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Coffee Break, McChina Style
Most of the foreigners travel to China not to make it like their home, but to experience the rich culture, the beautiful sights, and the warm, fascinating people. As a matter of fact, they usually get exactly what they came for, and a whole lot more. But once in a while it's "just easy" to sit at a table at McDonald's, to pretend for just a few moments that they're not so far away from home.

I have recently adopted one rule to regulate my life - never say never.

At some point, usually when you're young, you adopt a set of routines as to how you'll live your life. But for me, nearing the two-month mark of a six-month stay in China, I'm lamenting on how far I have deviated from that initial set of guidelines.

I am sitting in front of a cup of the cheapest coffee in the city of Chongqing. It is hot, and strong, and tastes wonderful to me, mixed with a packet of powdered cream and a whole lot of sugar. I'll while away the afternoon with this cup of luxury, scribbling in my journal and catching glimpses of the people who float in and out of the door.

My, how my standards have changed.

The venue for this particular anecdote is not the dim, sequestered comfort of some urban coffee bar, it's the conspicuous bright yellow and red blaze of a Chongqing McDonald's. I'll try my best not to offend, but back home in the United States, this would have been the last place I would have chosen to spend the afternoon. But as most travellers know, things change when you are away from home. You find yourself doing things you never thought you'd do.

I have pushed myself to new limits in many ways in my time in China. I have ridden a noisy, claptrap bus for an entire grueling day to see some temples, then gotten back on the hated bus the very next morning to go back to the city. I have patiently ignored the stares of countless who marvel at me, the blonde foreigner, eating in the local noodle shop.

But somehow, being in a Mcdonald's in Chongqing (that looks exactly the same as those in the West) offers some new level of obscurity. I suppose, if I wanted to make this stay in China a "total cultural experience," I could just give up the coffee habit, but there are times when I just need it.

And I guess I'm not alone. Across the expanse of the restaurant, which is equipped with enough lights to illuminate a football stadium, two foreigners are ducking to a back corner, trays in hand. I slide in next to them at the shiny-new blue table and ask them what they're doing here. Of course, they think I mean "what are you doing in China," and giggle when I correct myself and say "No, I mean do you eat here at McDonald's often?"

I admit, it comes out sounding like some pick-up line gone askew. (In the US, people sometimes try to start a conversation with a stranger by saying, "Do you come here often?") But eventually I come around to explaining that I'm doing a little research on the topic, and just want to know.

They're both in their mid-30s, in baggy travelling clothes that look like they've been worn way too long. The man has a southern accent and the woman is from New York.

"We love Chinese food," she says. "But once in a while we're willing to spend a little bit more, to eat something different."

"It's like coming to your local bar I guess," the guy says. "You don't have to worry about what to order, because you already know what they've got."

"It's just easy," the woman adds.

I take a sip of my large coffee and grin. "Yeah," I say. "I know exactly what you mean."

Contrary to popular belief, many Americans, including myself, spend little time in "fast food" restaurants in our home country. We don't eat just hamburgers and French fries, and everything we do eat is not accompanied by packets of ketchup. In fact, for many of us, fast food places are the last place we would think of hiding out for the afternoon.

Most of us travel to China not to make it like our home, but to experience the rich culture, the beautiful sights, and the warm, fascinating people. We usually get exactly what we came for, and a whole lot more. But once in a while it's "just easy" to sit at a table at McDonald's, to pretend for just a few moments that we're not so far away from home.

The article is written by Nicole VulcanI from the United States.

(China Daily June 12, 2002)

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