January 16, 2015

Weatherhead Global MBA: Building "Bridgers"

J. Michael Tasse is a first-year global MBA student from Detroit. He blogs regularly about his experiences in the global MBA program on his site, Motor City Flow

While I can't read this yet, I know I can always call on Zhang Jia Yi to bridge the gap, language-wise.

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 days 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 real life, not just a "semester abroad."

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). 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.

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?

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 and its government works, maybe you've read a book or two or twenty on Guanxi.

And then you arrive. And then I arrived.

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, and helped me set up my cell phone, there was something missing from our relationship, even after two months.

Dr. Zheng Han, our Strategy Professor: The ultimate in bridgers. Aside from speaking German, Swiss-German, English and Mandarin, he has lived in Europe and Asia and traveled to 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 meant 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 four million people to the south, Nanjing, and it is quite different than the cities that surround it.

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

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 to introduce him to a group of MBA students moving to India!?" Gary went out of his way to explain his project to us, 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 (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 that before I considered 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 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, at which point you should 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."

While you can't meet people and make business happen in the way you might like to think you 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 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 some stuff out of his house; I asked if he needed a hand. Gary had a business 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 to take me on as a student of world culture, and I was, and am still, ready and willing to listen.

You must ask "why" often: learning from what bridgers 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 to China green, 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. I've spent years abroad, from Argentina to Canada. I've 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 and 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.

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 and integrity and business come second, Louie gave us concrete examples of how integrity paid off. Like the time he made a contractor replace every electrical outlet in a 20-building complex in order to meet specifications. The contractor pulled him aside and 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. 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.
Pictured here with Shinichi – the bilingual Bridger. Shinichi was able from day one to bridge our culture gap. I remember him saying, "Tasse, take off 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.)

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. Here's a video of me teaching "rhythm."

Originally posted on Motor City Flow.

For more information about the global MBA program, visit the Weatherhead website.

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