There’s a large rectangular table in the back of the Starbucks near Tor Road in Kobe, Japan. I’m at one of the small round tables up front, the same ones that you’d find in Starbucks from Seattle to Jakarta. Six businessmen, each in his elementally Japanese black suit and white shirt, chat over coffee at the big table. They look comfortably alert. A business meeting. They talk shop.
A week ago I sat down to lunch in Yangon at a roadside teashop. There were businessmen next to us. They wore longyi, Burmese sarongs, and long-sleeve button-down white shirts. The tables at Burmese teashops are very low – about half the height of the small round Starbucks table that I’m typing on now. Each table gets a pitcher of tea and a platter of steamed and raw green vegetables and a saucer of thick, brownish opaque Burmese fish sauce. The veggies are for dunking. The men sip and dunk, sip and dunk. They talk shop.
It was recently announced that the White House will end the sanctions that for decades have excluded Myanmar from the world economic system. An authentic Frappuccino (yes, capital F, Word just autocorrected my attempt at lowercase) can’t be had in Yangon for any price – yet.
There’s a tiny teashop in the basement of the building adjacent to this Starbucks. It’s called Tea Room Mahisa, or Mahisa Suramardini. I walked past it a few minutes ago and wondered, “Can I use my laptop in there? They might encourage a digital-free environment…” Unsure, I went to Starbucks. It was comfortable. I knew that computers were allowed.
Culture and corporatism are not antithetical – they can coexist, and do in Japan better than any other place I know. Japanese 7-Elevens scream local: there’s manga and Japanese fashion magazines up front, all the Japanese beers (Suntory Premium Malts!) in the back wall cooler, and pork mayo, cod roe, and natto onigiri near the register. Japanese Starbucks, though, are all but identical to their American brethren. As an authentic vehicle of American culture, Starbucks fails. It would be one thing if the world-dominating American food and beverage outlets served mint juleps and crawfish etouffee, or queso and IPA, or an Old Bay clambake and cranberry juice. But as is, Starbucks and KFC homogenize more than they communicate.
When I walked passed Tea Room Mahisa fifteen minutes ago, I leaned on the crutch of familiarity. It’s an antisocial tendency. I could have found something new. I could have asked if computers were allowed. But I found Starbucks and a medium (ya know, Grande) mocha instead. In Myanmar, there are no crutches. You drink the thick, dark milk tea that’s just ever so slightly coagulated, or you go without. An immersive culture is one without escape hatches.
Soon, Myanmar will have crutches, too, everywhere. Good for Myanmar. Open is better than closed. But I hope that Western investment and the impending flood of convenience stores and fast food outlets leave room for teatime.
p.s. I went to Tea Room Mahisa after I finished my mocha. They welcome laptops.