A marketer experiences strong ‘unheimlichkeit,’ or alienation, while in a super-modern hotel in Beijing.
“So, what is the reason for your existence?” the German professor at a Chinese business school reception in Shanghai asked me, to start a conversation. I felt like ad man Don Draper in the TV seriesMad Men when his false identity is unveiled. Who are you really? Caught off guard, I answered: “I’m a marketer.” The conversation moved on, others had wittier sound bites to contribute, and my unease continued. It had been weighing on me since I had put my foot on Chinese soil a few days earlier, and here in this beautiful mansion, confiscated by the government from the corrupt former mayor of Shanghai, it was a steady companion.
You may think that the homogenized cosmopolitan settings of the tier one cities Beijing and Shanghai would seem familiar and comforting to a seasoned Western business traveler like me, but this time the glitzy, uber-capitalist façade did not alleviate my profound sense of dislocation and alienation. I was a stranger and everything was strange to me. This sentiment was exacerbated when I checked into theOpposite House, a chic designer hotel in Beijing’s Sanlitun village district that literally comprises of two opposing halves, each housing generous rooms, connected through a vast space underneath, which is used as both art gallery and lobby. Designed by the Japanese architect Kengo Kuma and catering to the ‘global soul,’ it was meant to make you feel at home in an open, accessible space of kindness, but it did the opposite to me. It manifested the Otherness of my being here, in the heart of this strange city, with other strangers, who, like me, probably had no clue and so, like me, just marveled at the strangeness of it all.
It occurred to me that the Opposite House was a metaphor for some of the issues I had been pondering for the past few months. “The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function,” wrote F. Scott Fitzgerald, and while his words were infinitely wise, I thought that a more intelligent mind than mine may very well hold the two opposites, in Beijing or anywhere, but perhaps even the most intelligent mind would not necessarily be happy in doing so. It’s hard to be happy if you are denied a happy ending, and it’s an unpleasant, arduous task to withstand the temptation to reconcile dual or multiple truths. We are hardwired to believe – and to believe in one truth.
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