Jakarta, Indonesia: On my way to the Denpasar airport to leave Bali, I passed through the tourist hellhole of the south. I passed several McDonald’s, a couple of Burger Kings, a few KFCs – which got me to thinking.
The McDonald’s in Indonesia are often open 24 hours and they are often full. At one time the McDonald’s on Jalan Thamrin in Jakarta was the busiest, most profitable McDonald’s in the world. (It's now either the one in Moscow or one in Germany, there are arguments about this.) All ten of the busiest McDonald’s worldwide are outside the U.S. – probably all 20, maybe more.
I don’t like McDonald’s. There are very few places on the planet where I don’t feel that I can find something better, cheaper even, not too far away. But a whole lot of people love it and that’s their business and like it or not, when it shows up in a place like Indonesia it is a sign of progress. To most Indonesians those golden arches are a sign that their lives are getting better, that there might be some opportunities opening up that didn’t used to be there.
Same with KFC. I don’t understand its popularity in Indonesia – where fried chicken was invented and where within spitting distance of any given international franchise you can find better and cheaper local fried chicken. Still, I am apparently in the minority.
Does that make me part of the problem? A cultural imperialist happy to spread my Yankee crapola all over the world, destroying the local “authentic” culture through the imposition of globalization?
It would be the height of arrogance for me to deny people here something they like in the name of providing me with a more “authentic” experience of their country.
And you know, Bob Dylan had it right: “Money doesn’t talk, it swears.” Indonesians regularly vote in favor of international fast food franchises with their rupiah, and for most of them that money is harder to come by than it is for most Americans (and Western Europeans) - so those “votes” are pretty damn meaningful.
Luckily, though at times and in places more difficult to find than others, the “authentic” Indonesia is still out there to be found. Sometimes it is even right next door to a KFC or out back behind a gigantic mall. (For that matter, all these new fast food restaurants and glitzy shopping malls are pretty authentic to Indonesians. They’re part of their life, an increasingly welcome part of it.)
But if you want to find the traditional Indonesia you just have to look and not get distracted by the glow of the golden arches or by your own perspective that wants to deny other people what you already have the choice to spurn or not yourself.