Why I chose KFC
On a recent trip to Myanmar, I was hungry. It was the first day. We had ate breakfast at the hotel, left to go see some temples, and then it was lunchtime. So, where did we go eat? KFC. Why? Well… As mentioned, I was hungry, and while my stomach was in Myanmar, my mind had missed the flight out of Newark and was still figuring out how to get there. I needed an easement into the country and culture, and the Colonel was the one who understood my needs. In my confused jet lagged mind, he was there to provide that middle point between America and Myanmar.
To see what they do the same, what they do differently, and how the tastes change between the two countries is to some degree a notable touristic experience. At least that’s what I told myself.
Myanmar as a country, according to our guide, has just started to open up to the world over the past few years. Before tourists were not allowed and those who did come in had their cellphones taken by customs upon arrival until their departing flight — that is not the case anymore. KFC was the only fast food chain I saw in Yangon.
Having heard about the restrictions, I was very interested to see what KFC would look like and be like for myself. There are two theories behind American franchise expansion:
- “The McDonalds”: adapt to the country you’re in (ie kosher hamburgers in a place like Israel).
- “The Starbucks”: always the same wherever you go.
And with that in mind we entered KFC. The music was inaudible under the thoughts racing through my mind. To say my senses were heightened as if in an adrenaline rush would be incorrect. I was hungry for food and knowledge, aware of everything around me. We were the only Americans I could detect inside. It seemed to be very popular; it was noisy, and filled with people who all seemed to be enjoying themselves.
What does this reveal about Myanmar? Do they want it because it is American, or for its taste as well being different to the norm? KFC fell into the McDonalds camp of international expansion. We had an amazing rice dish with some interesting sauce, lovely fried chicken tasting of fresh Burmese air and a few other dishes. Overall, it was a great meal and just what I needed to bring me fully into the fold.
While eating I pondered the question of what makes something American food. Not what is “authentic” or “original” but what is American food actually. When an American restaurants internationalizes to different countries with different cultures is the food still considered American? If you take out the fact that KFC is an American company, where does that leave us? Many cultures have fried chicken dishes, by no means is it an original idea. Besides, America is just a melting pot of different regional foods each influenced by the ancestry of that region. Take away all the branding and I would have thought it just to be a hip fast food Burmese chain.
Existentially I wondered what this moment said about me? While I steadfastly refuse to eat fast food back home, here I am in another country eating at one of the big four food franchises. Am I a classic American tourist? A naive American resistant to new things? The whole meal was about 18 US dollars and this is the 21st century, so maybe I’m just on a budget? I resolved the matter with this thought: who doesn’t want a taste of home sometimes. So, I enjoyed the meal, moved on, and afterwards only ate Burmese foods. Now back home, whenever I past a KFC I always think back to this moment of cultural exploration with a smile.
Burmese KFC forever!
Disclaimer: After this meal all we ate was Burmese food. It was amazing. Anything I am saying here about Myanmar or international expansion theories could be wrong.