International House of Swedish Designed Madness

sad baby with book, stuffed toy dog and IKEA bag


For most expats, every new move, means a new trip to IKEA.  Why IKEA, you ask?  Well, when you are based abroad it’s a safe bet.  You know what you’re getting (design wise, cost wise, safety wise, etc) because it is practically the same in every country.  The crib we bought in Beijing, we bought again in Malaysia at, you guessed it- IKEA.

For the most part, I’m comfortable furnishing my home with cutting edge Swedish design.  But GOING there?  That’s another story.  In Beijing, it was an endeavor.  You had to get up early, hail a willing taxi, schlep across the town in traffic and, once you got there, be ruthlessly efficient.  This meant pre-shopping online and coming prepared with a list.  Don’t dawdle in the showroom displays and just go straight to what you need to buy.  Why?  Because if you didn’t, the chances are you’ll get swept up in the zombie wave of gawkers.  You see, people in China have a unique view of what IKEA was all about and why you went there. Many individuals frequented the store to just hang out, speed date or nap.  In my many trips to Chinese IKEA over the years, I’ve witnessed the following:

  1. Both adults and young children (sans diaper, of course) taking full on naps in the bedroom showrooms.  (DO NOT look into the bed corners or you’ll see a bundle of hair from 20 different people lodged in there)
  2. Family picnics with food brought from home including the ever present thermos of hot water
  3. Amateur photo shoots of people pretending to cook in the display kitchens
  4. Date night for the younger singles in the fancier parts of the store such as the children’s bedroom areas (If you’re the kind of guy who won’t make a move on the lower bunk of a child’s bunk bed, you’re doing it wrong)
  5. Speed dating for the elderly in the cafeteria (Much like rattlesnakes, you hear the laomas WAY before you see them)

Yes, it could be frustrating wading through the crowded masses with their iPhones in hand, abruptly stopping in front of you to take selfies or worse, sneak a picture with you in the background because you are a foreigner and therefore, a bit of a novelty in this mono ethnic nation.

What a silly idea it is to come to IKEA for the absurd purpose of  buying a new mattress and getting out as quickly as you can.  It’s even more awkward when you want to try out that new bed but grandpa is already happily slumbering there.  Yeah sure, you could tell him to wake up.  Even if you did that, he wouldn’t move or even care. So you just sit or lie down next to this complete stranger to see if the mattress has enough support and spring to it. Such is life and you dealt with it.

Everyone I knew had their own unique way of coping.   One friend of mine managed by eating her way through. She started the trek off with a snack of a hot dog, then lunch in the dining hall and ended it by picking up some smoked salmon on her way out.  Other friends I knew went straight to the food shop from the very beginning, bought some Shnapps and went on their merry way.  When the bottle was empty, it was time to check out.

In Beijing, I was a minority not only because I was a foreigner but also because I bought a substantial amount from the store.  I ended up with numerous heavy blue tarp bags filled to the brim which I then struggled to transport home.  There was many a large trolley’s worth of furniture all set up for deliveries that never came at the time they were supposed to.  My freezer was usually full of frozen smoked salmon from their food stores.  One could almost call me a ‘valued customer’.

However, here in Malaysia I joined the majority.  Everyone was there to shop and everyone was angry about it.  I was not special, neither were they.  IKEA is in its way a cultural tabula rasa – a blank slate of self assembly furniture in a giant blue box waiting for the hordes of people from every different nation of the world to swarm inside and make of it what they will.   There we were, carts filled with neatly packaged brown boxes with indeterminate names and were either dealing with out of control kids, crying babies, or whining spouses.  Maybe even all of the above. In the checkout line, we are all part of the collective struggle and our motto is, ”Let’s just get this over as quickly as possible with as little arguing and as few tantrums as possible”.  No, save those tantrums for product assembly later.

When l heard a child crying, all I could think was, ‘I envy that kid.  I want to cry too’.  Who doesn’t want to cry when they get lost and circle back to the very same dining room display area 2 or 3 times?  One realizes both the ultimate futility and universality of human existence in the journey from bedding to office furniture to cookware and back to bedding again.  It is, in its own way, a metaphor for the cycle of life.  How do you make yourself feel better in this struggle?  Get a hot dog?  No, fucking way-the line is too long! Besides, you have to find your way out first to get to the snack area and that was at least a compass and an hour away.

Suddenly you think that woman walking around with that open container of yogurt which she brought from home was a genius.  I admire her approach of just cheerfully strolling about with her family, looking at things and leisurely snacking.  She had the right idea. No stress, just treat it like the zoo:  See what there is to see, come with food and slowly follow the path until you eventually find a way out.    And if you pick up a set of shelves along the way, it’s a win-win scenario.  At least until you get home and try to put it together only to discover that it is missing a part that can be only bought at IKEA.

If a trip to Chinese IKEA was akin to hanging out at the mall in the 80’s where people came to socialize, not shop and generally waste time and money in the food court, then Malaysian IKEA is akin to the Hajj except with no spiritual fulfillment or duty.  Just endless circling and then more circling.

In the end, I submit to the powers that be that I am trapped in this earthly existence (and possibly doomed to forever wonder housewares).  Still, my American sensibility remains optimistic that this task can and will be conquered.  Now only will I emerge triumphant, blue tarp bags brimming with tea lights and hot dog in hand, but also I WILL ASSEMBLE THAT 3 SEAT COUCH MY DAMN SELF USING A BUTTER KNIFE!







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