It’s a Saturday afternoon and I need a shirt. Really, I need much more than a shirt – a whole new wardrobe would be better, and maybe a stylist, and maybe an endless supply of socks – but whatever, on this day I’ll settle for a mere shirt. I take the 52 Bus to one of the many malls in Beijing, where I stumble upon a store called ‘Jack Jones.’ The place is darkly lit and features faceless mannequins with shiny non-faces that are better dressed that I’ve ever been in my life. They’re also much more muscle toned, and I debate whether or not I’d sacrifice having a face in exchange for better clothes and abs. Really, if someone looked like one of these Jack Jones mannequins, I’d be willing to bet that he’d score more dates than 2/3 of men with faces.
Anyways, I’ve noticed that there’s a Jack Jones in basically every Chinese mall I’ve stepped foot in. All of them, as though the malls of China are like those faceless mannequins, the exact same replicated mirror image being constructed over and over again. Go into a Beijing mall and you’ll be sure to find a KFC, the Japanese fast food joint Yoshinoya, a Jack Jones, a few clean bathrooms, a few nightmarishly unclean ones, and a strange emptiness that pervades the place and invokes sadness the same way your house might the day you move out of it.
For a country with 20% of the world’s population, the malls in China are surprisingly vacant and ghostly. Floor after floor, all connected by inconsistently functioning escalators, you’ll find clean and open space, territory unclaimed, stores sitting idle and bored. At an H & M in Dongzhimen, I explored the racks of clothes completely alone while the salespeople stocked the already overstocked shelves. Or, wandering aimlessly around the mall in Xizhimen, I passed by the same t-shirt shop probably a dozen times, never seeing anyone, consumer or employee, inhabiting it. Then there’s the strange mall around Lishuiqiao station, which requires a short pilgrimage from the subway, a ten minute walk down a desolate road where hopeful shoppers slowly move in droves, staggering in the direction of the mall with the enthusiasm and countenance of someone forced down the Trail of Tears in 1831.
That’s what I’m thinking as I step into Jack Jones. Immediately, only seconds after I enter, a young Chinese woman in her work uniform approaches me.
“Ni hao!” she smiles. “JACK JONES!”
She nearly screams it, as though she’s shouting out his name in orgasm.
“Yes,” I say, unsure of how to respond. She smiles and walks away, only to be replaced by another shop girl, this one also flashing an oddly frightening smile.
“Hello!” she says in English.
“You’ve got that right,” I say.
She doesn’t say anything else, but parks herself directly next to me. This makes me feel incredibly uncomfortable, awkward, having this salesgirl shadowing me, and I walk towards the back of the store hoping that she won’t follow. My plan doesn’t work. Keeping a safe distance of a few feet, she glides to the back of the store after me, like I’m the sound and she’s the echo. I try and try but I can’t lose her. All these shirts and sweater vests, I can’t even think, all I’m aware of is this stupid salesgirl three feet to my right. She recommends a green flannel shirt and I run. I dart through two full racks of clothes, a tight squeeze, praying that she’ll get stuck between them, but she doesn’t, and moments later she’s practically on my back, the closest I’ll come all day to wearing anything from the store.
I know, I know. This is good customer service, right? I tell myself that. This girl has devoted so much attention to me, it’s amazing, the polar opposite of the neglectful clerks working back home at JC Penny or TJ Maxx. Still, I hate it. I just want to be left alone, by myself, so I can pick something that I personally think is hip, even if it makes me look like I belong in a New Kids on the Block video. It would probably be difficult for her to understand any of this. I don’t really want to be helped. I’d prefer the freedom to fashionably sink or swim on my own.
Without saying anything, I quickly make my way out of the store. I don’t look back to see if she’s tried to follow me. I can still hear that name in my head, over and over, the way they kept saying it.
It’s almost like a siren call, pulling me back. I mean, maybe I should go back, I have no new shirt, and I’m not sure where else to go. But none of that matters, because I’ve returned to the embrace of this empty shopping mall and I’m sure I can find some store, somewhere in the deserted landscape, where the only thing that will tell me I don’t look good in a pink cashmere sweater is the mirror.