I had been in China for about three weeks by this stage. Publicly, I would be gushing over my latest Chinese culinary indulgence. “I can survive simply on Asian food,” I would declare to anyone who would listen. China really was my foodie heaven.
That’s when I spied the golden arches.
They were slightly off in the distance, in the opposite direction to my hostel. I hesitated, looked around for anyone who might know me, and walked as fast as my little legs could carry me.
Was I a terrible person? I felt like one, hiding away in the corner and scoffing down my Big Mac. I was the only non-Chinese in the place and I felt like they were all looking at me, thinking, ‘typical’. I wanted to show them all an imaginary food passport, one which would clearly stipulate that this was the first lot of bread and potato to feature in my recent solely noodle and rice diet.
With a good dose of indigestion stemming from the speed in which I had consumed the offending burger and accompanying fries, I made for the exit and hurried off to my hostel. I was racked with guilt. Never again, I told myself.
But I would do it again. It’s not always Macca’s – I can’t even remember the last time I visited one locally – but I have visited a Pizza Hut in Nanjing, a Taco Bell in Manchester and a Papa John’s in Dubai, for example. I have never told anyone about these visits until now.
Why have I felt so terrible about occasionally indulging in fast food on my travels? It’s not the fat content – I consume too many calories to mention during my wanderings – nor is it the corporatisation and globalisation that my left wing ideals tell me to reject. No, it’s the general disdain ‘real’ travellers have for others who frequent such establishments.
When guiding, our coach would stop approximately every two hours to give passengers a chance to stretch their legs, pee and grab some food. The food is usually dreadful. Some stops – I can think of ones in the Czech Republic, Italy and the Netherlands – also feature an outlet displaying those golden arches.
Without fail, the coach would always erupt into an argument surrounding the ethics of visiting a McDonald’s when overseas. Passengers would be glared at (or worse) if they ventured inside. “They may as well have stayed at home,” they would scoff.
I find the McQuestion a funny one. Yes, I think that one of the best things about travelling is trying the amazing different cuisines out there that we just don’t really do at home. Before I left Oz five years ago, I turned my nose up at eggplant, mushrooms and tofu. The thought of duck liver and cow’s cheek made me recoil. However, if I hadn’t have tried them whilst on the road, I would have missed out on some of the best dishes of my life. I’d never tried tapas before I went to Spain, goulash before Hungary or pho prior to Vietnam. Now I think about them semi-daily. (Okay, daily. All right, sometimes hourly.)
At the same time, travelling and all its associated changes to your normal life can knock you around big time. I’m not advocating fast food for reasons of wellbeing, except for the fact that maybe I am. Walking into that McDonald’s in Guilin, I revelled in the familiarity. I pointed to my picture menu and for the first time since entering the country, ate a ‘dish’ of which I was already aware of how it was to taste. I knew the place was warm, had a clean western toilet and reliable wifi. It was the closest thing to a type of cultural embassy in which I wanted to take refuge, if only for fifteen minutes.
Am I wrong? Should I have sought out a local equivalent or bought something at the grocery store? Perhaps. But I knew that I would do it. And I’ll do it again.