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IMBA Student Calls China the Wisest Teacher of All

Saba Ahmed is one of the students in our Intercontinental MBA cohort.  As we complete our 5-week Asia residency, Saba shares her impressions of our time in China.  The following are her words:

We can talk about this until we’re blue, read all the books, observe all the people, but the only way we’ll understand fundamental cultural differences is by expanding our horizons and planting ourselves in the thick of things. If there’s ever been an opportunity to practice what we preach, now is it!

Here are three lessons from my brief time in Beijing:

1.  Sometimes, I don’t matter. In the U.S., everyone is special, everyone is a winner, everyone is unique. This doesn’t really hold true in the land of 1.3 billion. It’s not so much that I don’t matter at all, it’s just that I don’t matter as much as I think. Traffic doesn’t yield to me and my beautiful face in Beijing like it does in Chicago—traffic maintains its speed and it is very much my own problem if I don’t move in time.

Lesson: I won’t always stand out with the best deal, the best value, or the best quality. It’s up to me to stop traffic with some other sharp edge—perhaps it’s agility, adaptability, or another uncommon trait.

2.  Nothing is simple—and if it is, get ready to reevaluate. Even something as simple as making a purchase of tea cups in China can raise warning alarms. The first stall I visited quoted me 150 RMB per cup, and I counter-offered with 50 RMB. “OK,” she agreed, “50 each.”

Whoa, whoa whoa. That 67% price cut was way too easy. I listened to my instincts (bu-yao! Don’t want!) and continued deep into the market, where I quickly found a set of tea cups for 30 RMB in total.

Lesson: This was a simple case of a few dollars, but due diligence is not a joke. Do it. Be especially wary of anything that seems simple or quick, and remember that it’s ok to shop around and gather intel before committing to anything—it’s part of the norm in China.

3.  Context—sometimes a little high, sometimes a little low. For one of our research projects in Beijing, we contacted a local winery and attempted to set up an interview on their business practices. While our contact initially sounded enthusiastic about meeting us, he did not reply to our texts, messages and attempts to finalize a meeting time. My group and I had already made a reservation at a restaurant to host our contact, but we ultimately had to resign ourselves to reading the high-context clues of the situation.  He was declining the meeting without actually saying  anything.

Lesson: Sometimes, listening and interpreting words is not adequate to understanding what is being said. It’s especially important in Asia to pay attention to actions. Tone, body language and other behaviors often offer far more insight than words anyway, so this skill can be truly invaluable.

 Hopefully, these lessons will help me navigate the business world wherever it may take me. I think the key is keen observing, absorbing knowledge and adapting. The IMBA program isn’t just about learning business practices in a specific region; it’s about gaining the skills to identify differences and then to conduct ourselves and business in a way that marries our values with local values. We won’t always have pre-assignment briefings on business practices wherever we go, but we can take our cultural awareness anywhere and glean local values and practices ourselves.

Here’s to traversing borders and gaining the skills to succeed wherever we go,

-Saba Ahmed


  • By Tiffany Chan on 4.21.2014 at 12:51 am

    Saba, great read! You so succinctly put into words what we’ve all been experiencing since we arrived in Asia. Now that we are back in China after a couple weeks away (to visit Vietnam, Cambodia, and Thailand), I think we can all appreciate the complexities of Chinese culture even more! I especially liked your first point about how we are no always that special. I think this sense of humility is something we can all carry with us in our future endeavors that will ultimately make us all better businesspeople.

  • By Chelsea Fauria on 4.21.2014 at 7:26 am

    Excellent post, Saba! You summed up some key takeaways from Beijing very succinctly. Particularly to the first point, I think that it is a nice concrete example of Hofstede’s Individualism/ Collectivism metric. Illustrating how we are perceived in the west contrasted with our daily experiences in China.

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