A sense of wonder that unites us all
There’s an old expression, used in instances of rapture or temptation, that describes someone as being “like a kid in a candy store”. For children and adults alike, nothing today comes closer to the candy store experience than the modern mall, a ubiquitous sight in a large city like Beijing.
There’s delicious food, fast and otherwise, at every turn. Alluring aromas waft this way and that, while pulsating music invites you to browse the latest fashions. Escalators galore take customers — ever so slowly to increase the anticipation — from one floor to the next in a cascade of bliss.
I fondly recall the time when, at the tender age of 4 or 5, I “ran away” from home, making it as far as the local grocer, a mere one room at that time, carrying in my pocket my entire savings of 5 cents. With that sole nickel, I bought a Hershey’s chocolate bar and was in heaven — at least until I finished it and realized that, alas, I was flat broke, so I returned home a prodigal son.
Nowadays, the mall allows grown-ups to relive the wonders of childhood, as well as the pain of returning home with empty pockets. We don’t go the mall because we need something. We go because we want to spoil ourselves, and in a big way.
I went this past weekend to a favorite mega-mall in Beijing, intending to have a quick lunch, a quick look around and a quick exit. I failed on all counts.
What I saw instead was an endless string of marvels that incessantly triggered my mobile payment reflexes. Beckoning to me were such delicacies as pumpkin bread and whoopie pies at an upscale bakery, a lovely cup of almond and egg-white tea, succulent roast duck and pork brisket, high-end herbal teas meant only to pamper, and a face cream (for the lovely young woman who accompanied me) that cost a mere 888 yuan ($140) for a paltry few dollops. I even had one of my Chinese names carved elegantly into a stone pendant.
As a teenager, I frequented the mall to browse, but rarely to buy, since most of what I saw and desired was beyond my modest means. As an adult, however, I have more resources and, therefore, infinitely less resistance.
The glorious multistory mall (which China has truly mastered), feeds us fantasy as we rise above our daily drudgery, the mall serving as a funhouse distorting mirror in which we see ourselves as carefree spendthrifts on a mission of indulgence.
Ducking into one store after another, we experience, if only for a fleeting moment, the joyful abandon of a kid in a candy store as we sample coffees or perfumes, try on shoes or sweaters and surrender to the impulse to buy.
In a fractured world, malls are melting pots, bringing us all together as equals (at least until we reach the cash register). You don’t even need to have money in your pocket — though it sure helps if you do.