Dean in China

Dean is a University Scholar and a senior accounting major in the Cox School of Business. In summer 2011, he is traveling to Hong Kong with the SMU-in-China Business program to get a firsthand look at modern China’s unique culture and business practices. He says he also plans to do some touring (and attempt to get by without knowing a single word of Chinese …)

More Beijing: Another side, another story

After wrapping up my study abroad, I met up with my family, who had all come to China around the end of my program, and we set out for further adventures. The last leg of my trip to China began with a return to Beijing. I know I already did an entry about Beijing, but I won’t be recapitulating anything – I’ll gloss over the stuff I already covered and focus on the new. I’ll start by saying that the haze was not nearly as strong as on my previous visit. Still there, but you could actually see into the distance now, and the sky was mostly visible. 

After meeting our tour guide for Beijing, we got right down to business by visiting the Lama Temple, a big Buddhist temple in the city. We saw several robed monks milling about and many citizens burning incense and praying at small altars featuring the Buddha. We learned that people bow three times before and after placing the incense – one to honor the Buddha, one for the monks, and one for Buddhism.

Our guide was full of fun facts, and if I wrote down everything he told us I could probably fill a small book, so I’ll limit myself to a few I found particularly interesting. One was an explanation for all the high thresholds I had seen on my last trip to Beijing, which are at every door in the temples and palaces and other traditional buildings. The thresholds are raised high to prevent zombie attacks. No, really. In the Chinese culture, zombies were believed to hop – so the high threshold stops the zombie from hopping inside.

Another neat fact had to do with the dragons that were featured on many walls in the temple and are a traditional Chinese symbol. The first emperor who united China around 4000 years ago, called the Yellow Emperor, helped ease the transition into unity by taking the animals worshipped by the various tribes and putting them together to create the dragon as an animal for all to revere. These dragons are not like the ones fought by armored knights in European fairy tales – they had the face of a camel, antlers of a deer, hooves of a bull, claws of an eagle, scales of a fish, tail of a lion, and the body of a serpent. And instead of breathing fire, they were believed to spurt water and had the power to make it rain. Chinese dragons being associated with water, the ancient structures, which are entirely wooden, are adorned with dragons to bless them with protection against fire.

Statue of Confucius

We also saw the Confucius Temple, where for many centuries students would gather every few years to take the grueling exams needed to become a civil servant and enter work as a minister in the government. The cushy positions were highly desired, but the extremely difficult exams made sure only China’s brightest entered government work.

 We saw Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City again, but it’s nothing I haven’t already talked about. After those we went to the Panjiayuan Flea Market. While there I had my name translated into Chinese and had the calligraphy scribed on a scroll. The characters that make up the Chinese version of my name mean “lucky” and “peaceful.” Sounded pretty good to me!

 The Wall’s End

Above the haze

I already went on at length about the Great Wall’s majesty, so I refer you to my earlier entry for that. But my second trip was certainly different! The biggest difference was the weather – it was MUCH clearer this time around. It really made the view even more majestic since you could see more of the Wall rolling away along the hillside. But the lifted fog also let me see something that was obscured before – giant characters on the side of a large hill. Our guide said farmers had made them, and they read “be loyal to Chairman Mao.” Quick side note, Mao’s face is plastered everywhere in this country, and on every object imaginable.

As for our hike along the Wall itself, I was determined to surpass what I had climbed before. I went up the same huge hill and gigantic staircase as before, to the same tower I had stopped at last time. But the Wall went on from there. Feeling stronger than the last time I’d made it this far, I marched on. It turned out I had already conquered the hardest staircase on this part of the wall, so it got a little easier as I went further up, higher than even the huge characters. Eventually, I noticed I had risen so high, I was above the haze, and the air was crystal clear.

This let me properly appreciate the new side of the Wall I was seeing. I had passed the point where most tourists stop, so beyond that the Wall was less maintained, letting me see the truly original stones. It was a little rougher, but really just as sturdy. The naked stones on the path gave it a new sense of character.

Where the Great Wall ends

Eventually, I found something surprising: the end of the Great Wall. Well, this section of it anyway – it’s not continuous, it breaks at mountains and rivers since those are natural defenses that don’t need a wall. Still, I didn’t expect to reach the end of this potion. The stone structure literally just stopped, and all there was in front of me was a dirt path that went a few feet into some trees and then ended. It felt like reaching the edge of the world. I also noticed that other than someone selling water, I was practically alone on this part of the Wall – hardly anyone bothered coming this far. The quiet solitude let me really appreciate the wall and the beautiful mountains around it that I couldn’t see from below. It was wonderful all over again. The Great Wall really just doesn’t cease to amaze.

Interactive sculpture in the arts district

 After climbing all the way back down and scarfing down lunch, we spent the afternoon at Beijing’s 798 art district, a pretty big area that used to be a factory (numbered 798, hence the area’s name) where many artists live today.

The place was all galleries and art shops, with sculptures all over the place outside. The styles covered just about everything I could think of, and some were pretty bizarre and interesting. To pick one, we found a wall with metal attached in the shape of a stick figure man and woman like you see on bathroom signs. They were empty and a sign invited you to stand in them and send a picture to the artist to be used in a huge digital collage.

 Tai Chi at the Temple of Heaven

 The next day began with an activity I had been looking forward to. We went over to the Temple of Heaven and took stock. There were many people hanging around using it as a park – playing hacky sack and other games, or practicing dances, martial arts, and calligraphy. It’s an area four times larger than the Forbidden City, but it’s mostly trees, there are only 3 buildings, all temples or altars. But we’ll get to that.

Tai chi lesson at the Temple of Heaven

First was a special activity – a private tai chi lesson. We met our instructor and went into a clearing amidst some trees for our lesson. He began by teaching us some of the theory behind tai chi (full name taijiquan/tai chi chuan, meaning “supreme ultimate fist”).  Unlike many martial arts, tai chi uses very slow, circular movements. This is because the philosophy of the martial art is one that strives for harmony with nature, and the view is that all things in nature flow and have curves or are spherical, that nothing is naturally totally straight – be it Heaven, stars, or the universe itself. He challenged us to name something that naturally exists in a completely arrow-straight form. We suggested a couple things, but he pointed out that those objects, like everything that exists, are made from atoms – which are spherical. They originally believed the Earth was square, but when they learned it was a sphere, that just reinforced the idea.

After the theory lesson we learned some movements. There are five main styles of tai chi, each with many moves. We would be learning from the Yang style, one of the most popular. He taught us the basic stance – legs spread apart, knees slightly bent, hands and arms held out in front of you so your hands are in front of your belly, as if you were floating in water. It was actually quite comfortable, and felt pretty natural. Our teacher said out of curiosity after learning this, he let himself completely relax in a pool to see how his body would act – and it took on almost this exact form.

He then showed us some basic movements, the opening and closing forms. Each move was very slow and relaxed, and he told us to take our time performing them, and as we did so, to let everything out of our minds about the world around us and focus entirely on the movements to clear our minds. He also showed us a move called “hands flowing like clouds,” which was my favorite. We moved our hands in wide arcs around ourselves, our palms passing in front of our faces, the paths overlapping and switching. It seemed a little complex when he did it, but we all picked up the movements quickly and it was easy to do. To help us remember it, he told us to just think of John Travolta’s dance in Pulp Fiction! He finished up by showing us what he could really do – a long move where he moved around with much poise and incredible balance as he slowly made large sweeping motions with his limbs and often stood on one leg. It was simply a beautiful set of movements.

After the very fun lesson we toured the Temple. We saw the temples and altars, formerly the tallest buildings in Beijing, where the emperor used to come to pray for a good harvest and offer thanks and reverence to the Heavenly King. The altars were all up three sets of nine steps – the three sets representing, from bottom to top, Hell, Earth, and Heaven. The nine steps in each set were due to the belief that each of those three planes of existence had nine segments. Furthermore, the character for nine in Chinese is pronounced the same as the symbol for “eternity.” Atop the 9th layer of Heaven resided the Heavenly King, so the emperor had to ascend all the layers of existence to meet with him. The Temple of Heaven is also the only place in the city the emperor was not allowed to be carried on a palanquin – though the world had to show him respect, here he had to humble himself before the Heavenly King who had sent him to rule over the Middle Kingdom (something China called itself as they believed China was the center of the universe).

Making a wish at the Temple of Heaven

 We went up one altar, called the Circular Mound Altar. Atop the 27 steps was a circular stone surrounded by 9 concentric circles, each one composed of nine more stones than the previous – the innermost having 9 stones, the outermost having 81 stones. The stone in the very center was the Heart of Heaven. In the Chinese belief, Heaven is circular, and is actually smaller than the Earth. The Heart of Heaven (also called the Heavenly Center Stone) was believed to be the spot directly under the very center of Heaven, and so prayers said upon it would be heard loud and clear in Heaven. Following the lead of other tourists (and centuries of emperors), we stood on the stone, looked up into the sky with the wind on our faces, and made a wish.

 Family Life in a Hutong

 We then went by the Pearl Market, and checked out the shops featuring an endless amount of shiny pearls for sale. After that and some food, we went over to visit a hutong. In Chinese, hutong roughly translates to “community” or “neighborhood.” It came from a Mongolian term that means “water well.” This was because Beijing lacks a river or ocean for water, so people’s homes congregated around wells and formed neighborhoods. Living in hutongs goes back to around the 13th century.

 We were extremely fortunate to be invited into the home of a family living in the hutong. The home was small and cramped, but packed with great character. Stylized Chinese characters were printed on many things, even the ceiling. In the small living room was a great number of old-looking weapons, and in the dining room/kitchen we saw the lady of the house doing some cooking with dough with some other Western visitors.

We met the man living here, and he told us (through the translation of our guide) about the little house. It has been in his family for over 150 years! Although the government owns most land in the country now, and only lets you own land for about 70 years before they have the right to drive you off, the man’s family had owned this house before the Communist government came, and they were allowed to keep it. They said it is convenient and very cheap to live in, as the community has most stores and things they need to go to right nearby, they don’t need to pay any rent, and the government subsidizes 70% of their air conditioning and heating, which was installed for free when the Olympics came to Beijing as the government wanted to show off the traditional hutongs to the outside world.

Despite their small size, houses in a hutong are extremely valuable as the number of them is shrinking. The man’s house is worth over a million US dollars. But he said even if he was offered that, he would never move – when a house has been in your family for a century and a half, it means so much to the people in it.

 The man also told us that his family has a tradition of being martial artists (explaining the collection of weapons in the living room). He himself was instructed in martial arts in the same class as Jet Li and has worked as an instructor for many years. His oldest son actually works in Texas, at a gym in Houston coaching wushu, a Chinese exhibition/full-contact sport that involves swords and a lot of cool-looking flips and action (Google a video of a wushu match from the 2008 Olympics, they’re really cool to watch!).

Learning a wushu stance

I told him that I knew a little bit about wushu and had watched videos of matches. He told me that unfortunately, I was a little too tall to be suited to doing wushu myself, as my height would make it hard for me to do all the flips as quickly and smoothly as the shorter Chinese. Though on the other hand, he said being taller would make my moves more intimidating and impressive. He then handed me a typical wushu sword, mid-length with a slightly curved thin metal blade (but not sharp), and helped me get into a basic stance, which was really interesting to learn!

We also met his wife and younger son, who live there with him along with his father-in-law. We were surprised that the tiny home supported so many people. After getting to meet the man’s wife and younger son (and getting his older son’s business card if we ever wanted wushu lessons in Texas), we thanked them for showing us their home by giving them some small gifts – coasters with images of things representing our home city of Atlanta.

My family with the family who showed us their home

We concluded our visit to the hutong by riding around the neighborhood in a rickshaw, a cart that holds one or two people and is pulled along by someone on foot or a bicycle (we were on the bicycle kind). As we went by we watched all the members of neighborhood as many of them congregated outside to chat and play games together. It was clear that the families living in hutongs have a very strong sense of community.

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Last days in Hong Kong

After our return from Beijing, we found ourselves staring down the barrel of our final week of the study abroad program. The week really flew by – here’s how it all went down as we finished up our work and tried to make the most of the time we had left.


Luckily we still had one more day off before classes resumed, so we took the opportunity to head out into the mainland for a day, taking the Hong Kong subway all the way out, to the last stop inside the Chinese mainland at the city of Shenzhen. We had passed by Shenzhen on our train ride to Guangzhou, and a couple of students in our group had already come here; and our group’s Chinese student is from Shenzhen, so she’d been coming back here almost every weekend to see her family. For me, however, it was my first time seeing it.

We spent most of the afternoon in a big mall that was like an amalgamation of a mall you’d see in the United States (and China does have plenty of malls in that style) and one of the many flea markets here. It was extremely unorganized, with each massive floor being a total labyrinth of stores selling a random array of items. With no indication of where in the place to find any particular items, we found that to be a good excuse to really take our time and explore the whole thing. Aside from the stores selling all sorts of things, around the fringes of each floor are lots of little boutiques that had people outside trying to get us to come in for a manicure, pedicure, or massage. We also found stores that had extensive selections of electronics (the outdoor markets had some too, but only a few small gadgets), seemingly endless choices of fabrics and silks, big gemstones and pretty rocks (some were nearly as tall as a person), designer handbags that may or may not have been the real deal (again, a far bigger collection than any outdoor market)… it just went on and on.

After spending the day shopping, we went into town a little ways and had dinner at a delicious seafood place – by the front door they had out in full view the aquatic life that they use in the food once you order it! After eating, we wandered around for a while searching for a cab, and as we walked I noticed how bustling Shenzhen is. We had heard about it several times before on the trip, even at some of our company visits. Apparently, it was as early as a decade ago a mid-sized town that had lots of factories and smog and not much else. This was always followed with a comment that it had changed so much since then. And they weren’t kidding at all. Shenzhen is a bustling city, with a neat skyline thanks to some interesting architecture like Guangzhou (China seems to have a thing for that). And while there are still lots of factories in the area outside Shenzhen, the sky was pretty clear – Beijing could take a lesson from this city!

Wrapping Up

The next day we actually had to go back to class. Having not had a class at CUHK in over a week (we had class in Guangzhou, but that was kinda different, and then we had our long weekend in Beijing), we all agreed it felt odd to be going to class after seemingly so long, but also because we knew it was one of our last.

Our penultimate class was about human resources management in China. Our teacher told us that one reason the Communist Party is so deliberate with the ways they use their power is because while they have millions of members, they are still vastly outnumbered in a country of over a billion people. Managing such an enormous population must be quite a logistical headache. Further, we learned that Chinese managers are extremely reluctant to fire employees. The Chinese are very careful when seeking someone to hire, and if they select you, they feel you’re capable enough to work for them. If it turns out you aren’t doing well in your job, rather than fire you, they’ll attempt to see if you work better in a different part of the company. Additionally, Chinese citizens want their jobs to feel secure, and if someone gets fired, other employees often quit and seek other jobs because their co-worker’s firing makes them worry that they could be fired next.

After class, we took a group photo in front of the main sign for the Chinese University of Hong Kong and had lunch. The rest of the afternoon was essentially a race to wrap up our business in Hong Kong and do whatever else we wanted to do – some people went back to a tailor for their final fitting for suits they were getting made (at high quality and low prices, too – and the clothes turned out nice), others went back to the street markets to procure a few last souvenirs they still wanted. That evening we went back to Soho and scared up what was probably one of the only Mexican restaurants in Hong Kong to eat at before going to Ozone, a cool bar waaaay up at the top of the Ritz-Carlton, over 100 stories up. The bar had an incredible view of the city, and just like our early visit to Victoria Peak, we got to see the Symphony of Lights, but this time from the other side of town, which made for a different view. It felt like a nice bookend to our time in Hong Kong.

The next day was spent entirely working as fast as we could to complete our big final projects, where we were split into groups and assigned a company, and had to analyze how that company was performing in the markets for the US, China, and Hong Kong, and compare the nature of the markets and the company’s approach to each. Despite spending all week on it, it still required a massive push to get done on the next to last day of the program. The last day of class we presented, and everyone had found some really interesting information. Then I got a belated birthday fruitcake, and we all got framed copies of our group photo from the day before. In return, we gave gifts to the people at CUHK who had spent the trip working with us.

After packing and dealing with the realization that our time in Hong Kong was actually about to end (it felt unreal), we celebrated as a group one more time by returning to Soho for one last group dinner and some drinks in a trendy area of bars. It was bittersweet to be saying goodbye to everyone I’d been with nearly every waking moment for the past month – we had all really bonded. But the goodbyes were tempered with promises that we’d all get together again back in Dallas in the fall.

So, the study abroad has ended. However, stick around, dear readers – I’m not quite done yet! Stick with me a little longer as I spend another week and a half touring more of China to see some sights and delve further into the culture!

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Birthday in Beijing

After spending most of our third week in Guangzhou, we were back in Hong Kong for only a night before we all headed out to Beijing for a long weekend! After rising early to get to our flight and head over, we dropped off our bags at our hotel and headed out to take stock of this new city.

One thing leaped out at us immediately. And I need to preface this by saying that I’ve talked a lot about how great China is on this blog (because it is), but nothing is perfect, and here we encountered something rather unpleasant: Beijing was enshrouded in a thick haze that made it impossible to see very far. It reminded me of the fog we’d seen going by on our train ride to Guangzhou, but even thicker. It was partly fog due to the oppressively high humidity here, but Beijing’s struggles with air pollution also played a role. The smog made it so that we couldn’t even see the sky!

Tiananmen Square

Undaunted by the haze, we headed out to Tiananmen Square. We saw the famed giant picture of Mao Zedong (which I’ve also seen transliterated over here as Tse-tung), and across the street there was a large hammer and sickle symbol set up to commemorate the 90th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party of China. The Square itself is actually pretty basic. It’s essentially just a large open area at the south end of the old imperial palace. Very, very large, in fact. It has been the site of many important speeches and events throughout Chinese history. At present we found it full of sightseers and stalls crammed with knick-knacks, with a few soldiers standing around the fringes keeping watch – there’s a small garrison that’s always stationed here to protect the Square. In fact at one point I was spaced out looking at the palace and was nearly trampled by a column of soldiers marching along.

We checked out the large Communist symbol, as well as the flag of the People’s Republic of China (there’s a ceremony every single morning and evening to put it up and take it down) and the Monument to the People’s Heroes, a large memorial obelisk. We wanted to check out the Mausoleum of Mao Zedong, but it was already closed for the day.

At this point we could no longer contain our curiosity and asked the Chinese member of our group how people here view the (in)famous ’89 protests. She told us that nobody really talks about it in this country because that’s forbidden. I do my best when I travel to keep in mind that just because a culture or government operates differently from ours, that doesn’t necessarily make it wrong, and yet I couldn’t help but find the thought that those memories could fade from the collective Chinese consciousness chilling. I’m of the opinion that the messy parts of history are the ones that should be preserved best, not forgotten. How else will future generations get a chance to learn from the mistakes of the past unless they are aware of them?

I struggled not to be ethnocentric about it. It’s a very tough and delicate issue, but I was glad I was thinking about it. This world has some harsh realities sometimes, and part of the reason I chose China as my study abroad was because there is so much more to this country than just some pretty sightseeing spots; there are real issues to be thought about, and I feel that keeping that sort of thing in mind is critical to my development into a proper adult and responsible citizen of not just America, but the world.

After leaving the Square, we met up with the brother of our Chinese group member and he took us to the famous Quanjude restaurant (around since 1864) for one of China’s most famous foods, Peking Duck. Unlike many dishes made using animals, the meat is not the main focus of Peking Duck. It’s still eaten, of course, but the main attraction in this dish is the carefully prepared, thin and crisp skin. The whole thing is served with tortilla-esque pancakes to wrap things in and dip into a special sauce. The meal lived up to its reputation, and we happily ate up the delicious duck.

That night I attempted to get on Facebook and put up a status update about being in Beijing, only to find that it’s blocked by the “Great Firewall of China” (officially called the Golden Shield Project; it’s the same thing that blocks people in China from searching about the Tiananmen Square protests, and the same blocking policy that Google recently got into a tussle with the Chinese government over). I brooded some more about the vast gulf between how the American and Chinese governments operate.

The Great Wall

The next day was my 22nd birthday, and our plan for the day was a birthday activity unlike any other: visiting one of the most famous and monumental works ever wrought by human hands, the Great Wall of China. We got into an arranged car ride that took us a few hours outside the city to reach the Great Wall. After we were dropped off, we walked through yet another crowded market area and rode a cable car up to the Wall itself. I was a little disappointed that the haze was still present. I had hoped that leaving the city, we would be leaving it behind, but we just had to make do with the view we could get.

I’ve seen pictures of the Great Wall all my life, and they certainly didn’t lie. But they simply can’t hold a candle to being there yourself. I was enraptured by the sight of the Wall snaking away from me to the left and right, going on and on, up and down the hills, off into the blanket of fog far in the distance. It really just puts almost every other construction project on Earth to shame with its scope. Fun fact: You actually cannot see the Great Wall from outer space. It’s not quite big enough for that, though I still felt dwarfed by its colossal size.

As we traipsed up and down along the wavy spine of the Wall, I really felt like I was standing right in the midst of thousands of years of history. The Wall exuded a strong feeling of being as ancient as it was, yet it was still rather sturdy (though the touristy parts get some maintenance). We hiked along, ascending staircases to the watchtowers sprinkled along the path and seeing what we could see, snapping pictures all along the way. While the Wall does command a view of the countryside on either side, even without the fog there isn’t really a whole lot to see. The Wall itself is the main thing to look at, and there was not a single moment that I felt bored looking at it. Each step forward seemed to bring into view a freshly captivating segment of the structure.

We had a slight time limit on the Wall before we had to return to meet our ride back to Beijing, but before we left we decided to challenge ourselves and climb an absolutely enormous long staircase up the side of a huge hill to reach the tallest watchtower we could find on this part of the Wall. It was a tough ascension, and the intense humidity didn’t help matters. Despite the fact that we were all sweating buckets, we made it up (and bought much-needed water from a strategically located seller – though I’m astonished to think he climbs that huge staircase every day to set up his wares) and after catching our breath, looked back to survey the distance we had covered. We’d gone so far we could no longer see the part of the Wall we had started out on.

It’s difficult to put into words the view we saw of the Wall rolling away from us into the distance. Pictures help, but I wish I’d had some sort of really high-resolution panoramic camera to capture the full scope of just how majestic a sight it is to stand atop one of the greatest creations of mankind. The emotion invoked by my admiration of both human capability and the Wall’s particular brand of beauty briefly let me forget how sweaty I was.

Olympic Park and Random Photos

So we made our way back down, and devoured lunch at a restaurant at the base of the Wall before meeting our ride back to Beijing. We went straight on to our second thing to see that day, the Olympic Park that was the site of the 2008 Olympic Summer Games.

Even though the Olympics were 3 years ago, the Park didn’t seem to be having any trouble keeping people coming to see it; it was rather crowded. We walked around the Park a while before heading into the Water Cube and Bird’s Nest. Both buildings had rather unique architecture that made them a fairly striking sight.

While I was sitting in a high seat checking out the Bird’s Nest, a local man approached me and asked me if he could take a picture with me. I was a bit puzzled, but agreed and let the man’s wife snap a picture of the two of us. I should mention this wasn’t a lone occurrence. Throughout our time in Beijing we had locals asking to take pictures with us. The Chinese girl in our group explained that it’s rare for the people here to see Caucasians, so they wanted to take pictures with us to show their friends later and prove they’d met some Caucasians.

After the Olympic Park I was treated to a delicious birthday dinner at a Chinese restaurant, and wrapped up my 22nd birthday in our hotel bar. I pondered the amazing sights I’d seen during the day, and how it made for a rather unique birthday present. It’s not often that people get to ring in a new year of their lives on the Great Wall of China. I think that no matter how many more birthdays I have, I will never have another one quite like this!

The Forbidden City and an Unusual Dance

The next day we went to check out the Forbidden City, formerly the palace of China’s emperors. In China’s 5,000 years of history, Beijing has served as the capital of many dynasties, so there is a lot of history here. We spent lots of time taking in the sheer size of the palace and its intricate decorations. We saw centuries old tea sets, and simple pottery that was made around 6,000 BC.

We also saw the throne room, as well as the imperial gardens and some of the many smaller palaces within the huge complex. After that we retreated back to our hotel to spend the afternoon working on our papers that were due the next day. Yeah, we have had work to do here – I haven’t mentioned it much as it’s not particularly exciting, but the first word in “study abroad” isn’t just there for show!

The next day we had to fly back to Hong Kong, but before we left we made one more stop, at a place called Silk Street Market. It was sort of like a very cramped indoor flea market. The sellers at this market used a different tactic in addition to the usual yelling and grabbing at us – compliments. Many vendors tried to lure me to their stalls by telling me how handsome I am (so true!), or asking if I wanted to buy something for my (non-existent) girlfriend.

I felt as though there were a rhythm to the place, helped by the looming time limit before we needed to head to the airport. I don’t consider myself much of a dancer, but I quickly picked up the tempo and danced along to the steps: weave through the crowd; dodge attempts to grab my arm; deflect compliments from vendors; keep an eye out for any interesting goods; repeat. It felt like moving to a fast-paced, yet elegant waltz as I glided through the marketplace, keeping my feet constantly moving around to get through the thick crowd.

We soon had to end the impromptu dance/shopping session to grab a taxi to the airport and return to Hong Kong to start the last week of the program. As the taxi took us out, I reflected on the amazing things we’d seen in Beijing and how much food for thought it had given me. Our stay there ended with a pleasant realization: for the first time since our arrival there, we could see the blue sky.

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Into the Mainland: Guangzhou

Ni hao! [Hello!] Had to use Mandarin this time – this week we ventured out of Hong Kong to head into the Chinese mainland for a few days. We went to the city of Guangzhou in the Guangdong province for some new class and company visit experiences. Let’s do a breakdown!

Day 1: Acclimation

We got up early in the morning to head to the train station to get to Guangzhou. As the train headed out of Hong Kong, we watched the scenery roll by for a few hours (when we weren’t napping). I noticed that as we got farther into the mainland, things got foggier outside. It seemed to be a mix of fog from the intense humidity, and a bit of the infamous levels of air pollution along the Chinese eastern coast.

Guangzhou's TV tower

After we got through immigration and exchanged our Hong Kong dollars for RMB/yuan (either name works), we were welcomed to mainland China by our guide for Guangzhou. One of the immediate differences is that there’s less English in the mainland. Still some, thankfully, but it’s not as prevalent and not as many people speak it. The main language is Mandarin Chinese (or, simplified Chinese), instead of the Cantonese (traditional Chinese) spoken in Hong Kong and Taiwan. The good news for me is that my Mandarin phrase book finally became applicable! Also, the architecture in Guangzhou is very interesting. Many of the buildings in the city had unusual designs that gave the city a neat feel.

Dinosaur bones at the Guangdong Museum

We went to the Guangdong Museum to learn about the history of the local province. It had lots of exhibits about the history of the region and its contributions to Chinese society, culture specific to the area, gemstones that can be found nearby, and local flora and fauna. This included dinosaur bones that have been found in this province, and having been crazy about dinosaurs as a kid, I found that part particularly awesome.

Tree lights along Beijing Street

After dropping off our stuff at our rather nice hotel, we set out for an evening along Beijing Street, a popular road filled with restaurants and shops. It was a very active and interesting street, with lots of people milling about (including some hustlers trying to get us to give up some of our money), and lots of multicolored lights hanging from the trees, which gave the stretch of road a rather cool and unique look.

We headed down the road quite a ways until we reached the Pearl River. The river was nice, but what gave the view its own flair was that the bridge down the way and lots of the boats chugging along the water were covered in strands of lights, making everything really colorful.

Day 2: Class with Chinese Students, Round 2

The next day we headed over to the Guangzhou School of Foreign Studies for class. We were sharing the class with a group of local Chinese business students who study at this university. We got a chance to chat with each other while working on a group assignment. Like the group from Shanghai last week, they were very eager to talk to us, though with a bit of a different line of questioning. Instead of just asking us about American culture in general, they asked us more personal questions and seemed to learn some things about America by extrapolating from our responses.

SMU and Guangzhou students at China Mobile

And they told us plenty about their lives here in Guangzhou, as virtually all of the students were born and raised there. One thing that seemed to stick out was that basketball is a popular sport in China. Several of the male students told me that they loved watching NBA games (in addition to local teams), and that the NBA Finals were the talk of the town a few weeks back. Some of the students said they had been cheering for the Dallas Mavericks, which was great to hear! Even over here in China, they expressed admiration for Dirk Nowitzki (who has very much earned it!).

We then had a lecture from a professor at the school who had an interesting focus – the knockoffs industry. It’s a big deal here of course, with street sellers all over the place (saying they are everywhere and constantly in your face is no exaggeration). She told us a lot about how the knockoffs industry relates to proper industry, and the webs of connections and contracts that lead to (legitimate) companies getting to produce items designed by fancy labels. One interesting fact about the knockoff makers was that the workshops that make them, since they are always at risk of being besieged by the police, are set up very informally, with no heavy machinery, just a lot of sewing machines and other easily movable equipment. The whole operation is set up so that everything can be cleared out within one day if the police are about to bust them.

After sharing a hot pot lunch with the other students, we headed to our joint company visit at China Mobile, a huge state-run cellular provider that holds most of the cellular provider market in China. We got to see a prototype showroom for their phones, which was very futuristic and sleek. Afterward we went through a security gate staffed by soldiers (again, it’s a state-run company) to head to a meeting with the Director of Strategy for the Guangdong province. It was a little difficult to follow his presentation, to be honest. His English was fairly good, but the slides he showed us were entirely in Chinese, which made it very hard to follow. In general he talked about the telecommunications industry in China. One thing that stuck out was that the iPhone is a big threat to them, as Apple had come to them asking for a deal to distribute through China Mobile, but they turned Apple down and the iPhone is now making lots of money for a competing company that made the deal.

After the visit we parted ways with the Guangzhou students and got ready for an evening outing. We headed back down to the Pearl River and got on a night boat ride along the river. The boats and buildings along the river were covered in lights of every color of the rainbow, so it was a very pretty sight. The highlight was Guangzhou’s tall TV tower, and its lights were constantly changing and commanded most people’s views.

Day 3: Beer

Our last day in Guangzhou, we only did a company visit, but it was one that any college student would appreciate – a brewery and beer museum. As someone who enjoys a good beer (and who is of legal age and enjoys his drinks responsibly!), I made no attempt to conceal my anticipation for this visit.

At the brewery

We arrived at the brewery and were greeted by a man who works there as a manager of the brewery itself, and as curator of its recently opened beer museum. He took us through the museum first, and we learned about the ancient origins of beer (it’s been around just about as long as human civilization), and the history of brewing in China. The brewery we were visiting was the first in China to adopt modern, Western brewing technologies, which helped it become a success.

After the museum, we got to see the actual factory floor, where there were some workers milling about as lots of machines moved bottles around, filled them, put caps on, and grouped them together to be boxed up.

At the end we got to go to a bar set up in the brewery, where we were treated to some free beer. The manager helped celebrate by giving us some popcorn to munch on as we asked him some more questions about the brewery. He even turned on the karaoke machine and joined us in singing some songs! After sifting through the list to find one with English lyrics, I sang Happy Birthday, and then gave a stirring rendition of Celine Dion’s “My Heart Will Go On,” and definitely did not sing terribly at all. Nope. Not even slightly.

Coming up next: Beijing!

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Class with Chinese students

Our second week ended with a special class. We dressed up to share a lecture on intercultural communication with a group of Chinese university students from Shanghai. We split into groups and immediately got under way chatting with each other about each other’s cultures; they wanted to know how the Chinese are seen in America (we basically told them that they are considered to be very smart at things like math, but also rather quiet and shy), while they told us how the Chinese view Americans (loud party-lovers, but creative thinkers and good businessmen).

We also swapped tips on how to adjust when visiting each other’s culture, and generally learned from each other how our respective societies, attitudes, cultural norms and social mores worked. I think I learned more about Chinese culture from them in a few minutes than I did in my first few days in China! It was great to have the chance to talk to Chinese my own age about the many questions I wanted to ask about the country.

To pick one, I had heard about a month before this trip that the Chinese government had banned from television numerous shows that involved modern Chinese traveling into the dynastic periods of the past to find romance and adventure amongst figures from Chinese history. The government’s official reason for the ban on time travel plots was that it was disrespectful to history to show it in a fictional way. I asked the Chinese students if this was true, and they said yes. I then asked if they were ok with that, and even the ones who said they had liked those shows said they understood the government’s reason. I was surprised – in America, if our government did something like that, people would flip out. People really do just have a radically different mentality here (and I would begin to realize why a few days later).

At the end of the very learning-filled class, the Chinese students gave us all business cards with their names and e-mails, and many of them also gave us some small gifts like bookmarks and phone charmlets, among other items. I was very impressed with their professionalism and generosity, and felt sorely outclassed since we had nothing to present to them in return. If anyone thinking of going on this study abroad in the years to come reads this, bring along some little American trinkets to give as gifts!

Macau, the Asian Vegas

We took a day in our weekend to head over to the island city of Macau, renowned as the place to go in Asia for gambling. We took an hourlong ferry ride over, and after going through immigration (Macau is an SAR like Hong Kong, so it also operates almost like its own nation), we were in… well, if it weren’t for all the Chinese characters everywhere I would have sworn it was Las Vegas.

Seriously, Macau has all of the glitz, lights, and excess of Sin City, but with an Asian flavor. We spent a good amount of time going around to several hotels along an area called the Cotai Strip, and we could hardly believe how incredibly fancy and ostentatious the décor was. I originally spent a long time trying to find the words to describe it, but I’m not sure they exist. What pictures we took will have to suffice, but they really don’t do justice to the scale of the place.

We stayed in Macau pretty late – checking out hotels, doing a little bit of gambling (I managed to come out with 300 more Hong Kong dollars than I started with… woohoo!), reclining in fancy hotel bars. And I must add that when we went to the Venetian, I REALLY was sure we were basically in Vegas – I’ve stayed at the Venetian in Vegas, and the lobby for their Macau location was a carbon copy down to the last detail.

It was quite a blast – it’s an exhilarating city to see and be in! And it might actually have even more crazy ritziness than Vegas itself. It really has to be seen to be believed.

The Life of an Expatriate

After recovering from our long day in Macau, the third week of the program began with an interesting class on intercultural communication that explored some depths I hadn’t before considered – that we simultaneously over- and underestimate the role of cultures in shaping our encounters with people.

We underestimate by simply wondering how to do business with the Chinese, for example – there are many more dimensions of culture that shape each individual in China beyond what country they hail from; there are also cultures stemming from gender, age, race, religion, area where they grew up, and more. Yet we underestimate the role of cultures by attributing all of a person’s aspects to their nationality – such as if you had an unpleasant encounter with a Chinese person and assumed all Chinese were unpleasant. The role of individual personalities cannot be forgotten. It requires a careful balance of consideration of these things to properly facilitate intercultural communication.

Even more interesting than that, however, was what I did that afternoon. Through a man from my church back home I had been put in contact with a man who has been living and working in Asia for over a decade, and has lived in China for seven years, after having also lived in Tokyo and Singapore, and having worked all around China, Japan, Thailand, South Korea, and more.

We met for coffee and had an incredible conversation. He told me about his work – helping resolve debt disputes through a combination of the courts and negotiation. Despite all his years in Asia, he’s never needed to learn any language other than English – he communicates through both a translator and an interpreter. When the person he is trying to do business with replies, he gets a translation from both the translator and interpreter, and puts their two responses together to get a better sense of what his business contact is really trying to say.

He told me a lot of things that reinforced our earlier lesson on the importance of guanxi. In South Korea, drinking is a huge part of business culture. He has people working for him in Seoul whose entire job is to be “designated drinkers” – to stay at a bar with the Koreans he is working with to keep drinking and laughing with them after he has to leave, and to settle the tab at the end of the night; all to facilitate the relationship. South Korean businessmen are reluctant to trust a potential business partner until they’ve seen them drunk, as they feel that being inebriated brings out more of one’s true colors.

And once while he has been in China, he was told there were several cases relating to his clients that were tied up in court. He spent two days bringing moon cakes and tea to judges, and chatting with them about family life (through his interpreter/translator combo) – not a single word about business. And within two weeks, every single one of those cases was resolved in favor of his clients. And in case you haven’t read my earlier entries, doing that kind of thing in Asia is not a bribe. Showing respect like that is what greases the wheels of business and society over here.

He also told me about what it’s like to be an expat. He lauded the opportunities to see the world and really expand one’s view of our world and what is going on in it. He said that when he returns to the United States, he finds it hard to talk with people like he used to. His friends who have never left the States talk about their daily lives, but when he talks about all of the global issues and interests that make up his daily life, they find it baffling. And he said that gave him a special feeling of having that broadened worldview. In fact, he enjoys the expat life so much that he does not plan on returning to the United States to retire – he’s going to retire in Bangkok.

We also talked about many other things about China and its current economic situation, but allow me to share one more thing. He told me that when he first came to China in 2000, the drive from the airport was surrounded by farms. Now all of that same area is developed land. Those words made me give pause and think. Growing up, and leading up to this program, my friends and I always wondered why Chinese citizens were ok with the government, which to us seemed not so great (Communism and all that). It made no sense to us why the citizens took no issue with things like the government telling them that certain TV shows were now banned, which seemed at the time to be a flagrant attempt to exercise tight control over the people.

Now I understood. In just the last 10 years, and for a few decades before that, the Chinese government has taken the lives of millions and made their standard of living so much higher; giving Chinese citizens much, much more comfortable lives. In only a decade. I realized – this government is giving its people results. In comparison to a dramatic increase in standard of living, the time travel TV show ban is so relatively minor. After the government has made their lives so much better, why WOULD any of them take issue with that? They trust their government, and they have good reason to. They aren’t brainwashed by Communist doctrine or anything of the sort. To them, the government’s previous decisions have enriched their lives, and based on those past results, they trust its current decisions are for their benefit as well.

Just that statement from him completely shifted my view of the Chinese people and government to a new plateau of understanding. I couldn’t ask for a more enlightening conversation.

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Cultural relevance

We began a new set of classwork this week. Instead of management, we had a new teacher who would be telling us about marketing in China. The first two classes on this subject involved learning a bit about China’s layout, with many areas divided into special zones based on the government’s plans for the area. We also learned about the structure and hierarchy of China’s government.

We were also taught about the sort of buyers the Chinese people are; they prefer to buy high-quality, long-lasting goods, and are willing to pay a little extra to get those qualities. And while they generally associate high quality with foreign brands, this does not hold true for household products, where the Chinese tend to choose local brands.

Additionally, we learned about how some companies have succeeded in China by adapting themselves to Chinese preferences and tastes. Allow me to provide some contrasting examples we were given in class. McDonald’s, a classic American food chain, came to China with virtually the exact same strategies and menu items as in America, and they are struggling. The youth like going to it, as they want to taste Western experiences, but on the whole the Chinese just aren’t that wild about beef.

In contrast, KFC is a big hit in China, yet if you walk into one, the Colonel’s famous fried chicken is nowhere on the menu – it’s all Chinese foods, though some with a bit of a new take. Adapting the menu to suit the Chinese has worked very well for them.

Seeing the stark difference between two strong brands in the U.S., and how vast the gap between their successes in China is with their different approaches, made it clear how important it is for a business to be culturally relevant.

It’s ironic, really – the more global a company becomes, the more local it has to become to keep doing business. In today’s increasingly globalized world, countries and people everywhere cling ever more tightly to their heritage, culture, and traditions to avoid losing their identities to a homogeneous world. And if a business wants to succeed internationally, it must align its identity with the identity of its local customers.

Fun at the Park (and More Cultural Relevance)

The next day, instead of class we got to go on the best company visit yet – an amusement park! Woohoo! We got on a bus early to go to Ocean Park, a park in Hong Kong that has an aquarium, several habitats for land animals, water rides, rollercoasters… it has a little bit of everything!

Our meeting was with the park’s CEO, a man who is from America and has been managing Ocean Park since 2004. His presentation reinforced the previous day’s lessons on the importance of paying attention to the local culture when doing business.

He told us that when he came to the park, it was in dire straits. Attendance was down, and Disney was about to build a Disneyland in Hong Kong that looked to draw in their audience. Rather than competing head-to-head with the financial giant that is Disney, the new CEO decided to reposition the park into something different from Disneyland.

The CEO realized that Disney was inherently a foreign thing, whereas Ocean Park had been in Hong Kong since the ‘70s. He and his team spent time in the park and the city learning about the current culture of Hong Kong. They retooled the park in a Hong Kong style and ran advertisements and promotions that used aspects of Hong Kong’s culture and tied them to the park.

One important thing he learned about the citizens of Hong Kong is that they are eager to try new experiences, but only one time, after which they seek out the next new thing to do. Cirque du Soleil, for example, sold out its first year in Hong Kong, but the very next year they could not even give away seats. The city simply had an “already seen that” attitude.

Ocean Park overcomes this attitude by constantly changing things up at the park. One of their biggest events is their annual Halloween bash (which is a HUGE deal in Hong Kong and packs the park). Every year, the haunted houses and ghouls wandering the park are entirely different, making it a new experience every time. And it all worked like crazy.

Ocean Park’s attendance in 2010 was a record high of 5.8 million visitors. Disneyland, maintaining its Main Street, USA feel just like back in the States, is struggling. Tellingly, Disney’s next park will be built in Shanghai, and they plan to do the park in a Shanghai style rather than American – appealing to the local culture like Ocean Park has done.

After an excellent lesson in the importance of appealing to your local market in business, we were free to roam the park the rest of the day. Hong Kong’s rainy summers showed itself with an intermittent drizzling throughout the day, but we didn’t let that stop us! We saw some neat fish and interesting animals, and a few of us endured the long lines on the rides.

My favorite animal in the park was easily the pandas. I’d never seen one with my own two eyes before, so I was excited to get an up-close look at an animal I’d always associated so closely with China. Turns out they’re pretty lazy – most of them spent apparently the whole day snoozing, with a little bit of bamboo munching mixed in. I was tired from rising early to get to the park, so I think I understood them a bit!

We also rode one of Ocean Park’s classic attractions, the cable car. The park is made up of two separate areas connected by a cable car and a fast train. The cable car ride practically defined the phrase “the scenic route.” You could see out in every direction from the little pod, and the cables ran along the coastline, so it afforded a great view of nearby Repulse Bay.

Mustangs Abroad

After having a blast at Ocean Park all day, we urged our sore feet onward a little longer to head to one more event for the day. I didn’t realize this until we were told about it, but Hong Kong is home to a decent number of SMU graduates, and through their common bond of being Mustangs, they stay in touch with each other in the city and occasionally get together. They were having an alumni gathering, and we had been invited along as well.

We headed to a bar in the Soho district to meet the alums and had a blast. The SMU alums were all great, really friendly people. They told us about how they’d ended up in Hong Kong, the work they were doing, and what it was like to live and work abroad as an expat.

They impressed upon us how important an experience working abroad can be for a person’s career. Aside from the personal opportunity to live somewhere new and travel to other nearby places (the Hong Kong alums told us about recent trips they’d taken to other countries nearby like Thailand and Vietnam), having experience abroad can give a person a leg up on the competitors for future jobs.

It was very comforting to realize that wherever I end up after I graduate, I’ll find other SMU graduates wherever I go, and our common experience of having gone to SMU will give us a bond, and give me friends all over the world.

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Flaws in the gem

The events over the last several days have given me a bit of food for thought about how businesses operate, how much power parties in a business transaction can wield, the importance of connections, and just how different the culture is here.

It started with a class that contained, among other things, a discussion of China as a major market. Now, we all hear these days about how China is the biggest untapped market for everything under the sun (and then some), and that if a company can just crack the market, then there is oodles of money to be made and everything will be great forever. But today we got to hear about how it’s NOT quite the perfect market it’s often made out to be.

First off, China isn’t the world’s top exporter. It’s up there with Germany, Japan, and the U.S., but has vacillated around the #3 spot. It just gets more attention as an exporter due to the goods it exports being cheap and widely available, and thus more noticeable.

Which segues nicely into another point – China’s government has decided it’s time for China to step away from being the world’s factory. They want China to start producing fancier goods and focus on the domestic market. In the next few decades, the “Made in China” tag on an item will be a mark of quality; the production of cheap goods will be handed off to various other countries, such as Bangladesh. As China turns to focus on the domestic markets, it will become much harder for foreign companies to gain a foothold, and exports from China will decrease.

The country also has difficulties to overcome in the way it manages businesses due to the nature of the culture. The decisions of seniors cannot be challenged lest one appear disrespectful. Chinese factories also face issues with having to try to appear as if they are not being overly successful, for fear of regional officials coming to ask for more tax money.

Also bearing mention are some poor investment decisions due to officials being tempted to fudge numbers and ask banks to make questionable loans to help a province meet set growth targets to reap the incentive benefits, as well as nearly no money being spent in China on research and development of new products or indigenization of imported technologies.

Despite all the stuff I just talked about, China is still a very strong market. I just find that finally getting to learn about some of the imperfections of the situation gives me a more realistic view of things, which is exactly the sort of horizon-expanding stuff I came here to learn!

The Ladies Market: the power of the buyer

After that edifying lesson, we unwound with an afternoon trip to the Ladies Market, a big flea market. And no, it doesn’t just have items for ladies, though it started out that way, hence the name. It was a place that had a very alive feel to it with all the commotion constantly going on. Unexpectedly, however, it led to a powerful reinforcement of the first class’s lessons about the five forces of competition. One of those is the bargaining power of the buyer, and today would be a lesson like no other in just how much power the buyer can wield.

We immediately got under way with the shopping, checking out what the various stalls had to offer. There were lots of interesting items on sale that would make cool souvenirs. One thing I went looking for was a brush painting to hang back home. Many stalls had them on wall scrolls, so I asked at several how much they wanted for one. After doing so, I would immediately head to the next to ask so I could compare prices. Each time, as I left, the sellers immediately began dropping the price by incredible amounts. They know that many other stalls only a few steps away carry the same items, and that the only way to secure anyone’s business is to win on price. It was then that I realized how much power I held in this situation, and that I could use that power to haggle for some great deals.

I must say, I’ve been to flea markets before in America and Europe, but these sellers were the most persistent I’ve ever seen. Attempts to make me stay and buy an item ranged from grabbing my arm to following me down the street yelling at me. But with the nature of flea markets, the bargaining power was tipped in our favor as buyers, and we were able to secure some amazing deals by asking for lower prices or appearing disinterested in making a purchase.

In the case of one lady following me down the street yelling at me, she dropped the price of a large brush painting wall scroll from 280 to 250 to 200, then 150, then 100, at which point I finally turned around and agreed. And with the conversion rate of roughly 7.8 Hong Kong dollars to 1 US dollar that makes everything here pretty cheap, it became an even better deal. We all got some neat stuff at great prices.


The next afternoon, we had another company visit, this time with Multizen, a Hong Kong-based kid’s toy and candy maker, with mostly licensed items. If you’ve ever had Disney, Hello Kitty, or Spongebob Squarepants licensed candies, for example, you’re familiar with their products. Our meeting was with the founder and CEO.

He told us a great deal about being an entrepreneur in China, having started by himself with only $20,000, and today it is a multimillion company with branches in dozens of countries. He was very frank with us about the unique difficulties of entrepreneurship in China and the difficult times his company has faced.

What stood out for me the most was one particular word he stressed that made me think about how different the culture in China really is: “guanxi,” meaning “relationship.” The CEO is from China but went to boarding school and college in the States, and began doing business in China using very Western methods. This soon gave him problems. He told us that when doing business in China, a critical element of the culture is guanxi. It is very important to give face to government officials to show respect. This usually takes the form of taking regional officials out to a nice dinner and giving them gifts at the major holidays.

I grappled with this notion. It was hard not to think of this all as a bribe. And he understood that feeling. He told us that Hong Kong, as a Special Administrative Region within China (making it nearly autonomous), operates under the rule of law like the U.S., so being there made it a bit harder to see the difference. But mainland China operates under the rule of people. And Chinese culture dictates that seniors must be shown respect. It’s not bribery. It’s how the culture works.

Museum art and the art of life

After learning so much about the disparity between cultures, we decided to mellow out by spending the rest of the afternoon at the Hong Kong Museum of Art.

The museum had art of several kinds from ancient to contemporary. It was all pretty neat, but admittedly I don’t really get modern art, so for me the most interesting things were the centuries-old landscape brush paintings done on some very long scrolls. Aside from admiring their beauty, I spent some time ruminating on how much planning must have gone into placing each part on the unusually wide little papers, and how the same fog-wrapped mountains I first saw upon arriving inspired many of these paintings hundreds of years ago.

After we left the museum, we wandered the city streets to find a place to eat. On the way, we found a store carrying the infamously cheap DVDs I’ve heard are so abundant in China. They weren’t quite as cheap as I had heard, though they were still pretty darn cheap after factoring in the generous conversion rate. Anyway, we mostly wandered this way and that looking for an appealing restaurant, and all the while just admiring the city and how electrifying the air was, being abuzz with so much activity and so many people. Have I mentioned how crowded it is here? It’s seriously crowded here. The streets were jam-packed.

We ended up eating at a place several floors up in a building, and we were at a window with a nice view of the street we had just come from. We spent a lot of the meal gazing down at the hustle and bustle and the lights of the streets below. We all agreed it was rather pretty and captivating, and I realized we were gazing at another work of art, a very different but very special kind of art. So far, being here just hasn’t ceased to amaze!

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Hong Kong, the fragrant harbor

Lei ho! [Hello!] Thanks for taking a look at my blog about studying business abroad in China! We arrived in Hong Kong a couple of days ago after a flight that was extremely long but quickly made itself worthwhile. Even while still inside the airport, we were immediately treated outside the windows to a view of majestic, fog-shrouded mountains jutting up out of the cityscape. It was instantly clear that we weren’t in Kansas (read: Texas) anymore!

The taxi ride out gave us views of more mountains and sparkling bays. We soon arrived at the Chinese University of Hong Kong. The first sign that this college experience would be different from SMU was how vertical the campus is. The whole thing is on a mountain, and getting around requires either waiting for a bus or taking a lot of stairs in the humid summer heat. However, this also gives us some gorgeous views of the city from just about anywhere on campus.

After settling in, we got oriented: we were shown around campus and given a few items we’d need, like subway passes. We were then treated to a crash course in actual Chinese food (which, it turns out, isn’t quite like Pei Wei or Panda Express!). Of special mention among all the foods brought out for us was one called the dragon fruit (which is easily the coolest-ever name for a fruit): red skin on the outside, with an inside somewhat like a grey watermelon with small black seeds. Though nearly tasteless, it was very juicy and quite refreshing! Not quite like fruits I’ve ever seen in the States.


After visiting a rather crowded mall, we purchased some phones with local numbers. After swapping numbers around, we were turned loose for the afternoon. Several of us banded together to strike out into the city with no particular goal other than to take it all in.

One thing I noticed as we traipsed about was how much English there is in Hong Kong. As a former British colony, English is a prevalent language here, and while Cantonese is the main language, many people speak at least some English, and just about every sign carries an English translation of the Cantonese characters. As only one person in our study abroad group speaks any Chinese, this was something we were all quite grateful for!

We eventually made our way to a street called the Avenue of Stars, which was basically the Hong Kong equivalent of Hollywood’s Walk of Stars, with star-shaped plaques in the ground with the names and handprints of Hong Kong film stars. We mostly stopped to fawn over the stars of Hong Kong action movie stars and a statue of Bruce Lee.

More captivating, however, was the view from the Avenue of Stars. From there, we could look across the river and see Hong Kong Island, and the amazing view of the skyline was something we spent a good amount of time admiring.

Learning about business

After some well-earned rest, our second day began with class. Our professor, Mr. Ahlstrom, is originally American and has been teaching in Asia for around 15 years. After talking to us about what it had been like for him to live and work in Asia, we set about learning about managerial concepts of strategy and the five forces that shape competition.

This lesson was immediately reinforced when we got a chance to hear about it being put to use in the real world, as our afternoon activity was a visit to the Asian headquarters of Caterpillar, the makers of construction machinery. There, we were fortunate enough to be greeted by several of the top executives of Caterpillar’s Asian branch. They gave us a presentation about how Caterpillar came to enter the market in China, their ever-evolving strategy to continually improve Cat’s position in the Asian market, and the impossible-to-overstate importance of the China market to the company today. Much of their strategy tied back to applying the basics we had learned in class earlier in the day. They were also willing to answer many questions from us about doing business in China’s unique market and culture, and from it we gleaned much valuable insight, making it a rather successful trip! (And if the people from Caterpillar are reading this, thanks so much for having us! It was awesome!)

We rounded out the day with a trip to Victoria Peak. We took a tram up the mountain, ascending far above the city. It stopped in a tower, and we slowly worked our way up through the multitude of interesting shops to reach the top, where we found an absolutely breathtaking view of the city in the light of the waning sun, just as the lights began to come on for the night. We were then treated to a little show called the Symphony of Lights, an event held each night where many buildings in the city all spend a few minutes rhythmically flashing their lights together, which made for a mesmerizing sight. Even after that was over, we all couldn’t help but stay up there and look out over Hong Kong, and think on how incredible it’s already been to be here. And there’s still nearly a whole month of adventures to come!

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