First Impressions: The Rise of Commercial Western Influence in China

The beauty, cuisine, and the sheer size of the homogenous population in Beijing have left many tourists blown away by its dissimilarity to the Western world. Prior to my arrival in Beijing, I had heard so many examples of these differences and perhaps it was the ultra-alertness and expectations I had of this alien environment that made China’s embrace of Western ways a complete surprise to me. Coming to China has been somewhat of a shock to me, not because of the complete culture change that I was expecting, but because of the surprisingly large Western influence in China.

As a Brit, I am more than familiar with a cup of tea. I would wager everything I own on being able to find it at any café and supermarket up and down the UK. You can imagine then, my huge surprise upon arriving at Beijing Capital Airport – thirsty and in serious need of a caffeine boost following an 11-hour flight – at being met not with a steaming cup of jasmine, oolong or green tea, but a filter coffee from a huge Starbucks in the centre of the ground floor. As I wandered around the terminal, I was unsettled by my discovery of Colonel Sanders’ and Ronald McDonald’s familiar faces, gesturing eagerly towards hamburgers and lumps of breaded chicken. Where were the cartoon dragons and cheery pandas, tempting the general public with mountains of plump dumplings or stacks of tasty noodles? Having spent a few weeks in the city with friendly, knowledgeable locals, both where I’m living and where I’m working, I feel better equipped to answer this question.

Starbucks coffee is found all over Beijing

If I may generalise, where Western customs are modern and forward-thinking, Chinese society is more rooted in tradition and thus stays fairly static in comparison. As foreigners started to enter China in the 70s, the country experienced the customs of unfamiliar cultures in detail for the first time. Roll forward to the present day and with a historically high number of Americans living here (roughly 110,000), it’s only natural to see a more commercialized Western influence in China.

The Chinese perception is that local Chinese goods are often untested and less reliable than Western products, so the interest in the growth of Western influence in China has as much to do with product quality as it does with their country of origin. This isn’t to say that quality Chinese manufacturers do not exist; far from it. In fact, many of these Western companies have their products made by trusted manufacturers in China. But you need to know where to look. Most Western companies offer affordable, tested, well-built, lasting goods and Chinese consumers want the best – why take the risk and look elsewhere?

Naturally, Western companies have become synonymous with high quality and China’s burgeoning middle class go to great lengths to emulate their Western counterparts, adopting and welcoming many Western chains in the process. Look at KFC. China’s first KFC opened here in Beijing 25 years ago, well before Starbucks arrived on the scene. Nowadays, as I’ve experienced firsthand, KFC’s are hard to get away from. There are over 3000 outlets across China and they are not a one-off. In addition, US chart music blasts through shopping complexes and markets are flooded with Western brand counterfeits. There’s even a Subway sandwich franchise on the Great Wall of China Tour!

Subway sandwiches at the Great Wall?

It would be a gross exaggeration to suggest that markets, small restaurants and tea shops are disappearing from Beijing altogether. I have eaten, and eaten well, for 15 Yuan (roughly $2.50 USD) at the same restaurant in Shuangjing most weekdays for the duration of my stay and I have yet to find anything in the entire city that comes close to rivalling the taste of their steamed dumplings. However, this typically Chinese, homely eating experience is becoming increasingly difficult to find. As Western foods become more common, menus are freshly printed to accommodate the additions of kĕlè (cola), kāfēi (coffee), pài (pie), bĭsà (pizza) and hànbăo (hamburger). For better or for worse, the transition from markets to malls, from tea to coffee, and from family-run hole-in-the-wall restaurants to McDonalds, Pizza Hut and KFC is impossible to ignore as Western influence catches the Eastern eye. Clearly, I will have to travel farther than the reach of my train line to feel the full force of this culture shock and experience the continued growth of Western influence in China!

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