McDonald’s in Korea?

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//This was a post I did for my Korean Civilization class~ After this post, I won’t use past material for this tab, to force myself to learn and reflect on what I learned.//

When we think of McDonalds, we would usually imagine a clown figure or perhaps the famous Big Mac hamburger. We usually wouldn’t associate the golden arches with imperialism or intrusion, but to Korea when McDonalds was introduced, this is how it was interpreted.

America had its age of imperialism but now it has advanced to a new, and perhaps more long lasting form of cultural and soft power imperialism. Even the people who started McDonalds in Korea didn’t realize the weight of their actions. For Koreans, a Big Mac was more than just a burger: it was an opposition to the Korean character.

Koreans always share their food. It is common to see Koreans arguing over who pays for the bill, as it is custom that one person pays for all the people invited to a meal. McDonalds and other fast food Western chains are opposites to this concept, as at these restaurants, people order for themselves and are more individualistic. This concept of being detached from other people made some Koreans feel uncomfortable and selfish for paying for themselves.

Also, McDonalds is very clearly American and this crucial fact presented competition to Koreans. For them, eating McDonalds was giving money to foreign companies rather than supporting local businesses. Confucian roots also affected how Koreans interpreted McDonalds. It is taught in Confucianism that inner peace or harmony will reflect outwardly to ultimately cosmic harmony. Therefore, it was the Korean people’s duty to support Korean goods to propagate cosmic harmony.

Beyond the cultural contexts surrounding food, there also was the issue of the ingredients of McDonalds’ food. In Korean culture, bread is a snack food and not a substantial meal. Although a burger consists of bread, meat, and vegetables, Koreans interpreted the burger as a snack rather than a legitimate meal.

The McDonald’s authorities found ways to resolve the immediate issues listed above: they made value meals to encourage Koreans to buy sets of food as real meals and they emphasized that McDonalds, though selling American food, was run by Koreans. Regardless, the root of the problems arising from the presence of McDonalds in Korea is not something that can be fixed. Koreans have their culture and history and won’t drop it for the sake of a meal. Although the younger generation is adapting more to the fast food and Western culture, there still exists the Korean mentality.

This is not to say that McDonald’s won’t flourish in Korea. But instead of conquering Korea, like other cases of imperialism, it’ll create it’s own fusion Korean McDonalds. Today, McDonald’s has spanned several countries and each is unique to its context and culture. It still carries the American flavour, but tweaked to local tastes.

I find it intriguing how the article used the phrase American cultural imperialism to describe McDonalds. It is truly a new age of imperialism, but with new rules. Rather than directly conquering an area, world powers are now flexing their soft power (food, media, entertainment) to leave a mark on different countries. And this time, they’re also more willing to bend to at least get a name in a country. Nowadays, Koreans know McDonalds and they’re not afraid as they used to be. But regardless, McDonald’s is still at it’s core American, and it’s mission to settle in Korea is complete.

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