or see in China that are unique to the country and its people. An expat would be ill served spending all of his or her time at international-standard hotels or foreigner-oriented shopping centers.
But at the same time, places that might be expected to be familiar to Americans can still seem different in China. Starbucks, for instance,
sells moon cakes as well as lattes, and Western movies run with Chinese subtitles at the bottom of the screen. It may seem like a cop-out to move to a new country and eat at Papa John's, but I've come to find that even the familiar can seem unfamiliar in new surroundings and that ordering from a menu that serves shrimp as well as pepperoni-topped pizza is experience illustrative of the ways in which the U.S. and China can be both similar to and different from one another.
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Brittney Moraski, daughter of Robert and Bethany Moraski of Bark River, graduated from Bark River-Harris High School in 2005. She graduated from Harvard with a degree in American history and literature in 2009. In February 2010, Brittney moved to Shenzhen, China, to work with Chinese students applying to U.S. universities. In July 2010, she moved to Hangzhou, China, to work as a program coordinator and to continue working with Chinese students. She plans to return to the U.S. this summer. You can follow her blog at www.brittneymoraski.com.