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Photo: Stéfan

Real travelers don’t eat at McDonald’s. They grub on local delicacies at dirty tuck-aways, uncover worldly truths under the influence of homebrewed liquor, and rack up serious traveling cred in the process. They don’t eat at Pizza Hut, they don’t buy from Starbucks, and they most definitely do not frequent KFC.

I enjoy exploring culinary frontiers around the world, but I’ve also eaten at McDonald’s abroad. So to all the “real” travelers out there, what does that make me?

On Tuanjiahu Lu, where I lived in Beijing, I bought an ice cream cone from a KFC down the street almost every evening for nearly three months. I was on a first-name basis with the regular cashier (she even stopped shoving the English picture menu at me after two months). The interaction consisted of meaningful eye contact, exact change, and an oftentimes generous swirl of manufactured frozen non-dairy. It was a habit that bordered on obsession, but they were tiny cones of joy in the humidity of summer.

When I once admitted my daily KFC routine to another traveler, he took that as permission to lecture me on the importance of integration. From him, I “learned” that I should be traveling more vibrantly, experiencing foreign lifestyles more authentically, and rejecting anything that was not representative of local culture.

In the States, I never go to KFC. My stint with Colonel Sanders in China was an entirely new exposure, led by a love of sugar. Most other times, I did eat local food, experiment with Beijing flavor, and experience the various visceral reactions brought on by ingesting what I still refer to as pork skin Jell-O. I felt worse having to make these claims in my defense than admitting to the alleged travel crime. When all was said and done, I just wanted a damn ice cream cone in a land of little dairy.

I had only just met this guy. He had no real notion of my travel habits, nor I of his. And still, there we were: me the ignorant traveler, and him tsk-ing his disapproval. What might have bonded us — our concurrent time, location, and questing — was actually dividing us.

During my travels, I found this to be a common interaction. I witnessed similar standoff experiences frequently, both as a participant and in observation. Whether others had traveled longer, farther, harder. And yet instead of sharing diplomatically, many appeared almost aggressive in voicing the validity of their own experience and assumptions in comparison to another’s.

It seemed to boil down to the belief that one traveler’s knowledge, experience, or opinion could supersede another. What I heard from others was, “you’re doing it wrong.”

This kind of travel bullying promotes negativity, which seems to go against what many of us aspire to find: exposure to and acceptance of different cultures and societies. Real travelers don’t eat at McDonald’s, and other such snap judgments, don’t play fairly with the endless forms of exploration and travel. People who are traveling are travelers, in the purest sense of the word. Where an individual begins and where they will end up aren’t always obvious in brief interactions at hostels or train stations.

So much more can be learned by taking the time to listen to and acknowledge individual experiences rather than queuing up for combat. As you want your own adventures appreciated and accepted, appreciate and accept others’. Strive for kindness. Other travelers have incredible stories to share; be a positive, and you may contribute to them.

Travel Illusion

 

About The Author

Claire Murdough

Claire lived in Beijing for six months, teaching English, before deciding to act as any good bandit would and head South. There, she was fortunate enough to travel through areas of Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand. She even managed to squeeze in visits to Japan and South Korea before heading homeward to hike and explore more of her native country. Claire blogs here.

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  • Scott Hartman

    I was pretty much aiming at the same “target” in my last piece for Matador – i.e., “Real-Authentic-Travelers” (capital “T”)… I’ve both met met ‘em and been ‘em :) (to some degree or another). After several decades of this, I decided that – for myself – I would travel as I did, and leave the naming/defining/pigeon-holing to others… spend my time Being both who I am and where I was… :)

    • Claire Murdough

      Lovely and perfect way to take on the challenge!

  • Katka Lapelosová

    I make it a point to visit at least one McDonalds in every country. Not because I don’t want to eat the local food, but because McDonalds is different in every place and their menus are often reflections of the country’s culture. For example, there are vegetarian McDonalds’ in India. And in the Czech Republic, you can get a can of beer with your happy meal. I think it’s fascinating how other places interpret this seemingly American enterprise and celebrate their own culture albeit in an unconventional way. It’s not about where/what you eat, it’s about WHY.

    • Przemysław Robert Wilk

      I think they call it Even-happier Meal in Czech Republic. ;)

    • Przemysław Robert Wilk

      I think they call it Even-happier Meal in Czech Republic. ;)

    • Beth Kovars

      Exactly! They’re not the same everywhere. Here in Chile, they have avocado options for everything, all year round.

    • Beth Kovars

      Exactly! They’re not the same everywhere. Here in Chile, they have avocado options for everything, all year round.

    • Katka Lapelosová

      I HAVE TO GO TO THE CHILEAN MCDONALDS!!!

    • Claire Murdough

      Katka Lapelosová Completely agree… the WHY is such an important component! I also love reading the unique offerings in each country.

    • Jeff Cusack

      I do this too! It always leads to interesting results, and I enjoyed finding out that even within the UK there are small-but-noticeable changes in how their McDonalds do things (e.g. England uses back bacon, Northern Ireland uses American bacon, etc). It’s a great way to compare how cultures syncretize with the McDonald’s template.

    • Katka Lapelosová

      Yes I LOVE UK McDonalds! I was talking to someone who said there’s a rule about sourcing the beef from farms within 100 miles or so? Super cool in my book, and you can definitely taste the difference

    • Krys C Wanders

      I do exactly the same. McSpicy Paneer in India is pretty much the best thing ever. It was also, somewhat sadly, one of the spiciest meals I could get, as it was one of the only restaurants I went to in India that didn’t tone down the spice for the ‘white chick’.

    • Krys C Wanders

      I do exactly the same. McSpicy Paneer in India is pretty much the best thing ever. It was also, somewhat sadly, one of the spiciest meals I could get, as it was one of the only restaurants I went to in India that didn’t tone down the spice for the ‘white chick’.

  • Anonymous

    But I learn a whole other culture, just as authentic, elbow-deep in Koreans families on an average Sunday at the local McD’s. On the flip side, I was once taken to authentic (and overpriced) coffee house by my Egyptian host, and people-watched other foreigners.

  • Candice Walsh

    Hold up…KFC has ice-cream?

    • Claire Murdough

      Sure hope so… otherwise I was eating a very cold, and very sweet, and very soft chicken wing :)

  • Perpetual Passenger

    I’ve always found this particular topic really fascinating. I am actually an American expat living in Paris, and experience a lot of the same “you’re doing it wrong” vibes about either my travels or my expat experiences. For example, I eat Subway for lunch almost once a week in Paris. Regardless of whether or not I ate Subway in the US, what gets me is this: if the locals I’m integrating with are going to Subway for lunch and invite me to come along, am I supposed to say no because it’s not a French chain in origin? The fact is, THAT these establishments exist IS in itself a form of integration, and frequenting one is very often just doing what the locals do. Using Paris as another example… most people I know don’t spend their free time hanging out at any of the major landmarks like the Eiffel Tower or Montmartre. So I guess any traveler who does that is “wrong,” right? My feeling is that everyone is free to explore the world in their own way. Travel and let travel. :)

    • Hapto McGee

      I think the trick, (at least in mid-east and eastern countries) is to find out when they are taking you there as a kindness to allow you experience something from home (being offered decade old peanut butter in Indonesia), curious and want your guidance as to what might be best on the menu as a method of reducing risk, or, do they want to show off as international (as seen in Turkish teenagers taking the American boys out drinking) Or maybe, French Subway makes some really amazing french bread and has sandwiches with awesome brie?

      Maybe try asking your lunchtime compatriots, if they actually think that Subway has the best sandwiches/price/decor/experience/etc (go by whatever metric is of value to you/them). I’d be really curious to hear why they go, how often they repeatedly go (vs you repeating with others) and what drives that weekly level of consistency of experience.

      • Ary Yogeswary

        Wait? What? Do we even have peanut butter in Indonesia?? :D :D :D

        On my husband’s first visit to Bali I had to take him to western restaurants for simple reason: I am not sure how strong his stomach is with spices of Indonesia. I managed to build his tolerance though and soon I was feeding him Indonesian food all the time (even though one time he relapsed and ask for pancakes. Sigh…).

        Anyway, from my take I would probably take a foreigner to a fast food restaurant in Bali because it is safer for them. But having said that, if I ever met a first-time Indonesian in US I’d probably also offered fast food as again it would be easier on their stomach and on their budget.

  • Maddie Gressel

    Love this! and totally agree. Why shouldn’t we be walking BigMac indices? It’s interesting too.

  • The Paper Planes Blog

    I fully agree in trying to experience as much of where you’re visiting as possible – whether that’s sights, ceremonies, shopping or food. At the same time, I would never judge someone visiting the US from another country if they wanted something that tasted like home or some type of comfort food, so why are some people so critical about it when the tables are turned?

  • Samantha Martin

    Your closing line gives a striking alternative to the better-than-thou traveler’s approach: “Strive for kindness. Other travelers have incredible stories to share; be a positive, and you may contribute to them.” Great read.

  • Doug Walsh

    So glad someone had the, umm, courage might be too strong a word, but the nerve to say this aloud. There is absolutely nothing wrong with venturing into a neon-lit fast-food mega-chain while overseas, either for curiosity or just to simply take a break from eating local. I’m not suggesting that it was the highlight of the trip or the thing I remember most vividly, but I am certainly glad that I strolled into a McDonalds in Kyoto, Japan for an egg McMuffin that actually looked exactly as it does on the tv commercials. And my wife and I are thrilled we happened upon a Krispy Kreme in Seoul, where we scoffed down a half dozen of the most bizarre flavor combinations I’ve ever imagined.

    What the travel snobs tend to ignore is that just because these corporate entities may be American in origin, their place in the foreign land is part of that society’s reality. For example, these days, to find the REAL cafe experience in Vienna, Austria, you had better put the Starbucks near Stephansplatz on your checklist and not just the Cafe Hawelkas of the world because the former is where you’ll find all of the locals.

    • Robert Iasillo

      When we were in college I read a book called “the McDonaldization of America” now it really is global. Suburban sprawl and franchises.

    • Doug Walsh

      Step off any highway exit in this country and it looks exactly the same. There’s only a few places left where you can truly escape the ubiquitous franchises. Happy to live in one of them.

  • Simeon Peter Birt Davies

    Is it ok to eat at McDonald’s if you’re a traveller in America? If you’re not a foodie traveller you’re only eating to stay alive so do it wherever you want

  • Liesbet Collaert

    Living fulltime on a sailboat in the tropics, without a freezer, I truly enjoy a soft serve ice cream whenever I find a McDonalds on shore! It is cheap and such a spoil… And I don’t feel guilty about it at all!

  • Andrew Tiberius Short

    After spending four months in India, Sri Lanka felt like India lite. Walking down the Galle Road I spotted a McDonalds, the thought of getting a Bic Mac after such a long time was simply irresistible. I also noticed the regional variations on the menu, which I’ve forgotten.

    It was quite a comfort to know what I was going to get, a not have to think for a few seconds. Sure that evening I found an amazing restaurant that served hoppers, but maccies was quick and easy, there were also a ton of locals in there so I still got to observe.

    On KFC in China, I could not believe how many there were, and after playing the hit and hope game on other menus (point to something and hope it’s not dog), KFC was something I knew what I would get.

    We can be these amazing know-it all types all the time.

    Nice article.

  • Craig K. Sauers

    Great article. I think the longer you stay in one place, the more opaque the meaning of the word traveler becomes. It seems to me that you had a life in Beijing, and that you were a relatively permanent member of society there. With stability comes rituals and routines and the comfort of having a home. On the other hand, the word traveler expresses a sense of impermanence. There is a difference between eating at KFC when you are passing through and having a cup of ice cream as a part of your routine in a place that you call home.

  • Mona Richardson

    I don’t eat meat, fish or chicken. I found it easier to visit Mikey D’s and purchase a Veggie Burger. I lived out of the US for over 6 years and traveled to different countries. I’ve seen more than the average person. So if people don’t like me going to McDonald’s then they don’t have to go with me.

    • ender797

      That’s cool, now you can be judged for being a silly vegetarian as well as doing travel wrong.

  • Mona Richardson

    I don’t eat meat, fish or chicken. I found it easier to visit Mikey D’s and purchase a Veggie Burger. I lived out of the US for over 6 years and traveled to different countries. I’ve seen more than the average person. So if people don’t like me going to McDonald’s then they don’t have to go with me.

  • Hapto McGee

    Go to McDonalds — once, have the experience, and then move on to others — in some respects, it IS a version of local cuisine.

    What I noticed in my experience in India is that I would never go to walmart, or the mall when I am in the USA. But in India, it was one of the few places I could turn off my brain, because I knew how it operated. I go in, things are visible on shelves, clearly communicated with prices on the menu — I didn’t have to haggle, fuss, things were well lit, clean, there were generators, organized with globalized product placement in mind, and things were simple, because they were more familiar. — And so while I think that this well meaning “local fetishist” might have poorly constructed the point — the truth is, that often frequenting globalized places as a visitor is a common function of culture shock. The reality you know and default to, is not where you are. Your brain needs a vacation. And that’s cool. But when your brain “needs a vacation” more and more, its time to evaluate how you are adapting, and reflect on what is going on, that points to a need that can be addressed.

    Of course, there is the part of it that is social change. Everytime your privileged self walks into an Indian McDonalds/Walmart/xInternational Brandx, you tell 100 Indian teenagers that “this is the good life” and that “they can’t create it on their own or do it in their own way.” — And so, I guess the point is, don’t let your cultural discomfort, create an attitude or atmosphere where locals are made to feel badly about things that can’t have or can’t afford, or that they will have to trade their precious culture to be like you.

    I believe it is this awareness, effort and flexibilty that makes someone “a real traveler” — because they are living IN the country they are, not living IN a facsimile of their home culture in a new place.

  • Jonathon Engels

    Great article, Claire. Hate McDs, KFC, and Starbucks, but I love your point. I’m always turned off by the traveler’s pissing contest that sometimes happens. As well, it’s foolish not to recognize that these fast food joints, however some may feel about them, are very much engrained in cultures all over the place now.

  • Jonathon Engels

    Great article, Claire. Hate McDs, KFC, and Starbucks, but I love your point. I’m always turned off by the traveler’s pissing contest that sometimes happens. As well, it’s foolish not to recognize that these fast food joints, however some may feel about them, are very much engrained in cultures all over the place now.

  • Paige Soucie

    Hey Claire! This is such a relevent article to my experiences as well. Ironically, during my year in Spain, I frequented KFC for late night munchies! But I do think the tendency to say others are doing it “wrong” among travelers is very common, and I must say I’ve been guilty of it from time to time. I think it comes from the desire to experience as much as possible, and wanting other people to do that as well. What’s important is to understand that everyone is different and has a different objective for their travels. Once we all understand that, everyone can get the most out of their experience and learn from each other. This is definitely something I’m still working on – but I think I’m getting closer!

  • David Machen Woodward

    The first time I saw a McDonald’s overseas, my companion and i were feeling a bit tired of all the variety and wonderful local foods. We went in – once – and discovered it tasted exactly the same as at home. And that they allowed dogs inside. Ah, Vienna! So shœn!

    • David C Petite

      i thought someone was not on FB this month?

  • Edward Fairs

    Great article, really enjoyed it. If you’ve not already, take a look at ‘The Art of Vagabonding’ by Rolf Potts – he too has some interesting things to say about the arrogant, “you’re doing it wrong” attitude to travel.

  • Jane Finn

    I have been fortunate that the majority of people I have met travelling are open to sharing ideas, information, tips and experiences in nonjudgmental way. Those who are quick to criticize often lose out on the opportunity to learn more and make a new friend even if only for a short period of time. Over the years I’ve learned that everyone has a story and often it pays to just listen and file away the detail for another day. Like the author typically I try to immerse myself in local traditions and savour the local cuisine but when I was in India and ended up with a full blown case of “Delhi Belly” it was a more worldly traveller than I that advised hitting the local McDonald’s for ice cream. Did the trick and it was a whole lot more flavourful and enriching than a vial of pills. Like I said, everyone has a story. Don’t be so quick or vain to think you know all the answers!

  • Terry Dip – Author

    I once remarked to a fellow traveler that the mountains in Europe are scrawny compared to what other continents offered. He set me straight by telling me about the time he and a friend hiked in the Himalayas. His friend observed, “This looks just like the Swiss Alps.” Twice as high but not necessarily more beautiful.

  • Jeff Fielhauer

    I ate Mexican food in Milan. Quite a different take than the American version. Also, McDonalds in Italy serves good coffee.

  • nava

    i used to frequent a KFC in Thailand because they only employ special staff
    that communicate via sign language. initially i had to point and hope they understood. however i kept going back to learn how to order KFC via the sign language visual aid. i was finally able to order my KFC snack plate using sign language on the 3rd day. Huzza!!! :D

  • Ary Yogeswary

    Love, love, love this. Even my American husband would complained if I tentatively asked to sample fast food in US, stating that I should have higher standard than that since I am from the exotic country where the food is deliciously laden with spices. FYI, even the same fast food company tasted different between 2 countries. So go ahead, indulge yourself in your own country’s food once in a while as long as you brave yourself to sample some of the local food too.

  • Holly Lindsey

    Love this article, very humble and sincere!

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