How long does it take an American student to find fast food in Beijing, China? I learned the answer to that question last week, while leading a short-term study tour of the Middle Kingdom. Answer: under three hours … and that's at four in the morning.
Some 20 hours after leaving New Jersey, our group of 34 arrived at the hotel in China's capital at about 1 a.m. Less than three hours later, I found out at breakfast, three of my most enterprising pupils had discovered that McDonald's delivers, anytime, day or night. Before they were even unpacked, this trio was feasting on Big Macs and fries.
How long can American students go without a fast-food fix? I learned the answer to that question, too. While not scientifically precise, my guesstimate is that five days is around the outer limit of their endurance. By then, even my most stalwart young sojourners were questing for KFC.
To be fair to my class, Mickey D and the Colonel and all the rest of the fast-food tycoons don't depend exclusively on tourists for their global profitability. The locals love this stuff just as much as many Americans. Some anthropologist somewhere surely must have earned a Ph.D. with a dissertation on comparative fast-food culture. The Chinese, for example, seem to fancy a McChicken sandwich with Peking Duck sauce. In Paris, wine is available with your Whopper. Every nation's menu may have its tweaks. But beneath them all, the offal truth is the same.
I admit it: that's an offal pun. Yeah, the offal story broke while I was abroad. By now, if you've turned on your TV at all, you've seen that pink pudding concocted from the brains and innards of who-knows-what beasties, purified by ammonia, of all things.
In 2004 Morgan Spurlock made a killing while nearly killing himself with a movie called "Super Size Me," in which he dramatized the ill effects of living exclusively on McDonald's products for 30 days. Mickey D added salads to the menu and moved on. The offal truth won't be more than a speed bump for the fast-food giants on their way to the bank, either.
I hope my students learned a lot during our whirlwind, spring-break tour of China. One more thing that I learned: beneath our several skin colors, our hundreds of languages, and our millions of unusual customs, we are one human race united by an insatiable craving for fast food.
I admit it freely: fast food is disgusting. What was once a rare childhood treat because who among us didn't love getting a toy with their meal when they were eight years old is now, for me, relegated to the occasional ill-conceived snack after a night out at the bar. Now that I'm old enough to see fast food for what it truly is pink slime in a squashed sesame seed bun it holds appeal for me only when I'm too sauced to know the difference.
Of course, we tend to blame fast food for a plethora of health problems everything from high cholesterol to diabetes and heart disease, not to mention the so-called American obesity epidemic. In short, fast food rightly gets a very bad rap. But is it good for anything?
My brother has lived in Germany for the past several years, so I've traveled a good deal. I've been to Germany many times, along with France and Ireland, to name a few. I enjoyed every trip soaking up the different cultures, learning new customs, and yes, sampling the various cuisines traditional to each country. I've tried marzipan and bratwurst in Germany, slimy green snails in France, and a rather dubious looking gray stew in Ireland. I don't regret any of those experiences (except maybe the stew … yes, I would take back the stew if I could), but even so, I'll never forget my first night in France. Or rather, in a tiny town just outside of France.
My parents and I had been driving all day in a rented car from Hamburg after another trip to see my brother, and as night fell we searched in vain for a place to stay the night. We ended up at an airport motel, in a minuscule room with a pair of economical, though unnervingly rickety, bunk beds. Exhausted but starving, we asked the man at the front desk where we might be able to get a bite to eat. There was nothing for miles around nothing other than a Pizza Hut.
I think it was one of the most satisfying meals of my life. Because when you're an ocean away from home and you've spent all day attempting to navigate traffic circles in another language, there's something awfully comforting about a menu that's recognizable and easily deciphered. That night we feasted on a deep-dish pepperoni pizza somehow it tasted exactly the same in France as it did in America and I felt right at home again. Only the bottle of red wine served with our fast food reminded me that I was elsewhere.