I was living in a Chinese neighborhood outside of Kuala Lumpur while doing some martial arts and filming work with my master. Mornings, I would normally take my breakfast at the Mamak, a 24-hour cafeteria, run by Muslim Indians. But the previous day, I got myself into a shouting match with a waiter and was now banned from eating there. So, unless I wanted to eat noodles or rice for breakfast, I was relegated to eating at McDonald’s.
Five thousand miles from home, I was eating at McDonald’s. This was my way of exploring local culture and cuisine. How much more American could I be?
I told Sheung Di, my Chinese friend and cameraman, “Every time I go for breakfast at McDonald’s, there’s a line out the door. It’s like trying to get into a rock concert.”
“Yes, they’re having a promotion,” he said, without a second’s hesitation. “And all of the Chinese families are going there with coupons they downloaded from the website. Looking for bargains is like a sport for us Chinese.”
The next morning, when I returned to McDonald’s, I realized what Sheung Di had said was true. All of the people in line had coupons that they had printed out. It took more than thirty minutes to finally get to the counter and place your order. During that time, the conversation revolved around these coupons.
“Are you sure you can use photocopies of the coupon?” one woman asked her friend.
“It doesn’t say we can’t,” the second woman responded. She was holding two of the photocopies like her life depended on them.
A fifty-ish, Cantonese woman in line behind me asked, “Do you have a coupon?”
“No, I guess I’m part of a small minority of people paying cash,” I joked.
“We’re all paying cash,” she quipped. “But we’re smart enough to use a coupon and get free food.”
I was about to take offense, when she asked, “Would you like a coupon?”
“Sure,” I said, getting excited. She handed me the paper and I realized why people were going nuts with these things. It was good for two free Big Breakfast sets, with any five Ringit purchase (5 Ringit = $1.60). Those sets were huge, and they cost ten Ringit each. So, for a five Ringit purchase, they got twenty Ringit of food for free.
Like I said, at first I got excited, but then the reality hit me. I don’t need two Big Breakfast sets. All I needed was my sausage McMuffin and a cup of coffee. I handed the coupon back to the lady. “Thanks, but although it’s such a great deal, I don’t see what I could do with a total of three breakfasts.”
“You could give them to me,” she said simply. I imagine that was her plan all along. “They only allow us two coupons per person,” she added. This explained why people were borrowing children to take through the line with coupons. Of course, this meant that this woman was already getting the two breakfasts, which she was forced to buy, in order to use the two coupons, so she could get the four free breakfasts. Apparently, six breakfasts wasn’t enough for her. She needed me to get her two more.
“Do you eat hash-browns?” she asked me.
“No, I don’t, but they’re part of the sausage McMuffin set,” I answered.
“You don’t have to buy that one. It’s seven Ringit. Instead, you should buy the value set, which still has the sausage McMuffin and coffee, but no hash-browns. It’s only five Ringit.”
That made sense. This woman’s greed was starting to eat at me (pardon the pun), but now she was saving me money. Maybe it was a good thing I met her.
“You sure do know a lot about McDonald’s,” I complimented her.
When I ordered my value breakfast and handed the guy the coupons, he responded, “Sorry, boss, you cannot use this coupon in connection with any other special offer. So, you have to buy the full breakfast combo, for seven Ringit, to use this coupon.”
I was already embarrassed to be part of this coupon fiasco. And this was just prolonging it. I almost told the woman to give up and let me eat in peace. Instead, however, I said, “That’s fine. Just give me the full set.”
The response of the Cantonese woman was infuriating. “Why are you requiring us to buy a full breakfast set?” she shouted at the poor worker. “It doesn’t say that on the coupon. It just says, ‘Any five Ringit purchase.’ There is no further restriction.”
Looked at from a certain angle, she was right. The coupon did say ‘Any five Ringit purchase’, but,it just didn’t feel right to argue and fight this much to gain two Ringit. The unwritten rule of coupons has always been that you can’t combine two special offers. So, I wouldn’t try to use a special promotion cheap-meal to enact a coupon for free meals. On the other hand, McDonald’s is a huge, faceless corporation. Why should I care if someone imposes on them with coupon abuse?
I guess it wasn’t really the corporation I was trying to save, but the worker. Most of the fast food workers in Malaysia are ethnic Malays who earn less in a week than I get for my daily per-dium allowance. I always feel bad for minimum-wage workers in rich neighborhoods, where they must be made acutely aware of how poor they are. Every country I go to, part of the economic analysis that I do is my “work-to-burger ratio.” This ratio asks: how many hours would a local worker have to put in, to be able to eat the product he is selling? In Thailand, for example, a Starbucks employee would have to put in five hours to drink a venti ‘coffee of the day,’ which is one of the cheapest drinks you can get. In Vietnam, a barista at Highland Coffee would have to work almost an entire eight-hour shift to drink a single café late. In Malaysia, a McDonald’s employee has to put in about three hours to buy a Big Mac meal.
Across Asia, rich people are known for treating low-level workers terribly. Singaporeans in particular have a reputation for not tipping and for being extremely demanding customers. Rich Malaysians seem to follow suit. Americans, on the other hand, in spite of all of the other accusations — that we are fat, stupid, and don’t speak foreign languages — are known for being the best tippers. That may be because most of us have stood on the other side of that counter, and slugged fast-food for peanuts. In the book, “Grinding it Out” McDonald’s founder Ray Krock said that 18% of Americans had their first job at McDonald’s. While that may seem a bit high, even if they didn’t work at McDonald’s, most Americans have worked in minimum wage or fast-food jobs while they were in high school or university.
In Asia, on the other hand, if you’re rich enough to go to university, you usually won’t work until you graduate, at which point, you will go directly into the professional job that you trained for.
I worked at McDonald’s once, back in 1986, and lasted exactly four shifts. The job was so awful, I didn’t even go back to collect my paycheck. It’s horrible, hot, sweaty, hectic work. There’s always a line out the door. You’d be surprised how many customers treated McDonald’s like a real restaurant and want special orders or weird combinations of sauces and seasonings, all of which have to be done by hand. A McDonald’s shift is incredibly taxing. Orders are constantly coming in. While you’re waiting on customers or working the till, you have multiple products cooking, all of which finish at different times. Alarms go off, and you have to drop what you’re doing, run back and pull up your fries or flip your hamburgers. Sometimes, when it was time to flip the burgers, I would see that the chicken nuggets or some other product were fifteen seconds from being finished, so I would stay there and wait. Then the manager would yell at me, “Never stand or lean. At McDonalds, there’s always work to be done. And you need to use every minute of your time.”
I guess the corporation was worried that if I waited fifteen seconds for the nuggets to come up, they wouldn’t get four-dollars-and-fifty-cents worth of work out of me every hour. Eventually, I protested by complying. “During the fifteen seconds until nuggets come up, I will go clean the parking lot,” I told the boss. I went to the broom closet, grabbed a broom, made it two steps toward the door, and the timer went off. So, I dropped my broom and ran back to pull up the nuggets.