I HAD A particularly interesting conversation with one of my new friends a couple of weeks ago. A remark she made to me made me feel like my quest for tradition seemed almost puritanical in nature, that I had been guilty of making the same dichotomy between the valuable ‘traditional’ and consumerist ‘globalised’, that I lament people make between East and West. That no matter how much Western influence may encroach upon traditions here, the exchange goes both ways, and that to cater to local cultural norms and preferences, even the most Americanised of brands adopt tenets of local culture.
And it’s surprising to find this in even the seemingly most sterile, consumerised and manufactured of places: the modern-day shopping mall. I ran into this to meet up with a new friend while waiting for my overnight train at the adjacent Beijing North Railway Station. Sure, the mall may be a post-war US construct, but there simply are many things in here that a Westerner would not be used to. And no, I’m not talking about the quadriceps workout you get every time you answer the call of nature, or the ways Chinese respond to public misdemeanour.
For a start, if it’s not a globalised food brand like McDonald’s or KFC, the cuisine is still distinct – and virtually endemic – to China. The restaurant a friend and I went to for dinner gave very similar fare to some nondescript joints I had been to here before. Though, of course, there is a premium on the air con. On top of that are the decor and backdrop: the dividing of the restaurant into sections and ubiquitous use of bamboo. And then came the half-hour-long quest to find an ATM, only to find it under an escalator, hidden behind multiple screens.
Then there’s this. It sat still and uninterrupted in the middle of the atrium … then the kids approached it. I don’t know how I would have felt if I was a young child running up to this thing, only for it to grow legs. I’d find it scary … but it’s something unique. And yes, with malls like these, you’re bound to find something that you won’t see outside China. Just as long as you don’t go to the malls in Sanlitun. You’ll have to make a bigger effort than that…