Saturday, July 14, 2007

Ikea? In China? You Betcha!

Yesterday Eric and I braved the Chinese railroads (after our last train ride in a developing country, we travel on rails with great trepidation) in search of a very exotic destination: Ikea. Now, the great thing about Ikea is that is exactly the same no matter where you go. It is cheap, well designed, fun, colorful and modern (though quite overwhelming at first). It is Swedish, and as long as you are in that big blue and yellow warehouse, you are too. The story in here lies in the journey there.

It wasn’t just a stroll up the block. I was poking around on this great ex-pat website we discovered and someone mentioned that the solution to our rock hard mattress woes was just a simple trip to Ikea. Ikea? There’s an Ikea here? I was overcome. I mean really, I adore China, but this is too much. Not only was there an Ikea, we had our choice of two locations because we are smack in the middle of the one in Hong Kong and the one in Guangzhou. Our friendly ex-pats directed us to take the subway to the end of the line and then board a passenger train. In an hour we would find ourselves in the East train station, with the Ikea nearby.

Sounds simple enough, but, considering that we don’t speak the language very well, and certainly can’t read any of the signs, it became a major undertaking. We set aside a whole day to accomplish the trip. I have a new understanding for what it must be like to be illiterate. You have to carefully observe other people and imitate them. You can rely on your past experiences and make educated guesses, but inevitably, you sometimes guess wrong. Even something as simple as buying train tickets from an automated machine becomes a Herculean endeavor.

It is swelteringly hot, there is a line behind me of anxious Chinese passengers. The train leaves every fifteen minutes and everyone behind me wants to be on that train. They are all staring at me, and elbowing each other to get to the front first. (The line is more suggestion than a hard rule here. It really is every man for him self and if the other guy gets there first, well, then he is going next. No fairness to it, but eventually you learn to get your elbows out and get in there too.)

Anyway, I’m flustered and sweating and trying to find a way to switch the instructions to English, and it becomes clear that the mob behind me hasn’t got the patience for my lollygagging. So I start guessing. Some of the choices are obvious, like ticket time and date and destination. But some are less clear. There are two quantity buttons at the bottom of the screen. Well, I know that I need two tickets and that there are often classes on trains, but I can’t tell which is which. So I select 2 in both columns. The screen flashes the RMB sign and numbers so I start sliding money into the slot. And it keeps spitting it back out, either because it is fake money (not uncommon here) or because I am inserting it incorrectly. The mob behind me is getting irritable, I can feel them wanting to grab the money out of my hands and toss me out of the “line”. At last, receipts and tickets are spitting out of the machine, coins are flying everywhere like I just won on a nickel slot in Vegas and I’m dropping things and mumbling “Toi bu chi, Toi bu chi”. (excuse me)

Then, I’m out of line and Eric looks at me expectantly and then looks at the tickets I’m clutching and says “How many tickets did you buy?” So after a lot of deduction we decided that I accidentally bought two adult seats and two children’s seats. I consider that an $8 “You don’t know mandarin” tax.

But we made it there, had some Swedish meatballs, bought a lamp, bulletin board, pillow shams, lingon berry jam and of course, some of those fantastic Anna’s gingersnaps (my all time favorite). We laughed about coming all the way to China to visit an Ikea (two Americans from Minnesota of Swedish, Norwegian and German ancestry visiting a giant Swedish mega store in the middle of China is not quite irony, but it certainly is odd.) We went home totally exhausted with the effort. Another thrilling Friday night in China for the Kazana family!

1 comment:

Anonymous said...


A very amusing story. I have heard it said that in China, lines do not get longer - they get wider.

Daddy G

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