This month, Dana Filek-Gibson promotes Frappucinos with a side of cultural exchange.
Life as an expat is an exercise in contradictions. On the one hand, I am excused every time I do something culturally out of place, like get a suntan or fold rice paper like it’s a tortilla. On the other hand, I could live to be a hundred in this city and still someone would ask me whether I know how to use chopsticks. I get the hang of some things, and not others. There are undoubtedly things we expats do (queue, cover our mouths when we cough, stop at traffic lights) that buck the trend of local culture. The upside to our status as outsiders is that we are able to pick and choose what suits us best (tiny chairs, food on the street, exposing one’s belly after a meal) and which practices we’d rather avoid (public urination, duck fetus, compulsive nose-picking).
For many among us, Starbucks was one of the things we’d elected to forget when moving to Vietnam. It follows, then, that quite a few expats were displeased to learn of its arrival in their new home. I took the announcement as an affront to the authenticity of this faraway Southeast Asian land. After all, how exotic can a place really be when there are Frappucinos available? I was not the only one who selectively forgot that I once survived on KIND bars and chai tea lattes. “How dare they?” my friends complained. “What will this do to the local coffee industry? They’re ruining Vietnam. What’s next: non-smoking sections in restaurants?” It is worth noting that this conversation probably occurred at a Highlands or a Gloria Jean’s or a heavily air-conditioned Coffee Bean.
Even now, everyone seems to have an opinion on the matter. But if your reaction falls anywhere on the spectrum from mild irritation to utter disgust, it is worth considering how much less concerned the average locals are about having a Starbucks in their country. While many expats — myself included — were busy expressing our disappointment, offense, and/or outrage, most Vietnamese were busy not caring. I broached the topic of Starbucks with my Vietnamese friends, and this is the most impassioned response I have received: “Who?”
Of course, there are valid discussions to be had about Starbucks’ place in Vietnam, but perhaps we’ve gone about this the wrong way. After all, would any among us be this up-in-arms if someone put a Pho 24 in our neighbourhood back home? I wouldn’t. I would be lining up there every day. Perhaps Starbucks is not the evil we originally perceived, but just another opportunity for cultural exchange. After all, we rave about banh mi and walk around in backpacker pants like we invented them, why not invite locals to experience a seven-syllable drink order and four hours of acoustic John Mayer songs? No one is saying it’s better or worse than a street-side cafe, but don’t we all have the right to pick and choose?
So in the interest of peacebuilding and cultural exchange, I encourage you to both welcome and protest the arrival of Starbucks in Vietnam. Let us all join hands and celebrate the rich history of local coffee culture by enjoying a Vietnamese ca phe sua da on the front steps outside of our first local Starbucks. And, later, when sweat is clinging to our brows and the smell of cigarettes and motorbike exhaust has lightened our mood, we can all walk hand-in-hand into one of the most famous coffee shops on earth and buy ourselves a Frappucino and the right to sit in the air-conditioning.