In praise of the English spoken at Chinese McDonald’s outlets.

In case you’ve never had the experience, here’s what it’s like to walk into a Chinese McDonald’s and have the cashier assume – on the basis of your looks – that you’re not Chinese: You are greeted in English, and then handed a bi-lingual English-Chinese menu (typically kept beside the register). More likely than not, though, you won’t need to point at the pictures or the English/Chinese menu items, because, typically, the cashier has enough English to understand when you’re ordering a McChicken, a small fries, and a large Coke. In fact, in my experience at least, many Chinese McDonald’s cashiers are eager to brush aside my attempts at Chinese so as to prove that they can speak English.

This is a rather remarkable phenomenon when you think about it. After all, how many other places in the non-English speaking world, much less the non-English speaking developing world, have the luxury of being able to stash English-language speakers behind the counter at McDonald’s? Not many. Indeed, in my travels, I’ve found that English or other foreign language training is reserved for the “educated” -ie, those not destined for McDonald’s. But China, which requires English language study by all of its students (of varying quality, of course), has English-language McDonald’s cashiers aplenty – supplementing its considerable and impressive ranks of English-language service workers elsewhere in the economy.

It’s something that I’ve noticed over the last few weeks, as I traveled to several developing, and developed nations (and their respective McDonald’s restaurants – a story for another time), not one of which struck me as being as English-language friendly as China. For example, consider this Brazilian McDonald’s, visited this past weekend at a hypermart in São Paulo.

Signage aside, there was no bilingual menu, no eager English-speaking cashier. Instead, I found myself pointing at the pictures on the overhead menu, and miming the act of carrying a bag so that the cashier would know that I wanted my Salada to go. And, by and large, that’s the experience I had, two weeks ago, at a McDonald’s in the Ukraine (trust me: order the McBlintzes), where – in addition to my own troubles – I watched an American basketball player (mind you, a professional in the Ukraine) convey his order through an accompanying team assistant because the cashiers simply couldn’t get his meaning.

Now, before anyone misunderstand my meaning: I’m not advocating for English-language imperialism, or for Americans (like me) to remain linguistically oblivious when they travel abroad. Rather, I merely want to point out that – for the most part – it’s much easier for an English speaker to travel in China, than it is to travel in Japan (for starters: far more English in Chinese subway stations than Japanese ones), the Ukraine (try to find an English-language immigration officer at Lviv’s “int’l” airport), Brazil (see above), or any number of countries that are culturally, geographically, and politically closer to the Anglo-American axis. And this, in large part, is a result of China’s determination to learn and master English – a phenomenon highlighted a couple of years ago by Evan Osnos in the New Yorker:

A vast national appetite has elevated English to something more than a language: it is not simply a tool but a defining measure of life’s potential. China today is divided by class, opportunity, and power, but one of its few unifying beliefs—something shared by waiters, politicians, intellectuals, tycoons—is the power of English. Every college freshman must meet a minimal level of English comprehension, and it’s the only foreign language tested. English has become an ideology, a force strong enough to remake your résumé, attract a spouse, or catapult you out of a village. Linguists estimate the number of Chinese now studying or speaking English at between two hundred million and three hundred and fifty million, a figure that’s on the order of the population of the United States.

Just how remarkable is this phenomenon? Well, let’s put it this way: can you imagine a United States where the average McDonald’s cashier was capable of offering a greeting, a thank you, and taking a simple order in Chinese? If you can (and I can’t), then you’ve just imagined a very different United States. Now shift that expectation to China – on balance, a poorer, less educated, and more xenophobic society – and you’ve got some sense of the transformational power of this educational program over the last couple of decades. Nowhere else, in my knowledge, comes close.

13 thoughts on “In praise of the English spoken at Chinese McDonald’s outlets.

  1. So wrong on so many levels. McD’s in Brazil? I’m going to petition State to ask that your passport be revoked. Travel is wasted on you.

  2. Well, Amy, when you’ve got to go, you’ve got to go.

    Actually, it’s often interesting how McDonald’s has localized the menu. In a globalized world, one might even argue that you haven’t really seen China (or Brazil) if you’ve *avoided* multinational brands while you were there.

    As long as you didn’t order a Big Mac or something standard, I suppose …

  3. Tom – Totally agree with you on checking out the localized menus of American fast food restaurants abroad. I’ve long made a point of doing so. Alas, Brazil, wasn’t terribly interesting – there were mozzarella cheese balls in the Deluxe Salada, but that was about the extent of the localization.

  4. Spend some time outside of Shanghai and the other top tier cities and you might think about rewording your piece. and I agree with Amy’s point.

  5. Haha, loving Amy’s comment. There’s truly nothing more amusing than somebody who prances around trying to be “culturally sensetive and integrated” and ridicules others while satsifying their childish urge to be the dog’s bollocks. F**K off and get a life.

    I have to add that plenty of Subway staff in SH can take an order in English, if not much more, and this has also been the case in KFC in Wenzhoun and Dalian. As someone above said “when you gotta go, you gotta go” – happens to the best of us.

    And as Scott and Adam said, it is always interesting to check out multinats abroad; I had an amazing Teryaki burger in Yokohama McDonalds. Speaking of which, anyone tried out the new ricebox KFC you can get here in Shanghai – not bad.

  6. all due respect comma but it’s shanghai, come on. she’s second only to hong kong in terms of english-friendliness. try travelling inland a bit and get back to me. nanking, wuhan, chongqing, chengdu; all cities whose mcdonald’s employees (in my experience) need to see you point to those pictures. AND act out ‘da bao’ for that matter. nevertheless your point is not lost on me and i thoroughly enjoyed your post. high five.

  7. in response to several of the comments, and a couple of the emails: I have, in fact, traveled to all but four of China’s provinces. To be sure, English levels outside of the first and second tier cities aren’t as high. But that wasn’t my point: in China’s first-tier cities, which are populated by hundreds of millions, the English level is higher than what’s found in the first-tier cities of Brazil, Japan, Ukraine, etc. That is to say – English usage in China is deeper than in many countries in which one would expect higher levels of usage.

  8. Yeah, that’s why I go to Starbucks everywhere in China–to check out how they’ve localized the menu.
    But in the past year we’ve been to Hong Kong twice and we noticed a major change since we first started going to Hong Kong 4-5 years ago. More of the employees are comfortable in Mandarin, and there have been times when I had a better time clarifying my order in Putonghua, not English.

  9. As an american expat of long standing myself, I’ve discovered something important through your blog: that is, I’m bewildered that someone who writes so interestingly about China, recycling, etc. actually goes to McDonalds as part of a globetrotting lifestyle.

  10. I can’t help but shake my head at the people who are taking the time to lecture Mr. Minter on his decision to visit McDonald’s restaurants in various places. What do you think he is, a clueless tourist who is scared of experiencing a foreign country’s cuisine? Get a life, people!

  11. Remember that English also helps other foreigners in China communicate. In Guangzhou, for instance, English is often the only language of communication for the Africans, Eastern Europeans, and Middle Easterners who make up the overwhelming proportion of the city’s foreign community (as there are comparably fewer Americans and Western Europeans). And the fact that the writer is talking about McDonalds’ and citing his experiences in Shanghai in particular does not detract from his overall point: learning English is practically a religion in China. To consider how remarkable English in China is, flip the perspective: imagine Americans behind the counter in McDonalds’ being able to speak elementary Chinese to communicate with the hordes of foreigners from all over the world who can only use Chinese to make themselves intelligible.

  12. It’s quite remarkable. I have also seen this in another country – India. Both China & India, no. 1&2 fastest developing, have tried to make themselves english friendly.I suppose this is why they have such high multinational investments. Also a big reason that outsourcing of call centers and such is done to India. This same expereince you can also have in India due to the fact that there is also required english study (on varying levels also) growing up.

  13. The vast majority of McDonald’s workers I encounter in the U.S. are bilingual. I’m not even sure a monolingual English speaker could get a job at McDonald’s, at least not in L.A. or Dallas. No, they don’t speak Chinese (except maybe in the San Gabriel Valley), but they’re generally fluent in both English and Spanish.

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