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I’ve always gotten a kick out of seeing young girls hanging out of a rickshaw on their way to school with Hannah Montana backpacks over their uniforms, or watching a family strolling down Carter Road with small pink spoons dipping into a Baskin Robbins cup. The Indian interactions with American products and companies are often jarring and comforting all at once. In a foreign setting it can make you start humming “one of these things is not like the other…”

But it’s often even more interesting how lower-end American brands can become upscale here. McDonalds and KFC are ubiquitous and are often seen as a sit-down restaurant (and yes, you can get a McCurry but no beef burgers here).
So when everyone started talking about the new California Pizza Kitchen coming to town, I wanted to take a seat and watch the action. Who could resist seeing what happened when an American pizza chain decided to plant itself into a city that has it’s own odd love affair with our cheese, bread and tomato concoction?  Watching cultures collide, and having at least a small understanding of both sides of the coin, is part of the fun of being an expat.

The crowd waiting to get a table

And the collision was massive – we went for a weekend lunch day and it was packed. Every table was full and by the time we left there was a line out the door. But the most jarring piece of the puzzle, was that this American chain had an oddly wealthy clientele. The pizzas were on average around 400 to 500 rupees (or a bit more than $8 – $10). That might not sound crazy, but considering most other sit-down pizza places sell for 100 to 200 rupees, it’s a bit steep.  So it shouldn’t have been surprising to see well dressed grandmothers in pearls doting over pizza-hungry grandchildren or teenagers toting their Louis Vuitton bags – but it was such a weird disconnect. We were in California Pizza Kitchen! This just wasn’t normal.

We got to talking with one of the ‘Franchise Management Specialists,” who basically spends his life overseeing the openings of California Pizza Kitchen’s across the world (who knew that was a job?). Due to India’s heavy import taxes, they’d had to find a way to make every element in the restaurant feel authentic while being purchased locally- except the oven. Apparently no CPK pizza could be complete without its specific oven.

The team on hand had come from their California headquarters to train the Indian servers. It apparently had been tough to instill their values: don’t bring appetizers and entrees all at once. Assume people aren’t sharing all their food. Service with a smile. Could Indians really emulate Californians?

It was all such an odd pairing – sure, you could get guacamole, but it was made with the less fleshy Indian avocados that don’t taste quite right. You could certainly order a classic pizza, but there was also an option for curry pizza (really?).
I was happy when my pizza came – for just a moment it was good to step out of ‘learning and exploring’ mode and just allow myself to enjoy the familar. It’s always nice to find small oases of home in a unfamiliar place. But I like my Indian things to be Indian. The cultural collision isn’t quite as interesting as the actual culture, although it seems like the Mumbaikers around me would disagree- they want that piece of California.
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