Froth and steam

starbucks

In a dim corner shop, in the last years of the 1980s, the chocolates were singing.

You couldn’t hear them, of course. If you’d stood still next to the shelf of Ghost Pops and listened, all you would have heard was the arcade game in the corner going boop-boop-bang, and the black-and-white TV on the counter, where Ridge Forrester was proposing to Brooke Logan for the fourth time that month.

But the chocolates were singing all the same. Because, in my mind, they were pop stars.

I don’t know why I started associating them with the musical megastars of the time, but I did. TV Bars were Kylie Minogue, satisfying in a popped-rice sort of way. Bar Ones, relentlessly blaring their sweetness at you, were Whitney Houston. Cabrio, a mysterious nougat delight that was hard to find and impossible to define, was Prince. Tempo – nutty and prone to melting but universally adored – was Michael Jackson. And Chomps were Bles Bridges: you’d heard that people liked them, but you’d never actually met one of them in person.

I knew my pop stars and I knew my chocolates. The world made sense.

And then I ate a Snickers bar.

It came to me wrapped in a T-shirt and carefully packed at the bottom of a suitcase. It came from America. And it came in a pack of three. Looking at them, beautifully lined up, I saw the kind of ambition and ingenuity that had put humans on the moon. And when I bit into the first one, I tasted a new world.

This week I was reminded of my Snickers revelation of long ago, courtesy of a loud conversation between some pearl-clutching thought leaders.

Something terrible had happened, they murmured, alarmed. A violation. An invasion. A hate crime.

Starbucks had arrived in South Africa.

Starbucks, you will recall, is an American company that produces liquid sugar in a cup, various delicious pastries, and enormous amounts of bourgeois eye-rolling. But until that moment I hadn’t realised that they are also German stormtroopers on motorbikes.

Because that’s where the conversation went. Starbucks is a conquering power. And the South Africans who queue for their products do so not out of choice but because they have been colonised.

I must confess that I sometimes still get confused

When I was at university I heard a lot of wealthy children complaining about cultural imperialism but I was never quite sure what they meant. Why, I wondered, was it cultural imperialism when you wanted to watch an American movie, but if you read philosophy by a German translated into English, written in print invented by Romans, and wore a beret modelled after a French or Spanish design (which had been adopted by Cubans and Bolivians), you were somehow an authentic, self-made original?

It was only later that I discovered that cultural imperialism is about imbalances of power – a dominant culture squashing a smaller one. Again, though, I must confess that I sometimes still get confused. For example, the dominant culture in our local print and social media is overwhelmingly opposed to American cultural imperialism. I could be wrong, but it’s been a while since I saw a photo on Facebook of a group of people in a town square chanting “Life to America!” So if I buy a Starbucks bonbon, am I selling out or is it an act of resistance against the vast, prescriptive hegemony of the anti-American, anti-globalisation movement?

I confess that I’m ignorant about the finer points of the discourse. In fact I don’t really even know what a “discourse” is. I just know you have to say it when you find yourself trapped next to a Humanities graduate, perhaps because you were both lunging for the humus at the same time, so that they never discover that you thought a “discourse” was just a wanky word for “chatting about stuff”.

All of which is probably why I struggle to see those queues outside newly opened American stores as a sign of cultural oppression. I concede that it’s possible that some of those happy, eager faces are simply masks hiding zombie half-minds completely in thrall to the fiery, all-seeing eye of Lord Starbuck. But what if many of them are just people; eager for a small taste of something new, something foreign; to offset the endless sameness of life?

My Snickers bars in the 1980s didn’t taste better than a Tempo. The chocolate tasted like chicken and the caramel tasted like it was made by Boeing. But I didn’t care. The treat was the novelty, not the taste.

Fortunately, the conversation soon moved in a new direction. Beyoncé was about to release a new album – they all knew it was called Lemonade – and they were keen to discuss what the title meant, and how excited they were about it, and how glorious she was.

*

First published in The Times and Rand Daily Mail

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