By Patrick Mah
As I write this in one of our favourite restaurants, the smells of piquant spices are making me hungry. China is not only mouth-watering, it’s amazing. For many of us, landing in Beijing was like landing in a fairy tale. As we looked out the window, the plane cut through the clouds, the landing gear came down and we waited in anticipation for the first glimpse of the city, then THUD! We landed. How did we land without seeing the city? Actually, the clouds were just Beijing air – grey, sooty and thick. Things have changed drastically since I was here three years ago. At that time, the air was near-pristine. Clearly, like fairy tales go, we weren’t in Kansas anymore.
From airport to dorm to classroom, we jumped straight into the rabbit hole–RBE and Finance. Professor Goddard then Professor Kallberg put everyone through the paces basically assimilating an entire course in 6 days. Lucky Professor Washburn is on the ground to help us facilitate all of our classes; and fortunately for this rag-tag team of T-birds, there are a couple of days in between classes to soak in the surroundings.
We are in the middle of China’s think tank. T-bird classes are held at Peking University (PKU)–China’s Harvard (alma mater to current premier Li Keqiang); and, across the street is Tsinghua University–China’s MIT (alma mater to current and former presidents Xi Jinping and Hu Jintao). In fact, on our way to the restroom one day, our class discovered that the former Prime Minister of Norway, Esko Aho, happened to be giving a talk in the lobby of the teaching building. Being surrounded by China’s best and brightest is a unique feeling especially amid the neighbourhood’s contrastingly glitzy glass shopping malls to the local back alleys filled with mysterious organic smells. TIC–this is China–and we love it.
Special thanks goes to Donny Huang ’94 who has been a gracious host and has arranged our stay at PKU as well as all of our cultural visits. Some of these visits include meeting students from Cheung Kong School of Business, one China’s top MBA schools funded by Hong Kong’s richest tycoon Li Kashing; a trip to the Great Wall complete with the Harlem Shake; tickets to a death-defying acrobatic show; and a trip to the sprawling and awe-inspiring Forbidden City and Tiananmen Square. Probably one of the most interesting things that we’ve learned came from guest speaker Frank Hawke–one of the original eight PhD students who studied in China after Nixon’s visit established diplomatic ties. He has stayed ever since and is now director of Stanford’s business school in China. In his conservative estimate, by 2025, China’s GDP will match the US’s; however, China’s current per capita GDP of $6,000 is a fraction of the US’s $48,000. So when traveling from China’s shiny super cities to those inland, it’s like stepping into another country–as though China is a mix of a developed US and a developing Mexico.
This is a fascinating country with polar extremes – ritzy dance clubs to corner street stalls; $300 bottles of Jonnie Walker to $1.50 bottles of rice wine; cheap food and a culture shock for some. For one girl that meant realizing that an “empty” bathroom stall means the toilet IS the hole in the floor. There’s no doubt, China is a far-away land like in the story books. It’s different and exciting. Now, how do I communicate to this server that my friend is a vegan…?