67 - To Ikea

I had the excitement of going to Ikea last week. I don’t think I have ever been to an Ikea store before, so it was doubly odd to do so in Guangzhou – that’s Canton to readers older than myself.

I describe the visit not knowing what you might already know or expect. I hope the description is complete enough for you to recognise the oddities perpetrated due to being outside Europe.

The store is across the road from one of the bigger rail stations in GZ; it is a monolithic shed painted mainly blue. Inside, each floor is divided up in such a way that traversing the store can only be done by going past everything. At the end of my visit, I went too far down and reached the basement. Because the escalator was a single, down, I had to wend my way past absolutely every product in the basement so as to get to the ‘up’ route. I began to look for fire exits, wondering how one is supposed to behave in exceptional circumstances. The signs were there, but each access itself was hard to see – perhaps by colour or mild obstruction. On my next visit I began to see the clues and to find the shortcuts.

The Chinese shopper always wants to ask questions and prefers to do this rather than read any notice. Ikea’s principles conflict with this, so there are many notices explaining to visitors, in Mandarin and in English, why (i) there are few staff to ask questions of (ii) stuff is flat-packed as if it is an obsession (iii) you will collect it yourself.

The café had a queue all day.  I was in the store from 11:30 to 17:00 for various reasons. The café had seating for 100-150 and there was a queue of 20-40 at all times, with ≤5% seats free. Drinks could be filled, and refilled without charge, from a wet bar area found after the till. Seating was inadequate at all times of the day and 50% more seating would be justified. The food was probably better than I thought at the time. The queue alone drove me out of the shop near noon. My companion for the day disagreed and I was dragged back. The hunt for a seat took as long as working down the line; the aggression required to bag a seat was more than I was prepared to apply and indeed those who did bag such seats actually displaced those who could have eaten and left in the time spent in the queue. Being the sort of person who notices such things (and if I was not, in your opinion, then I am now), I spent time looking for seats that would be vacated at about the time we two had need. Once eating, I found that one policy of others seeking seats was to stand (much too) close to a selected table in an (im)patient way (im- or not probably is a matter of perspective) so as to establish a sense of a queue and to apply pressure to leave. Chinese are largely inured to this sort of thing, having no appreciable personal space, so any westerner is a target of choice [because we will move on sooner than someone who is immune to such pressures]. So observed. Carried over from the previous paragraph, the table ornaments include a polite note explaining why you will clear away your own tray – a far from normal activity in China, where it is entirely normal to leave a table space with food scattered in a way that a westerner would ascribe only to the very young. See whichever of these essays that describes eating in the canteen at Xi’an, GXYZ school.

We have, as foreigners, some externally registered expectations of facilities – there is at least one government paper indicating what is required to be provided in the employment of Foreign Experts. Yes, I know the jokes, thank you. One cannot function without FE status: it is a requirement for the essential visa; it is a pre-requisite for a residence permit; the work permit is collected on the way to achieving the FE paperwork. One’s passport may do quite a lot of travelling without you.

Those expectations would usually include a western toilet. The typical ‘better’ Chinese facility is very like the lower range of French sanitary-ware (china-ware, ha ha) – a vitreous tray of the same size as that horrid portable piss-pot found in hospital, but set into the floor. This requires you to be able to sit on your heels: that is, with your feet flat on the floor and your buttocks touching the back of your ankles. I find I am incapable of this position; my heels always come off the floor and the result is not exactly stable. This should be funny, but often it is far from that.

The task for the day was to establish a list of furniture with which to equip our dormitory rooms in the Tech where we are currently working in GZ. It soon became apparent that the two of us could speak for ourselves but not for the others involved. This caused consternation and animated discussion (a source of great embarrassment, having a vigorous conversation in public, especially if stationary) as we worked through the face-loss issues of doing the task badly (By whose perception, I wondered? Whose opinion matters here? Really?) and therefore what was achievable.

I like Ikea’s principles. I see what makes it possible to deliver such products at such prices. I don’t need repetition of principles. The principal advantages of such a store in China is that delivery is easily organised. For, dare I say it, men, this is a great shop: one can make decisions quickly and only a little experience directs the concentration to reading the right text with the right care. [Ok, it’s a chair. That price is frame and cushion. The money is in the cushion, isn’t it? So which choice? Is it available here? Decision done. Basically, I don’t much care. To put it in a woman’s terms, I really don’t care enough.]

The Chinese just don’t get it, this foreign idea. Indeed, for all I know they may think ikea = idea = foreign things. I saw the few staff in constant demand, clearly in a state of long-standing resignation that the answer to whatever question would be in front of the customer. There is a cultural problem with belief or trust or some-such: Kong Ze (Confucius) said all sorts of things about how to treat people from a long way away, but the trust of words is applied to people closest to home. Say I, whose name in Chinese might be Si Kong Ze (Confucius is dead, or Confucius No 4). Thus I might spend a long time convincing a student that their optimum university choice is to study A at B, fulfilling all their announced criteria; tomorrow they will come to school with an unshakeable choice of K at L (L = London) determined by a chance conversation with a neighbour while in the lift, based upon hearsay, and having no appreciable match to what they said to me the day before.

Back in Ikea, I observed several sets of people using the shop as a photo studio. I found one guy making an advert; I found two girls photographing each other on beds; I found two groups taking their shoots seriously with tripods, multiple shots of each pose and with prepared accessories; I found a family doing group shots in bedroom and living room sets. Judging by the staff reactions (i) no-one has thought to charge for such a service and (ii) it happens so often it is commonplace.

Chinese love a crowd. They are more comfortable in close proximity than not so. If I stopped at a product and caused my colleague to stop too, then in no time we would have another couple fingering the same item and well inside my physical comfort zone. Once four are gathered, doubling that is easy. By which time I want to move on – the crowd this formed will grow and then disperse as other attractions vie for attention. Sitting on a product (chair, bed, desk) didn’t have the same effect and the racist tendencies demonstrated around me do serve to counter the crowding impulse. Which is to say, that my differences do cause me to be generally left in a space – such as having the lift to myself, being given space on a bus or on the subway or in a shop. But not when they haven’t noticed. A crowded bus makes rush-hour in London look merely friendly. As I said to a class in Xi’an when recounting a trip on a crowded bus china-style, the last time I was sharing that much contact with a woman, we were both naked. Which is less funny if it’s over 27º and you’re very aware your armpits are level with everyone else’s face.

So the crowd in China is different from that in the west. A speeded up film of people moving around a shop or street on foot would show quite marked differences. I have written about this before and would love to experiment. I have not seen or experienced a cocktail party in China; my friends do not recognise the term nor the description. The oft-told tale that fits well here is of the northern European (say a Brit) and a Mediterranean (say Italian) at a diplomatic cocktail party. The Italian’s comfortable speaking distance is well inside the discomfort zone of the Brit, so they unconsciously shuffle across the room, as if Gerald is being pursued by Geraldo. I probably am now comfortable standing far too close to any European.

A week later we went back to Ikea with a sensible list generated from the website, complete with product numbers and stock checks. This second visit required us to find a member of staff, to re-check everything, to account for the change in total (shop prices vary and the website did not accommodate these changes although it checked stock levels correctly). Then we had two new lists; one of stuff we must collect ourselves and one of stuff that will be taken from some other storage. We filled four of those big trolleys you see in DIY warehouses. Some of the boxes were too heavy for me and too heavy for both of us (yes, really). I later re-stacked trolleys so we went down to three. Then to check out (ouch; I hope I can recover that (¥15000) from our host school) – and then to talk about delivery. This is a new sort of fun. Bear in mind that Chinese do not queue well, since one of their principles is to grab every possible personal advantage – this makes, for example, travel through security and passport control quite uncomfortable and I am now quite practised at being an American in width, a Chinese bureaucrat in obstruction and a football supporter in loudness. Much as usual, then. Any queue here shows a tendency to be more of a heap than a line.

So eventually we manage to leave our large pile of gear to be delivered the other side of the weekend and go off for fun in Hong Kong (written about in a Trail Run) with all the connotations you imagine. Late the next Monday evening a small truck arrives at our school and three guys deliver 40 or so boxes. Of course I help carry stuff up the four floors, which is appreciated – it is galling to see just how much the two lifting guys think is a reasonable amount to carry and I feel I’m being consigned to what I would expect a woman to carry. That is not a sexist remark, it shows the scale of the difference. And it turns out that their pay (they are independent of Ikea) is 10% of the sum we paid for delivery, itself paltry; they recover something like £1 per customer – but their return is independent of the distance, height or number of boxes, based only on the count of customers. So my contribution was welcome, even if I thought I was reduced to being relatively feeble.

Now for sore hands putting this all together….

DJS 20101116
And happy birthday again to Father !!

Conversation about this article revealed that I probably never went to a McDonald’s in Britain either. Here it is where I have the breakfast of choice. I came to realise that I want breakfast to be repeatable, that it should include an egg, that I can’t or won’t afford milk and cereal (not at £5-10 per packet and cow’s milk hard to procure). McDs in China is expensive, clean and the staff are amazingly cheerful. The music is naff but changes each week. Foreigners flock to them, so it is the easiest way to find fellow travellers - and they’ll talk. Locals know this happens, so they too will come in search of the foreigner. In short, then, it is an unexpected welcome whose welcome is welcome and one is Well Come in visiting.

© David Scoins 2017