The delivery man squinted. If he didn’t recognize my address, he was definitely beginning to recognize my face, and this had been the third time I airlifted food into my apartment that week. My beautiful, spacious, ramshackle and unfinished apartment had no knives. It had no pots or pans, except for the single frying pan given to me by the school, which came sans handle. My apartment had no towels, other than the travel towel I had slipped in my bag for emergencies. My apartment had no mats, no coat hangers, no spices, no sheets.
Of course, confronted by this sort of situation, I usually adapt comfortably. The bachelor lifestyle suits me like a velvet glove, and I can easily subsist in an apartment with a bed, two chopsticks, and a decent internet connection. That my new home had a couch and a television and a spare bedroom and working air conditioners was already beyond my expectations, accoutrements I barely knew how to fathom, let alone care for. Give me a barren concrete block with fewer things to clean and I will live my life in perfect, monastic peace.
Of course, the state of my living space was of some concern for the people whom I worked with, and for my friends. There was the growing concern that I was not eating properly, or not eating at all. Other humans heard the stories of my deliveries and imagined me splayed out on the hard tile, scooping fistfuls of pork and rice directly into my mouth and then, with no towels or water or anything to clean myself, simply smearing the leftover sauce in my hair, which as you know is nature’s towel.
I could have braved local Chinese houseware shops, which would have been filled with lots of local Chinese housewares and probably several thousand people. I know where the shops are, and I have a vague idea of how to buy things in such places, which involves picking up the item you like and bringing it to one lady and then taking the receipt she gives you and going somewhere far away to pay money and then taking your new receipt back to the previous lady to rescue your goods. But these shops are far away and do not encourage the kind of bulk buys I would be undertaking.
Was there a store with a prepackaged life section? A big 10 cubic metre box filled with all the goods necessary to begin behaving like an adult? I didn’t particularly feel like going and seeking out the items piecemeal, one-by-one, cobbling together the shape of grown-up-ness spatula by spatula. The Chinese stores would have to wait.
Because there was an Ikea trip on the horizon.
Ikea: still foreign, but definitely less foreign than most of the rest of the foreign I’m surrounded by. While I like to fashion myself as a brave world-explorer unfazed by any tricky new situation or language, the first few days and weeks in a place see me at my weakest and most vulnerable. By Christmas I might be swilling baiju and sauntering, mapless, to the seediest noodle joints in China by memory, but in those early days I was a quivering mass of unpreparedness. The comforting familiarness of Ikea, with its blue-yellow shell over a heinously large warehouse, with its Swedish meatballs, with its soothingly nonsensical furniture names—even thinking of it was soothing. I thought of a Fjornsflub armchair and a Skrummen wicker basket and felt like I was at one with the universe.
My vision of Ikea had grown only more fanciful as the weeks passed, as my shopping list grew. Not only would Ikea furnish my apartment, it would furnish my soul. I would get knives and forks and spoons and pans and sheets and towels and dry racks and coat hangers. I would get a weird boiled hot dog. I would get peace of mind, and peace of heart. With Ikea on my side, I would actually be able to cook and clean and hang up my clothing and bathe and dry myself. It would bring me to the brink of actual modern humanity–maybe if not Homo sapiens, Ikea would at least get me past Australopithecus.
I envisioned the shelves of Ikea to not just be lined with moderately priced lamps and plants, but with globules of human spirit, of pre-packaged independence. I imagined a Willy Wonka factory of adulthood, with knives and pots and bathmats, but also magical trees where years grew, of great lakes pulsing with capableness, of contraptions designed to shrink your need to sit around in your underwear watching cartoons while filth slowly mounts around you like looming clouds. In this pristine, clanking factory, one could purchase a life, a sense of maturity, and actual physical key that would unlock the door to escaping your mid-twenties with some practical life-skills.
I would curl up on my bare mattress sometimes and dream of the life I would begin to lead, after Ikea. My post-Ikea existence. Of the kind of person I would be, not some lowly bachelor barbarian, but an actual human. My independence would start at the store, but so too would my returned sense of maturity, of spirit, of hope. With a ladle in my hand and a proper soup pot with a lid in my backpack, what couldn’t I face in the world?
I left my apartment that morning hopeful and sure. I was preparing for my hero’s journey, I could see the edge of the underworld cresting before me, had heard the call to adventure. Now was the time to get my gifts, to accrue the valuable keys to adventure handed down from the divine. The gods were at Ikea, they had my cutting board, and they knew I would need it for the dark times ahead.