McDonald’s Restaurants, most certainly major symbols of American popular culture, are now a feature of the geographic and culinary landscape in 118 countries. In Golden Arches East: McDonald’s in East Asia, (Stanford University Press, 1997) Editor James L. Watson and his colleagues produced an anthropological study of McDonald’s that has proven highly accessible to a wide variety of audiences. The book is now used in secondary schools and universities in a number of different courses. Watson, who is Fairbank Professor of Chinese Society and Professor of Anthropology at Harvard, as well as the current President of the Association for Asian Studies, graciously agreed to discuss his book in the interview that follows. We are also pleased to include in this issue an essay by two educators on using Golden Arches East in the classroom.
Lucien: Professor Watson, please share with our readers how you initially became interested in studying McDonald’s. I suspect love of Big Macs on your part was perhaps not the root cause of your work.
James Watson: The irony is that I did not choose to study McDonald’s. My Cantonese godchildren made that choice for me—they literally dragged me to their local McDonald’s and demanded that I buy them whatever they wanted. At the time, in the early 1990s, my godchildren were aged four and six. They live in a village located in Hong Kong’s New Territories where I have been working for over thirty years. At first I tried to resist them because I wanted to take their whole family to a fancy teahouse that produces heavenly dim-sum treats that are not available in Boston. But these kids were smitten by McDonald’s and I soon realized that their infatuation reflected something important: A child-centered culture was emerging before my very eyes. Children, even those as young as three or four, were becoming knowledgeable consumers. In the past, children ate whatever their grandparents poked into them. Today village kids have money in their pockets and they command serious attention from adults. Increasingly, children decide what and where the family eats.
I am somewhat embarrassed to say, therefore, that were it not for the demands of my Cantonese godchildren I might have missed a dramatic change in the local culture. I tell my graduate students that as anthropologists we live where people live, we do what people do, and we go where people go. Today, all over the world, people are going to McDonald’s. They are also going to shopping malls, video stores, and cinemas. If we, as anthropologists, don’t start going with them we are doomed to irrelevance. People change and anthropology must change along with them. Now, whenever I travel anywhere in the world, I always make it a point to visit a local McDonald’s where I sit, eat, and watch.