All In on China

As the 2010 World Expo winds down in Shanghai, the full-time MBA program at the China Europe International Business School (CEIBS Full-Time MBA Profile) is starting to move at full speed. Its campus sitting only a few kilometers from the main expo site, CEIBS has lately been influenced by this major event. As a CEIBS student, I have gotten special passes to visit the exhibits. In just one day, I recalled the beauty of the streets of Paris, learned about urban life in the desert, and sipped mojitos to the beat of salsa music in the pavilions of France, Saudi Arabia, and Cuba.

Also, those business VIPs attending the expo sometimes make time to stop by our school. Two important figures from my native Spain, Madrid Mayor Alberto Ruiz-Gallardón and Basque President Patxi López, visited us. I was also pleased to see Ghanaian Vice-President John Dramani Mahama and former president of the European Commission and CEIBS professor Romano Prodi discuss the future of Africa, China, and the European Union. Having worked in Africa earlier this year, I have a soft spot for the continent, and I am very proud of CEIBS's campus in Accra, Ghana, which opened last year. Still, I was disappointed to find no Africans among my classmates. Maybe that will change in 2011.

For the moment, my goal is to immerse myself in Chinese culture, and this focus has been the highlight of the CEIBS program so far. The campus is new, peaceful, and pretty. From the outside it looks like any other Western school, but when you look inside, the fun begins. There are Chinese distinctions everywhere. The cafeteria serves Shanghai specialties at dirt-cheap prices. Many dishes are unidentifiable, even to some Chinese students. The staff only speaks Mandarin, so not surprisingly my first Chinese words were food-related. Breakfast is vile to my Western palate—no matter if it's a steamed bun, a pickled vegetable, or rice congee, everything tastes the same. Lunch and dinner are all right, but living off campus allows me the opportunity to get away from the cafeteria and indulge in other options. In town, a variety of foods that are tasty and affordable are available. Since I got used to the eateries in the United Kingdom, my standards are hardly near Michelin anyway.

If you manage to eat and want to work off some calories, you can head to the sports facilities. They are not huge, but they are modern and certainly adequate for fewer than 200 full-time students. As a self-proclaimed hypochondriac, I have made good friends with the medicine vending machine at the gym. This device first asks you to key in your symptoms, then comes up with a diagnosis, and finally offers the appropriate medicine in exchange for your money. Priceless!

Cultural Conflicts

Distinctions that are particular to China are equally present when working on an assignment with a team of classmates. Aware of possible cultural conflicts that may arise during the program, the MBA directors purposely design the Term One groups to have one Westerner, one mainland Chinese, and one other Asian national, so we learn to deal with conflicts sooner rather than later. And there certainly are conflicts.

I am more of a Spaniard than I like to admit. I am loud. I interrupt people when they speak. I am direct. My clumsiness often offends Chinese students, and they actually do not show it. They are often subtle, they calmly discuss and explain their opinion, they try to work around differences, and they put collective harmony above individuality. This attitude often had me feeling frustrated and ignored at first. Often I felt we were wasting our time. Wait a second, or was it the other way around? Was it they who felt like that? Regardless, these culture clashes sometimes had me wishing those vending machines sold tranquilizers, too.

Now that I am used to my teammates and their ways, and they seem used to me, I love them. We've even influenced each other. I have started to see Western behaviors in some of them and Eastern traits in myself. Often they assert, "You are wrong!" Meanwhile I say things such as, "This is a great idea, but I have a different angle." Surely, working hand in hand with local students has been the greatest learning experience for me so far.

These experiences have taught me a lot more about myself, too. I discovered that I get anxious when taken out of my comfort zone, react badly when I am unable to get my point across, and am not as effective as I thought in cross-cultural environments. I hope I can improve myself and get over some of these hang-ups as I move forward at CEIBS.

Reflecting on how much my life has changed, it's hard to believe it was only August that we were introduced to the school and its community. Everything imaginable was efficiently covered (and we even had Saturday classes): logistics, school history, rules and regulations, faculty introduction, schedules, ethics, personality tests, social events, dinners, and even personal hygiene and cultural etiquette. There, I got tips on how to disguise a wrinkle in my shirt, how to behave at a Chinese dinner, and how to prevent dandruff and bad breath.

By the time September rolled around, things got busier and more competitive than I imagined. As I approach my Term One exams, I am looking forward to sharing so many more experiences with you. By the end of the term, I will discover whether the professors, students, campus life, clubs, extracurricular activities, and career center will hold my interest after the expo is over.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.