So what is a GLOBAL MBA’s real takeaway? Meeting “Bridgers”, and then becoming one.

mike chinese characters
While I can’t read this, yet, I know I can always call on Zhang Jia Yi to Bridge the gap, language-wise.

zjy bridger

This is Zhang Jia Yi. His English is pretty darn good for a 20 year old, he’s amazing with technology, and he works at Family Mart (or Chuen Jia – a convenience store every Tongji student will frequent) almost every day. While it won’t be long before he’s enrolled in China’s Premier Institution in Shanghai, Fudan University, he has helped me navigate the complex system of understanding when people mean “YES” and when people mean “NO” here in China. He’s been a great friend, and all I did was start my day’s saying “hello” and “good morning” (Zaoshanghao). When he gave me the opportunity to meet his mom one day, I took him up on it and created a new life-long friend. Friends like Zhang Jia Yi make your experience feel like a real life, and not just a “semester abroad.”

     massage parlor w sammy
Aaron Goa (not pictured) introduced us to his friend Jia, and showed us the different mentality of the city of Nanjing, about two hours south of Shanghai. It’s almost a completely different mindset. While I couldn’t speak directly with Jia because of the language barrier, Aaron, a bridger, could, and through Aaron we ended up having free massages at a blind massage parlor – literally, blind employees are given the opportunity to make a good salary by being massage specialists. Never would have had this experience without a Bridger like Aaron.

So…

You took the GMAT, got the interview, put on your business formal wear and divulged your passions to your respective Tongji, Case Western, or XLRI entrance committee member (Watch this video from your future XLRI brothers and sisters https://campusdiaries.com/note/comedy-video-why-mba). Then you received that beautiful packet with, inside it, a global MBA acceptance letter. You prepared to invest in an MBA, maybe did some reading about Indian, Chinese or American business, applied for your Chinese visa, and are now headed to China to start your first semester with Global MBA at Tongji University. You’ve hit the jackpot. You really have. An MBA experience in China, India and the United States truly has few contemporaries.

big10 network bridgers
Do not forget your University: the “Big 10” network has provided me introduction to more “bridgers” than any other part of this program. Showing up is half the battle. If you’re tired, you must push to participate on top of schoolwork. Then be kind, patient and ask people if you can shadow them for a day at work, or help them with a project on a Saturday – the rewards are greater, and they’ll give you the inside scoop you can’t get on Wikipedia. Ali Dibble, from University of Wisconsin, not only gave me a tour of her company, Dragon Marketing (which does all marketing for the NFL in China – the National Foodball League), but introduced me to the CEO and a group of other people who have since helped me in tight situations here in Shanghai.
But then you arrive in Shanghai in September.  What do you really do when you get there? What can you become from this experience that really differentiates you from other MBAs?
Ivan Zhong and Michael with Tshirt
While the “Company Projects” on Friday can seem ineffective at times, remember that every chance you have to meet someone with a life experience in China is an opportunity to learn more about China than any class you could take back home. This is me with HR Director of Starwood Hotels, Ivan Zhong. I won a T-shirt answering a question about the hospitality business in China: the hospitality business helped open China up to the rest of the world in the 1990s by providing Westerners with a “comfortable” place to rest between business meetings. Hospitality literally was a government strategy in reshaping China.

You might not even speak Mandarin, and even if you do, people speak a lot of Shanghaihùa/Shanghainese in the markets of Shanghai and you’re pegged as a waìguorén/foreigner whether or not you are fluent in Mandarin. Though, Mandarin capabilities will instantly increase your opportunities. You think you have a clue about how China works, the government, maybe you’ve read a book or two or twenty on Guanxi (if you haven’t, think of it as a deeper Jeitinho Brasileiro, or Viveza Criolla Argentina. If those are new concepts to you, a quick Google or Wikipedia search will enlighten you to the beginning. Keep in mind, it’s different than “corruption.”)

So enough about you.

I was connecting quickly with friends in class by sharing meals with them two, three, four times a day. Coffee before school, asking where are you from? What brought you to the program? How do you say this in Mandarin? Outside of class, I was associating with other Americans and French and Germans from my Mandarin class and the Tongji Guest House where we stay. I thought I was making Chinese friends. Many of them. Everywhere. I thought,

“Making business relationships here will be nothing more than some hard work and few more coffee dates.”

But I soon realized I was teaching a lot of English to my new friends. And while they showed me absolutely amazing places in Shanghai I never would have seen otherwise, fed me meal after meal of new foods, helped me buy a suit jacket at a great price,  taught me a lot of Chinese, got me teaching drum lessons to 8, 9 and 10 year olds on Sundays, helped me set up my cell phone, there was something missing from our relationship, even after two months.

Dr Han
Dr. Zheng Han, our Strategy Professor: The Ultimate in Bridgers. Aside from Speaking German, Swiss-German, English and Mandarin, he has lived in Europe, Asia, and been in North America often. He uses a friendly manner of explaining the nuances, of which he has spent a lifetime compiling, and he often takes time to reflect on how we are misunderstanding certain issues.

I realized a lot of things. I didn’t have much guanxi with people, the party politics were more complicated than I thought, Shanghai literally has 24+ million people, and I didn’t realize what that means as the city is really a region, and the region goes on until it touches the next region. I realized that while Shanghai is China, it’s quite a different vibe than the city of 4 million people to the south, Nanjing, and it is quite different than the cities that surround it.

So I connected with the American Chamber of Commerce and got a few mentors: Mac Sullivan, Amitesh Singh and Gary Huang.

with gary
How I took a risk by being a bridger: I introduced my classmates to Gary Huang, who had been looking for help with a project marketing and selling his company’s Solar Water Heaters. He wanted to move into the Indian market, and I thought, “What better way to help a friend trying to understand India, than introduce him to a group of MBA students moving to India!?” Gary went out of his way to explain to us his project, but also bridged the gap in our language, explaining important terms and market forces in China. Before I knew it, Neelesh Mathur (at the laptop) was BRIDGING THE GAP for Gary! He was teaching him about customs in India, geography, and the realistic constraints on taking a Chinese product into India…
mac and rebecca
Mac (with his wife Rebecca) has on numerous occasions helped me reconsider my actions by reminding me that the “Western” way of “directness” is not the only way: Mac, having spent six years already in China, understands both cultures, and is willing to explain to me why I was not getting the results I wanted, all I had to do was help him move some of his stuff out of his house one day!

They taught me before I consider my takeaways, I needed to realize that I can’t even really call China, “China,” when  talking about moving into a Chinese market. Mac, Amitesh and Gary taught me to to think of regions or cities, not the country as a whole, when doing business. Unless of course you need to deal with politics at the national level, which you should then get a lawyer.

They all independently told me,

“Michael, you’re here to meet BRIDGERS this time; not exactly the actual business people suppliers and sources of china. You’re here to learn how people interact with each other, and link up with those that can bridge your foreigner experience with that of the local.”

even und ich nanjing
People don’t even know they are bridging, but when they introduce you to friends and family, like Even our classmate did in Nanjing, do not take it lightly. They are your access to not only a good conversation, but a better experience down the road.

While you can’t meet people and make business happen in the way we might like to think we easily could abroad, focusing on the BRIDGERS is a great way to really develop a network. If you are serious about coming back, or even with working with Chinese companies or people in your home country, you will be connecting with bridgers. They help you not get taken advantage of, improve your chinese language and cultural understanding, introduce you to other Chinese, and vouch for you.

Help them out. Mac was moving his house, I asked if he needed a hand. Gary had a businesses he wanted to move to India, I asked if I could help him connect with some of my peers like Neelesh and Amber; Amitesh needed no help from me – but he did want take me on as a student of world culture, and I was, and am still, ready and willing to listen.

faheem pramod guest lecturer
You must ask “why” often: learning from what brigers have to say is only the first part of the journey. You must ask “why” is it that way often in order to learn on a deeper level how to interact on your own. 

So I arrived green to China, and it began to click immediately, that I was, indeed, green. I thought I understood. I thought I would just make a few tweaks to my body language, pick up the language, learn the local dance (http://v.youku.com/v_show/id_XNzgyNjE1MDY0.html). I’ve spent years abroad, from Argentina to Canada. I’ve eaten Asado in Uruguay and danced Samba in Brazil. I can play my own renditions of Jose Alfredo Jimenez and Alanis Morissette on the guitar. I thought I could logically derive meaning from books and conversations with Chinese friends beforehand. But I found myself lost. A lot.

But that is the beauty of the program. It helped me understand, “what can I really do with this experience?”

 

I built relationships with Bridgers. And I will become a bridger where possible as I learn.

You will soon be having an amazing time, learning about businesses, culture, meeting new friends in your program eating great food, going to Propaganda Club, traveling when you have the opportunity, working on group projects, growing, fighting, learning, maybe even enjoying the romance of Shanghai.

Take your time, but find the people who’ve already struggled, learn from them, and see where you can help them out. They’ll not only repay the favor in experience, but you might find yourself with a new life-long relationship.

getting read to go out as ateam copy
One of our “group attempts” to network – we linked up with Sammy Bandy’s friend Brian Lai from Hult University, who connected us to a new group of International MBA students from all over Shanghai, some of which later showed me a part of Shanghai to the south that is purely residential, and exposed me to a new layer where the working class of the region lives.
Louie Chong
This is Louie Chong. Louie explained to us the importance of integrity. While it may seem at times that old China still exists, where relationships are number one, then integrity and business come second, Louie gave us concrete examples of how integrity paid off. Like the time he made a contractor replace very electrical outlet in a 20 building complex in order to meet specifications. The contractor pulled him aside, offered him anything he wanted to keep his mouth shut, and he still said no. It was hard for Louie, but two years later, when a partner at his firm branched off to build a new company, he called Louie because of his integrity. Louie was able to bridge the idea of working in China – do not become lost in a system that has many layers. Remember who you are at all times, and be conscious of your actions. It can be easy to forget that in a place where people will pay you off in times like these. 
Louie also told us the 3 Ps for China: Passion, Persistence and Patience. And the 3 don’ts: Don’t expect others to be like you, Don’t play office politics (unless you are really good at it) and Don’t claim all of the credit.

shin the bridger

Pictured here with Shinichi – the bilingual Bridger. Shinichi was able from day one to bridger our culture gap. I remember him saying, “Tasse, take of that backpack, you look like a tourist and nobody’s going to respond to you seriously.” Since then, I haven’t worn the backpack to an event, yet. (Also, I’m dressed as Li Bei, the famous poet, which I’ll write on later…)

little bao bridgers all ages

Last but not least, don’t forget that “Bridgers” come in all ages! This is Bao, a 9 year old student of mine. I taught him and several other 8, 9 and 10 year olds Drums on Sundays for a period of time in Shanghai. I didn’t realize it at first, but after a few lessons, Bao taught me “how Chinese children learn to learn:” literally, they learn best by being told what to do and then practicing on their own, rather than given the freedom to be creative on the spot. It was amazing to see Bao panic when the sheet music was taken away from him. Over time, I learned to work with this and use my goofiness to be a bit more hands-on, which not only got a laugh out of Bao and the other students, but also helped another little guy, UU, learn to count rhythm.

See the video of me teaching “rhythm” here: http://youtu.be/5xCm-ZyVPtQ
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