Love … Exciting and New
Rather than focusing on all the doom and gloom, here’s a more lighthearted story about the some of the unique cross-cultural challenges of doing business in China. For years, one of my favorite outings in Beijing has been shopping at the giant IKEA store on the northeastern outskirts of the city. Why? Because of the way Chinese consumers hang out and make themselves at home there, a phenomenon first described — hilariously — by David Pierson in the Los Angeles Times. It’s not at all unusual to see folks taking family photos in the mock living rooms, or every single display bed occupied by people naps — on my last trip, I remember seeing three little old ladies tucked comfortably into the same bed, placidly watching the other shoppers go by, with their six stockinged feet sticking out from under the covers. It’s absolutely a hoot, and should be on every tourist itinerary.
Now Laurie Burkitt of the Wall Street Journal has written a new story that offers a new twist on the Chinese love affair — quite literally — with IKEA:
At 62, Tang Yingzhuo, a retired widow looking for love, doesn’t think it is appropriate to scope out men at bars, clubs or Karaoke joints. That’s why she goes to IKEA.
The former tax-bureau worker is among the throngs of seniors who meet every week at the Swedish retailer’s cafeteria in Shanghai’s Xuhui shopping district to take a second shot at romance.
Retired and divorced chiropractor Qian Weizhong is also on the prowl. On a recent Tuesday at IKEA Mr. Qian was excited to get the number of a woman he referred to as a “nice lady.” He plans to ask her out soon, he said.
Apparently the cafeteria at IKEA, which in China serves local dishes along with the standard Swedish meatballs, has become quite the singles’ scene for China’s senior citizens. Hundreds of them show up every day, looking for love, or at least some free coffee. They’re not buying furniture, and they can be a bit of a problem:
They sit for hours in the cafeteria, leaving behind orange peels and egg shells they have picked off boiled eggs brought from home. Occasionally, security guards intervene to try to keep order . . .
Policing the freeloaders and the unruly isn’t so easy. Attempting to tell a rowdy crowd of seniors to lower their voices recently, 24-year-old security guard Li Ya says he encountered resistance. An older man who didn’t enjoy being hushed by someone 40 years his junior, says Mr. Li, once splashed scalding coffee on him. “They always argue that they have the right to do what they want here,” says Mr. Li.
The article goes on to describe various companies’ efforts to grapple with the Chinese habit of “people of all ages using big-box stores as their personal playground,” and ideally translate it into sales. Wal-mart has set up in-store “children’s camps” during school breaks, where they are “encouraged to try their hands as part-time greeters and announce deals over the broadcast system.” Apparently McDonald’s in Hong Kong is letting people get married in their stores:
One proposed feature of the ceremony: When it is time for the big kiss, the bride and groom can each chomp on the end of a french fry until their lips meet.
The whole thing reminds me of one of my favorite short stories, which I highly recommend: “After Cowboy Chicken Came to Town,” by Ha Jin (which can be found in his collection of stories published as “The Bridegroom.“) It tells the tale of what is clearly meant to be one of the first KFC’s in China, through the eyes of a typical Chinese employee. If you think what goes on at IKEA is amusing, read what happens when Cowboy Chicken’s expatriate managers offer an all-you-can-eat buffet, or try to dispose of their unordered leftovers at the end of the day.
As Homer Simpson said, “It’s funny ’cause it’s true.”
(btw, for my Chinese readers, the title of this blog post — Love, Exciting and New — comes from the theme song of the classic American TV sitcom The Love Boat. If you think I’m poking too much fun at the Chinese here, watch a couple episodes of this show, and you’ll have all the material you’ll ever need to poke fun back at Americans!)