Given the almost unpredictable nature of Chinese small caps, and the complexities of global economics, I can see how investors might shy away from international stocks. Even the hint of bad news can send a stock tumbling. That shyness is often a shame, though. Investing abroad can bring home generous returns and greatly reduce your overall portfolio risk.

However, I'd suggest that newbie global investors start a little closer to home.

Rookies, start here
If you're new to international investing, multinational companies based in the U.S. make a great place to start. You'll get the global exposure and growth potential of a foreign stock, all wrapped in a familiar package. Find a company or industry you're familiar with, and read up on its international operations -- annual reports and conference calls are great for this. Even if you decide the company isn't for you, you'll gain a better understanding of new markets.

I've listed two of my favorite domestic multinational companies below. They're not formal recommendations, although both hold spots in my portfolio. Instead, consider them good places to start your own research.

The surprising global growth stock
Here at home, Yum! Brands (NYSE: YUM) doesn't spark too much excitement. It's hard to see any of its three major brands -- Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, and KFC -- experiencing any explosive growth in the near future. However, in China, it's a different story.

KFC is the fastest growing quick-service food chain in the country, with more than 3,300 locations. That's about three times the number of McDonald's (NYSE: MCD) outlets China currently hosts.

Yum! plans to eventually open 20,000 stores in the country, but they won't all be KFC; I'm not sure the global chicken supply could handle it. Pizza Hut operates a respectable 531 sit-down restaurants and 120 delivery units in China. Yum! has also branched into serving more non-Western food. It's currently testing East Dawning -- a fast-food chain I imagine is similar to Panda Express, except with actual Chinese food. In addition, Yum! recently purchased the Mongolian hot pot chain Little Sheep.

The top dog in cigarettes
I've written about Philip Morris International (NYSE: PM) before. Since then, Fool expert columnist Morgan Housel named the world's largest publicly traded tobacco company an incredible dividend stock. If you missed both pieces, here's a quick recap.

Altria Group (NYSE: MO) spun off PMI in 2008 to separate its domestic and international business. Thanks to its massive portfolio of global and local brands, it holds a 16% market share of the international cigarette market. Its next largest competitor, British American Tobacco (NYSE: BTI), holds 13%.

PMI also illustrates how a company's global exposure can help protect your portfolio. During the first quarter of this year, poor economic conditions and higher taxes in Europe pushed down Philip Morris' shipment volume in the region 7.3% year over year. However, the company's overall revenue increased 4.5% to $6.8 billion, because its shipment in volume in Asia grew 14% in the same period. Now that's what I call ultimate global diversification.

Foolish takeaway
Although I like what these stocks have done for my portfolio, I value them more for what I learned about foreign markets through researching them. Thanks to the time I've spent reading about Yum! Brands, I have a better understanding of another Chinese Szechuan-style fast food chain, Country Style Cooking. Since its operations resemble Yum's, and they both compete in the same industry, knowing one company helps me get a handle on the other. I'll let you know when I've got a firm opinion on Country Style.

Sometimes, it's just easier to start sifting through financial statements from here at home, and gradually work your way abroad. If you're ready to set out on the path toward global investing, get started by adding Yum! Brands and Phillip Morris International to your watchlist, so that you can keep tabs on all of their latest news.

Fool contributor Patrick Martin owns shares of Yum! Brands, Phillip Morris International, and Altria.You can follow him on twitter @TMFpcmart03. The Motley Fool owns shares of Philip Morris International, Altria Group, and Yum! Brands. Motley Fool newsletter services have recommended buying shares of Philip Morris International and McDonald's. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.