In this year of political shocks and ideological upheaval, I’ve realised a couple of very inane things: Subway smells the same in every country. And so do McDonald’s french fries.
Looking back, determining who belongs where has been one of the predominant political issues of 2016 and as 2017 rolls around the corner and Brexit plays out and Trump takes office, this question will continue to take up space in the political arena. But on a more individualistic level, people will have to ask themselves what makes them feel like they belong to a place – what music, food, memory, movie, book is definitional to them and what will their choices say about their national identity?
As countries close their borders down in 2017 and rid themselves of the physical presence of immigrants, what will happen to the cultural output from these communities? Will Trump’s wall be solid enough to shut out Mexican food and music along with actual human beings or will these cultural nuggets linger on, living a strange half-life of their own – which may take the shape and form of the taco bowl that Trump enjoyed earlier this year.
At this point in the year, it is hard to think of anything new to say about the decline of multiculturalism. I am just one of many who have been dismayed to find that many people in the world don’t subscribe to the liberal values that I have taken for granted. On one hand, it seems relatively easy to clamp down on visas and deport people – the refugee crisis shows it is shockingly easy to physically uproot a person. But on the other hand, I think of the musical notes from other cultures that sneak into ‘American’ music, that ‘Tex-Mex’ or ‘American-Chinese’ are distinct gastronomic categories and that McDonalds and Coca-Cola offer a consistent sense of familiarity anywhere in the world and I realise that it is impossible to fully differentiate between one cultural identity and another. Once you set out on this exercise of defining a national identity, where do you really stop – how do you rid a person of plurality?
Although this seems heartening at first, there’s a massive caveat that comes to mind almost immediately. McDonald’s is only a comforting, familiar experience everywhere because of the brand of cultural homogeneity that it has perfected. It’s the corporation that is often cited, rightfully, to make a case for the Americanisation or westernisation of the world. Curry houses in Britain may have started shutting shop – due to South Asian immigrants returning home after the ‘leave’ vote – but McDonald’s branches around the world will probably remain open because the culturally-tweaked, globalised products they offer don’t belong to any community or person in particular and so are harder to discriminate against.
The Indian McVeggie is not an age-old family recipe with immense emotional value, though ads for the company will tell you that the restaurant itself can be the venue for meaningful memories. One ad traces a couple’s relationship from being friends to dating, to married and then eventually married with kids – McDonald’s is part of their life’s narrative.
There’s nothing particularly Indian about the ad and it doesn’t fixate on the Indianised version of the menu either. The promise is so simple that it doesn’t have to be spelt out – you’re cosmopolitan and modern for associating with McDonald’s. And of course, the vegetarian options on the menu are carefully calibrated to cater to the country’s specific palette as well as dietary and financial preferences.
Global consumer brands allow us to feel cosmopolitan or like ‘global citizens’ without really surrendering our cherished cultural idiosyncrasies. But the compromise they strike create products that don’t really fit in anywhere – the McVeggie is not American, although a burger is essentially a cultural import from the US and McDonald’s is an American corporation; but nor is the McVeggie Indian, even though it is made to cater to Indian consumers’ tastes and unique to the country.
This is possibly the one form of multiculturalism that is bound to survive the ascent of nationalism in the coming year, since it offers a comfortable, if compromised, middle-ground between the global and local. You can be a ‘citizen of the world’ within the confines of your own nation.
Multinational consumer brands symbolised a borderless world and integrative globalisation but as the optimism of that perspective fades, these same brands will come to signify a different perspective on globalisation. One which emphasises the fact that borders can be rigid, not porous, and the most accessible way to be multicultural will be through culturally ambiguous products consumed within set geopolitical borders.
This isn’t really a new way of participating in the global economy, it’s what we do on a daily basis anyway. However, until now McDonald’s branches have more or less coexisted with other institutions like immigrant-run curry houses in Britain and their equivalents across the world. I’m afraid that the coming year will bring more of the former and much less of the latter.