Starbucks: Am I “Cheating?”

I felt odd this morning for some reason when DJ called me and asked where I was, because I was at Starbucks. (I have made it a conscious effort to avoid American restaurant chains most of the time while in Shanghai, but the past two Sundays I have found myself camped out at Wujiaochang with a cappuccino and my MacBook.) I suppose I felt like I was “cheating” in some way, that I was bypassing the uniquely foreign experiences that are the reason for which I came abroad. But as I looked around the whole store, I saw only Chinese customers. This made me think about what it means for something to be “American,” and furthermore, whether or not I am in fact “cheating” by dining at these type of establishments.

Starbucks is unique in that it can be considered a higher-end restaurant chain, on a similar level as the Häagen-Daz restaurants in Shanghai. It’s clientele is primarily middle to upper-middle class people who have the disposable income to spend on high priced coffee, a luxury good with relatively elastic demand. Many of the people I saw in the store had iPhones, MacBooks, or other expensive electronic devices, providing further evidence of their healthy economic standing. This reminded me a great deal of the United States in terms of Starbuck’s typical demographic.

But the store was full of Chinese customers, and I was the only foreign person there. The menu had a wide selection of teas, and baked goods included red bean scones. Yet when I approached the counter the cashier greeted my in English and took my English order with a nod of her head (I didn’t exactly know how to translate “venti cafe mocha”). And on my cup she wrote “Sir,” so that when my drink was ready the worker said, “Here you go sir, please enjoy.” I felt like my hand was being held by the Starbucks employees in a way that was sterilizing any type of genuine interaction with the Chinese. This made me think a great deal about the concept of space. When I enter a Starbucks in Shanghai, I am in both an American and Chinese space. The company is, of course, and American-based entity. But the store itself also begs to assume the identity of the physical location and surrounding language. What I concluded was that it is the identity of the subject, in this case customer, that defines the space. If a Chinese person walks into Starbucks, he can consider that a Chinese space. But as soon as I walk in a Starbucks door, I feel like I am in a (predominately) culturally American space. And I think this phenomenon is completely intentional by the Starbucks corporation. In expanding to new markets, it is a significant challenge to strike the balance between adapting to foreign cultural practices while maintaining the fundamental elements of your products or services. Starbucks has done this in a way that, as I can see, has garnered massive success. I was able to got to their store and feel like I could have been in the middle of Manhattan, while I believe the Chinese people there thought of their experience as nothing more than getting some coffee at Wujiaochang.

So am I cheating on the Chinese experience by going to Starbucks? Yes and no. Yes because the company was made in America and my intention is usually to use it as an easy, familiar alternative to traditional Chinese options. But no because, as I saw, a sizable portion of the Chinese populace is choosing to eat and drink there just as I am. But really, I should probably just stop going there in general. It’s 太贵了, anyway.