The familiar words of Joan Osborne’s “What if God Were One of Us?” wafted out of the lounge when we returned from a long day of touring supplier factories near Shanghai China. It was hot, sticky, and thousands of miles from home, yet the song’s plea was familiar. It also ignited an interesting discussion over dinner as to whether this was a sign of globalization or cultural imperialism.
This hotel was affiliated with an American chain but there was not a single Westerner on the staff as far as we could see. The Tuesday lounge crowd looked very international and both the female and male singers stuck to covers of popular American songs. And by popular I mean international popularity; the audience seemed very familiar with the playlist. Someone in our group commented that his Chinese relatives sang along without really understanding the lyrics, much like American children learn French folk songs in grade school.
This still did not answer the basic question; I come down on the globalization side and base that on two “American” foods: pizza and chop suey. Neither is truly “native” to their supposed counties of origin. Pizza was even on the breakfast buffet in the Sozhou hotel, although the Chinese version is only remotely similar to that available here in the states. In Brazil pizza is also readily available — often with fried egg, corn, or peas as a topping.
My hosts asked if I ate Chinese food at home, perhaps because my complete inability to use chopsticks was so amusing. I admitted to getting carryout at least once per week. They asked what the dishes were and about rolled on the floor laughing when I said #5 and #7. After describing what #5 & #7 were, they insisted it was not really Chinese food at all. No fortune cookies in China, either.
So while it is unlikely that Golden Panda will ever hit it big in China, KFC is doing tremendous volume. Their version menu is somewhat recognizable — we ate lunch there one day at the request of a Hong King-born associate who was missing the cherry pie. Learning that no cherries are used in making said cherry pie, or being told that adults simply do not buy that item, did not diminish his pleasure at enjoying an old favorite.
That is how I felt about hearing Ms. Osborne’s song that Tuesday night. Now if you really want a controversy, think about the practice of every female Chinese woman we met having to adopt a Western name for use in correspondence. Is that imperialistic?