Forbidden coffee

I don’t know what they call “Starbucks” in China. But here in Taiwan there is a 星 meaning “star,” and 巴克, which has no particular meaning but sounds like “buck.”

This odd translation is perhaps reflective of the way we exist in a forever transitional culture that takes in external trends and turns them into something familiar to locals, even if the trend is less than profound.

Within a 15-minute walking distance from my suburban Taipei apartment, there are two Starbucks, two McDonalds, at least a dozen 24-hour 7-11 or other chain brand convenient stores, and a Japanese department store Sogo. McDonalds sells pork burgers with grilled rice as substitute for buns, a meal I haven’t yet seen on American menus. The 7-11 stores sell tea-boiled eggs, a favorite hunger-stopper of mine when there isn’t time for a full meal.

Within the same distance, there are two Eslite bookstores, a local modern chain book store whose flagship is open 24 hours and has become a trendy overnight hangout place. There is also a famous Chinese breakfast resturant, selling soy milk, green onion rolls and buns to those who wish to have a traditional Chinese breakfast anytime during the 24-hour day. The night market around the corner, crowded every evening, has mini-stalls of hot and cold delicacies that my Taiwnaese roomate and I used to dream about while we were studying in an American college.

I am quite comfortable and feel privileged that I have access to the tastes of any other major city in the world. But at the same time, the local stuff is just as popular as ever, even accessibe in the foreign chain restaurants and shops. All of this has become part of the Taiwanese lifestyle, somehow integrated into our modern culture.

During my travel to foreign countries, I love trying out new tastes, and if our ambassador or representative offers to host a meal, I’ll make a request for the local food. Yet at the same time, when I walk by a Starbucks or McDonalds in a foreign land, the sense of familiarity somehow makes me feel connected to my home community in Taipei.

Once I was in Sofia, Bulgaria, and I must confess I arrived there with some unhappy prejudices because the government had given me a very hard time with the visa, and during the meetings I felt constantly harassed by an aggressive Chinese presence. Between my hotel and conference venue, the “National Palace of Culture,” there was a McDonalds. Though I almost never stop in my local McDonalds while in Taipei, the golden arches gave me an odd comfort and connectedness. It was a place I felt I knew, a place familiar. Suffering from jetlag, I went in and bought a cup of coffee. The coffee was more like a condensed espresso, bitterly strong, and the plastic cup was served only one third full, very Bulgarian.

When I read about the dispute over Starbucks in the Forbidden City of China, I was reminded of a familiar conversation several years ago in Paris, where a French man told me he found McDonalds offensive to French people. So the presence of these international chain restaurants are not an insensitivity to the Chinese, but reflective of a broader transitional culture that is raising questions of the dichotomies between the local vs. global, and traditions vs. modernity.

I’ve been to China twice, and for me as a Taiwanese, except for the common language, China is just as much as a foreign country as Korea is. I’d admire the historical landmarks in China, the magnificance of the Great Wall, just as I would the pyramids of Egypt. Oddly, I think I’d feel more familiar and connected to the Starbucks sign than the precious artifacts of the Forbidden City.

Culture is fluid and forever evolving, just like our lifestyles and identities. The way foreign brands have reconciled with local tastes in my neighborhod has created a transition and convenient link of familiariarity to lifestyles of people in other countries. And this link is made in a way that does not at all compromise the pride in my Taiwanese heritage and the love of our traditions.

2007/01/20, Bi-khim Hsiao