Reflecting upon the IMBA Asia Residency Experience
Most of us are now back in the U.S. after our five-week Asian Odyssey. One of our students, Rich Reitenbach, produced a cogent summery of the experience. So today, Rich will be our Guest Blogger. The following words are his, with the disclaimer that his extensive use of “we” may not reflect the specific views of all participants. Rich writes:
By the time our class had made the long trip to Beijing, I felt like we were all China experts. Having taken several classes, read a myriad of books, and analyzed so many case studies pertaining to China throughout the past year, we all thought we knew what to expect. We were fully prepped for building Guanxi, giving Face, and entering the burgeoning Chinese market from BOP to luxury goods. China would be a simple walk in the park compared to our residencies in South Africa and Chile.
Upon arrival we were greeted by representatives from the Beijing Center who were very friendly and with whom we became close over time. I started noticing that topics we had read in preparation for our travels were simultaneously very accurate and very wrong. To blindly apply the concepts to everyday interactions would be limiting and self-deprecating. With the power of Guanxi, we were able to experience a kind of forced hospitality; it was only later and through conversation that we developed any real connections with locals. In accordance with Guanxi, if we did not have any prior connections, local Chinese people were somewhat cold (however some exceptions did occur). Giving and receiving Face was also widely used as we visited and conversed with local businesses. This concept was evident in the practices of everyday business life. It was amazing to witness what was theorized in books come to life.
However, our readings and assignments could not completely prepare us for the sheer enormity of cultural, economic, and social differences that we would face in China. Some were odd inconveniences like the lack of taxis available in Shanghai. Others were much more severe ranging from children excreting on the sidewalks to smog blotting out the sky in an apocalyptic nightmare of eternal dusk. This smog coats you in a layer of filth as you walk around throughout the day, breathing it in, and feeling it inside of your mouth and lungs. It is unavoidable and coats facades of all buildings. (Our cohort joked about starting an edifice washing company and selling designer face masks.) Other differences included the degree of corruption and high level of social inequality, that some postulated could lead to social unrest. One of the more humorous aspects of the trip was that our hotel was adjacent to a party led, propaganda laden “news” organization (similar to Fox or CNN).
Unfortunately, much of what we experienced in China we have also experienced in the USA. Some people in our group pointed out the smog in LA, dirty streets of NYC, and corruption in Chicago. We had experienced these inconvenient peculiarities before – just not to the degree that we recognized them in China. In the end, we conceded that this place could be livable for an expat (many of whom live in China). Perhaps this country, with its emerging consumer class, bottom-of-the-pyramid possibilities, and appetite for luxury goods may be just the place for us to grow our businesses and our careers.
Than it was off to Vietnam, Thailand, and Cambodia. South East Asia shared similarities with China. but each country had notable individual characteristics. For Vietnam the noticeable difference when first arriving was the swarm of motorbikes. In Cambodia it was the abject poverty. Thailand by comparison seemed quite wealthy; here we shared in the New Year’s festivities. Overall, each country we visited in South East Asia had extremely friendly locals with virtually no Guanxi needed for first contact. The terrain was beautiful and the cuisine excellent. Overall, the locals seemed to have a positive attitude towards life and strong hope for the future (which is sometimes hard to find back home where we sit on what appears to be the precipice of our civilization). Enormous growth potential existed here as it did in China, however the markets were more fragmented and the potential payoffs smaller.
While we were in Cambodia, our guide brought us to a fishing village where he challenged us to find a solution to the poor living conditions there. We sat in two boats tied together in the middle of a large lake, our surroundings and our minds in a foggy haze. Sadly, we had no real answers. That was my the most important lesson from South East Asia. We are often compelled to act out of sympathy and rarely empathy; yet when it comes down to it what do we actually know? What difference can we make? How can we truly enact change? The truth is that it is not up to us. In fact, we would probably do more harm than good if we were to come up with our own ideas for these remote villages. Our guide answered his own question through a line of reasoning later in the trip. He cited poor health as to why children could not go to school to learn and adults could not thrive. This was his assessment of why ultimately these villages would not see an increase in living standards. How could they learn without food in their bellies? How could they be healthy when their drinking water was mixed with refuse? They could not get out of poverty without drastic changes to their lifestyles. How could they change their lifestyles? The village they live in floods every year. A dirt road and a river that dries up leads to their town. There could be no traditional Western infrastructure in a place with this geography. What is the answer? To simply move? Or to create a new kind of infrastructure for towns like this?
Too often, we travel to countries and decide that we will make a positive impact when we may be doing damage. Examples of this could be seen dancing in the wind throughout South East Asia as little packaging from companies like Johnson & Johnson, specifically designed for the BOP, littered the streets and waterways. Other examples could be seen back in Africa, where a little further North USAID shipments of rice and other subsidized food staples negatively impact Africa’s food security. Even in Chile, the shining light of Milton Freedman in South America, we could see destitute poverty and a lack of necessary social structures due to the export of our thoughts and ideologies.
We have no solutions, but through our year of studying and living in emerging markets, the group has better grasped the complexities of the problems. Happily, the IMBA students, who will graduate this summer, have our lives and careers before us to make a positive difference.