What the Hell is “International?”

As globalization firmly takes hold in even the most remote locales, businessmen everywhere are aiming to use imported products and ideas to make money however possible.

0916_oped“So, what’s so international about this place?” I asked a receptionist at the gym in my best Chinese. The woman looked at me perplexed. I pointed to the sign behind her.

“It says that this gym is international. What’s so international about it?” She smiled and shrugged her shoulders, “I don’t know,” she offered.

Now, feeling as disoriented as she was, I simply dropped it. “Ok, I’ll take a year’s membership.”

I don’t go to that gym anymore, but that’s beside the point. In the years since that exchange, I have noticed a growing array of businesses that have begun billing themselves as international, in some way or another. Though, try as I might, I continually struggle to understand what makes the case for their international-ness (note: anyone reading this article in order to practice their English should know that this is not an actual word, but it should be).

As for restaurants, if you advertise a freakin’ NZ T-bone steak, then make sure it is a freakin’ NZ T-bone steak.

Think of the schools with no foreign teachers—probably using Chinese-English teachers—who may or may not be able to speak proper English. There are also plenty of Chinese-owned, Western-style restaurants that advertise authentic New Zealand T-Bone steaks, but more often than not, aren’t even close. I won’t even go into detail on the utter disappointment caused by those sorts of experiences!

Then there’s the obviously Chinese clothing brands with miniature replicas of the Eiffel Tower or Paris prominently displayed on the shop-front. They come complete with price tags that match the most pretentious of European clothing labels, but lack all the merit. The list goes on and on.

My question is, why?

The easy answer to understanding why these cheap copies exist is that these businesses simply intend to prey on the ignorance of hordes of locals who may not know any better. They rely on a basic ignorance and lack of international experience, while also expecting an increasingly larger population that has bank accounts full of disposable income to enjoy the finer things in life. They expect that locals will not know that gyms or any other service business that bills itself as “international” should, just maybe, have staff that can speak a little bit of English, a NZ T-Bone steak that doesn’t taste like water buffalo or employ European trends that don’t look like something my grandfather would wear.

As I was recently discussing the above points with a friend, while drinking an unfamiliar rendition of a Cafe Americano, he raised an interesting question.

What actually makes something “international?”

With schools it is easy to tell. All truly international schools like ISD, QSI, Eton House, Utahloy, etc., follow either a specialized IB program or similar curriculum from a host country different than the location of the school.

As for restaurants, if you advertise a freakin’ NZ T-bone steak, then make sure it is a freakin’ NZ T-bone steak. Similarly, go to a Chinese “Western” restaurant with a Russian buddy and order some borsch; then ask them how close it is to their mamma’s soup.

When talking about clothes, it becomes a bit more confusing as nearly everything is made in Asia. So, it seems sensible then that if the product wants to be deemed international, it’ll be made in one place and designed in a completely different place. It’s not just about geography, but perspective.

Now, before I finish this rant, there is something else that needs to be addressed. I know there will be people reading this who will question the so-called Chinese restaurants in foreign countries. Surely, these aren’t really authentically Chinese, right?

Yes, I know most of them aren’t using incredibly accurate menus, but for one, they do not try to deliberately mislead the customer—unlike the Japanese restaurant in Changping that claimed their salmon was imported from Norway—and two, most of them are at least owned or operated by actual Chinese expats.

Still, despite all my complaints, there is palpable hope. During the Euro 2016 Football Tournament, my current gym suddenly hung countless flags from countries all over the world to mark the event, which concerned me. But then—once the tournament ended—they were all taken down. Slowly, but surely, some progress is being made. So, I think I’ll keep training there for now.

Category Op-Ed