Letters from China: In love with Ikea

In China, visitors to a local Ikea make themselves comfortable. 

Editor’s note: The Malibu Times’ resident fashion expert Andrea Park has moved to Beijing, China, and will be filing regular observations about life abroad.

I have a confession: I love going to Ikea. To most people, Ikea means crowds, stress and general inconvenience—all in the name of austere, Scandinavian furniture at rock bottom prices. But for me, Ikea is a place where I can let my mind go as I slowly walk through the windy, long route through the store, examining furniture pieces and little tchotkes. The phrase “retail therapy” was basically invented for people like myself, and new purchases give me little spurts of joy, and in Ikea, I always find things I never knew I needed until I saw them. It’s no wonder I find comfort in those sterile white walls; I even have an affinity for the admittedly rubbery Swedish meatballs. Americans may find this strange, but in China, I fit right in.

So far, in my month in Beijing, I have gone to Ikea three times. It is not conveniently located, nor is it even inexpensive compared to other furniture or housewares stores in Beijing. But in Beijing, Ikea is my slice of the west—I can get Swedish meatballs, free refills on my soda and the exact same Laiva bookshelf I owned in my New York apartment. It’s a place where I can mentally unwind.

I always thought I felt at ease in retail stores in general until I visited Beijing’s Ikea for the first time. You won’t see sweaty brows here; Beijingers know how to relax at Ikea. For example, did you know that Ikea is the perfect place to take a siesta? That’s as long as you don’t mind the bright fluorescent lights and being surrounded by strangers, that is. At the Beijing Ikea, their casa es su casa, apparently, and you’d better come early if you want to nap in a bed or recline on a couch. I have to admit that I was very impressed by this ability: Can you imagine a self-conscious American sleeping in the middle of an Ikea showroom, duvet cover pulled up to their nose?

Similarly, the Ikea cafeteria in Beijing is filled with people who are not eating to fuel up the rest of their shopping trip, but eating for enjoyment. Customers can choose between Western dishes like spaghetti bolognese and Chinese plates like stir fried tofu and vegetables; it’s common to see people sharing an absurd number of plates, so they can have the full Ikea cafeteria experience.

Ikea also seems to be a hot date spot—entrance is free, an ice cream cone only costs one kuai (the equivalent of $0.16) and there are plenty of loveseats where couples can chat and cuddle. Couples love to take photos of themselves on their smartphones sitting on a couch, standing in front of a mirror, opening a dresser door…there is no end of backdrops or props at Ikea. I’ve even seen a few men bring DSLR cameras to Ikea just to take glamour shots of their girlfriends. And watch before you decide to check out that bunk bed—there may just be a man tickling his girlfriend in there.

The residents of Beijing seem to have learned the art of maximizing their time at Ikea, and their comparatively laid-back attitude may be something Americans can learn from. But at the end of the day, the Malm chest is the same no matter where in the world the store is, and I’m sure the Ikea high dissipates quickly when customers realize they used the wrong screw four steps ago. The shared experiences of build-it-yourself frustration and lingonberry sauce are more than enough to bring the world together—and that is what marks the ingenious globalization of Ikea.