Since arriving in China as a US MBA student and enrolling full-time at the China Europe International Business School, one question has begun nearly every conversation I strike up with a new acquaintance, be they Chinese classmates or other “foreigners” in China. That question is: “Why China? Why Ceibs? Why not attend one of the many US MBA programmes?”
My answer is simple. Given the role and influence that China – and its 1.3bn motivated and intelligent inhabitants – will have throughout my lifetime in this global economy, I knew it would be an unforgivable misstep not to come to Ceibs. Located in Shanghai, the school is perfectly positioned to equip future business leaders with the ability to adapt and excel in the crucial China market.
A gap exists between the US and China. I am not referring only to geographical distance, historical and cultural differences or even the language barrier. An invisible chasm also exists between the American and Chinese thought processes, beliefs, assumptions and expectations that drive business negotiations between the two countries. This is why, in western-Chinese business dealings, misunderstandings are rampant and co-operation is so challenging.
To learn from afar about a key region and its people is a respectable pursuit. But to immerse yourself in it – to spark your senses by witnessing life at the centre of one of the 21st century's global powers during its re-emergence on the global landscape – that is what MBA students call “differentiation”. And that is what I am hoping to achieve.
My earliest impressions of China draw from my youth and from the legacy that my great uncle, US President Richard Nixon, bequeathed by opening the doors to China.
Through family stories and lessons passed down by various business and political figures, by the time I had graduated I felt well-versed in Chinese culture and business practices. But I also realised that the world's next superpower cannot be truly understood through secondhand stories, lectures or case studies. Living in China, learning the language, absorbing the culture through travel and discussions with Chinese professors and colleagues – especially those philosophical discourses that occur after sufficient amounts of bai-jou (China's national liquor) – are the steps necessary to really “enter” China.
For example, one core divergence between the two countries can be found in the concept of competition. For the majority of lower- to upper-middle-class children of my generation raised in the US, the means to a sufficient standard of living were fairly easily within reach. For the most part, access to education, a social network and job opportunities were handed to us by the struggle and achievements of the generation returning home from the second world war. Our grandparents laid the foundation for an easier life for the Baby Boomer generation and for an environment of near complacency for too many within my generation.
The situation is vastly different for 20-somethings in China. Chinese youth are trained to compete, all the time and on every level – from the best-to-worst seating order in classrooms, to the fiercely competitive high school and university entrance exams, to everyday struggles such as gang-rushing the metro car when the door opens. When you're trained to constantly compete and to either stand out (including using guanxi, or backdoor connections) or end up lost in the masses, a very aggressive mindset prevails.
uture US and European leaders, especially those seeking an MBA, must educate themselves in and out of the classroom – but especially abroad. The greater the effort made to “know the locals” in China, the better our chances of overcoming the chasm that divides us and, as a result, we will succeed together.