Shopping at IKEA and the Emergence of the Chinese Middle Class

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The Kids at IKEA

The Kids at IKEA

The last few days we’ve done a few fun things with the kids: we visited a of couple temple fairs, where they got all sorts of stuffed animals and ninja weapons, and we went to Tiananmen and the Forbidden City. So, yesterday, we decided that we would take it easy. Pam and I thought that we could just go out to IKEA, grab some lunch there (we’ve had trouble finding hot-dogs the kids like and we knew they would enjoy eating one there), and buy a few household items we still need, particularly a crib for Isabel, who has been relegated since we came to Beijing to sleeping in her stroller (and in our walk-in closet!). When discussing going to IKEA, we had no idea of what was in store for us. What we expected to be an easy and fast experience turned out to be a 5 hour ordeal, which we spent mainly trying to navigate the store shoulder-to-shoulder in the company of what felt like 100,000 Beijing residents (I am exaggerating, it was probably more like 80,000). I have never seen a store so crowded in my whole life (see images below if you do not believe me). Note to self: never go to a place like IKEA during the biggest holiday of the year, when millions of Chinese are on vacation and have time to do a shopping trip with the family…

The place was bustling with young couples and whole families (including grandparents and grandchildren), shopping for a kitchen, a living room, or a TRÅDIG bowl. It was quite interesting to see how people would not only look at the furniture, but would seriously try it. We saw families sleeping on the various beds (there was a very cute father and son sleeping together in one of the beds while the mother was staring at her iPhone), and having drinks and snacks in what could be (for quite an inexpensive price) their new living room.

What was really striking was the undeniable emergence of a powerful Chinese middle class (you can also read the recent Economist article for a less rosy, more complex picture) with enough disposable income that allows them to shop at places like Wal-Mart and IKEA, symbols of a new China that is looking towards the future without completely losing its own identity (those stores may be foreign owned, but what they sell and, most importantly, how they sell it is still defined by a Chinese cultural framework).

It is also interesting to see how China and India have taken different approaches to dealing with international corporations. China is embracing them, even if it imposes upon the corporations significant restrictions that assures strong government oversight (remember Google?!). In contrast, India is fearful, afraid that the introduction of those corporations (like Wal-Mart and IKEA) would mean a loss of economic independence as well as a loss of cultural identity (although there are exceptions).

Sorry Isabel, your crib is coming!

Sorry Isabel, your crib is coming!

As always happens to us, we ended buying lots of things we didn’t exactly need (especially since we will only be here for six months), but that will make our lives easier and more pleasant (a high chair for $15, a couple of pillows for $1.50 a piece, 2 packets of salmon for $5). Unfortunately for Isabel, we decided not to buy the crib, since our friend Betty was able to find us a couple of options (just as we were going to load one onto our cart, see picture to the left) through a Beijing Yahoo Group (Beijing Mamas) for $50 (including the mattress!). Sorry little girl, but you are going to have to sleep in the stroller for a couple more nights!

Manu

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2 responses »

  1. I listened to a talk today with Norman Doidge who studies neuroplasticity, and one of the things that is emerging in the research is that there is “cultural perception” — that is, actual physiological ways that people’s brains work to perceive things differently. (For example, Western brains tend to see the parts in a picture, while Eastern brains tend to see the relationships.) So what we think of as “culture shock” is actually BRAIN shock…being in a place where you do not perceive things the way the culture does. I thought of you guys when I heard it. So breathe deep, and know that your brain is shifting itself! xoxo

  2. Susan, that’s really interesting – thanks for sharing! I’m going to check him out. Kind of like Feldenkrais for the brain (new neural pathways!).

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