Imagine you can slurp a spicy, mouth-watering noodle bowl on a rainy night.
Even when it is instant, thanks to the King of Noodles (they even have a noodle museum in Yokohama).
Japanese, Korean, Chinese, Thailand and Vietnamese; all love this staple.
Take the Korean and Vietnamese samples.
Both are known for North and South.
Both seem to have become what they fought against (Korean industrial might resembles Japan’s rising sun in the 80’s, while post-war Vietnam is defining its multi-polar identity i.e. Chinese, Franco-Russian, or APEC).
These emerging blocks interact and influence one another: young Vietnamese love Korean soaps and stars (Rain), while the Korean invest heavily in Vietnam’s young workforce (who might not endorse the 55-hr work ethic, due to the lingering French laissez-faire 35-hr work week, with coffee and cigarette breaks).
When these cultures export themselves, they stake out block by block, with the Korean districts in Wilshire District (LA) and Garden Grove (OC); similar pattern emerges as the Vietnamese found work in Silicon Valley or Camp Pendleton near Little Saigon enclave.
The threat that ties all these disparage cultures (island-apart, literally) is the string noodle, originated in pre-Marco Polo China.
Even Samsung started out as a noodle company.
The Asian retail gal might be in suit, in compliance with industrial codes, but at lunch time, reverts back to her larger cultural codes (segregated, slurping and spicy).
Those culture groups now come face to face with modernity, under the disguise of free trade. Samsung or Sony? Toyota or Tata? Coke or Pepsi (wherever there is Pepsi, there is music, but not “the real thing”).
I used to work on the same team with my dear Korean colleague, and our markets were literally side-by-side (geographically, but culturally apart, just like Tijuana and San Diego).
Companies which try to expand to Asian markets need to understand these deep divides, the same as found in Europe or Latin America.
At least, shrewd observers can count on a set of common denominators i.e. food, fun and festivities.
Cultures are moving targets. But underneath, there are forces at work . The average person on the street just know they have changed, slowly, to becoming what their parents and grandparents had once detested (leaving the local village for a global one).
The collective self is giving way to the individual self (see Last Train Home, where inter-generational conflict was played out on their annual journey back to the village).
Consequently, you can take any of the above folks out of the noodle shop, but you can’t take the noodle away from them. Not on a cold day, or rainy day.
That’s what triggered the invention of instant ramen. Our noodle King saw a need (why all these people have to stand in the rain, waiting their turn to order noodle). That solution has been the key to unlock a kingdom, where modernity (speed, efficiency and technology – food processing) was married to tradition (childhood memory, communal activity and uncompromising taste). It’s all in the spices. At least, it was one of the triggers for Columbus to set sail and discover a rounded Earth. The end of all journeys it seems, is to come home and learn to know the place for the first time. That place, for a lot of people, has noodle waiting albeit in instant packages.