My hope for IME was to discover great cultural experiences. Through our business meetings, sightseeing, food and classmate conversations, I certainly accomplished this goal, and more.
Being our first stop, my initial reactions of Shanghai, and Asia, came on the bus ride to the hotel. I was surprised how similar things were to the U.S., as I had expected to see dramatic differences right away. Shanghai is huge, with a population of 21 million. Yet the buildings look just like those in any American metropolis. The cars are similar, the Chinese drive on the same side of the road, and the streetlights, highways, and billboards all look nearly identical. I’m not sure what I was expecting from the opposite side of the world, but had there not been signs with Chinese characters, I would have thought we were still in the States.
Throughout the trip I would eventually discover a plethora of cultural differences. People wait for the crosswalk light to turn green before traversing the street, laundry is dried on balconies as many Asians don’t use clothes dryers, and few pastry or baked foods are consumed.
Perhaps the greatest reminder of not being at home was a day trip to Suzhou. Our first stop was a factory, where we learned about silk and saw how the finished products were made. Later, we went to a beautiful garden in the courtyard of a house several generations old. It was relaxing to stroll through, and sit on the garden’s rocks, in what was our first sunny day. Then we took a boat ride through a part of Suzhou called the Venice of China, where the homes sit next to the water. People were doing their laundry in the canals, and sweeping with straw brooms. Being far removed from Shanghai, this finally felt like the “real” China.
During our twelve company visits, we learned how different corporations are run, and business is conducted. The variety was terrific, with everything from a Chinese hospital, to an office furniture company, and the Hong Kong General Chamber of Commerce. Each executive provided a unique viewpoint. My favorite was PepsiCo, where we met with the Asian Chairman. It was fascinating how they had overcome adversity and successfully employed creativity selling and advertising. For example, PepsiCo initially introduced its Lays potato chips with flavors Americans like: Plain, Barbeque, Sour Cream and Onion. But, the Chinese were unfamiliar with these tastes, and didn’t like them. Most of them flopped. PepsiCo had to adjust, and develop different, local flavors: Cool Cucumber, Cheesy Lobster, and Seafood. This was one of many, first-hand examples of the same company needing completely different business approaches and sales techniques overseas.
I enjoyed all three cities, as each was unique. Since arriving home, people ask me which is my favorite. My reply: “Shanghai was the best cultural experience, Hong Kong the most beautiful, and if I had to pick one to live in, it would be Tokyo.”