Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Jet Lag Rant

China is exactly 12 hours ahead of the Eastern Time Zone.

So when I woke up at 5 a.m. this morning, it was 5 p.m. in China.

How does that make sense as a time to wake up? I mean, I understand going to and from Europe, where 3 a.m. = 9 a.m. and that would be a normal time for the body to wake up. But 5 p.m.? And why does this start four days AFTER I get home?

The good news is that by the time my alarm was set to go off, I'd already gotten in a good workout. (Yeah... I don't recommend scheduling your first 5k the week after you finish a break where you don't run for two weeks...) The bad news is that I'll be about ready to crash by the time my first class starts.

*end rant*

Also, *end China posts*

Monday, March 28, 2011

Longest Day of My Life

Thursday, March 24 will go on record as the longest day of my life. It started for me around 8 a.m. in Beijing and ended as my head hit the pillow 28 hours later at midnight in the Eastern time zone. In the days since then, I've fended off a cold and jet lag, but am glad to finally have the opportunity to blog about my experiences in China.

China has long been one of those places which I've simultaneously wanted to visit and been afraid to visit. Since coming back, I've told people that I was glad to go, but am glad to be home. Part of my anticipation of the entire China experience hinged on China being a significant (and growing) part of the world economy. It's impossible to ignore an economy that both accounts for a significant number of sales worldwide and is growing at a faster rate than most other countries. To not have any clue about China is akin to an ostrich burying its head in the sand.

At the same time, I had been told to prepare to be shocked. All sorts of stories and tales prefaced my China visit, and the scariest fear of all was that I didn't speak a lick of Mandarin - nor could I piece together meaning from root words and recognition of letter combinations.

As it turns out, China was as shocking as it was familiar. People were manually digging holes as we walked out of the very modern subway. Everywhere there are signs of growth and a modern economy amongst remnants of an agrarian society. I got the impression from "talking" with a gentleman on the train that most Chinese people work in factories. (I use "talking" because I didn't speak Mandarin and he didn't speak much English, but through a combination of charades and the phrase book in my Lonely Planet guide and his limited English, we managed to communicate. Also, it seems obvious that everyone works in factories, given that pretty much everything is made in China these days, but it's not something that you see if you don't visit a factory.) At the same time, the Chinese people that we really hung out with were those we'd come to know through various MBA programs and exchanges, so they all had corporate marketing jobs.

What surprised me is that it wasn't the language barrier or cultural barrier that made me eager to leave China. As is the case when I visit countries where I sort of know the language, my Mandarin improved over my time in China, and I'm sure that with more time, that frustration would have gone away. Even though there were many subtle cultural differences (well, and obvious ones!), we grew accustomed to the way things were done and adapted accordingly. It's these subtleties that make travel fun and add a rich texture to visiting new places. If all you are seeking is to see the Great Wall or Forbidden City, there are certainly museums that will accomplish this... travel is about finding a way to be immersed in the culture.

In fact, what made me eager to leave China was the pollution and the cigarette smoke everywhere. The other thing that became wearisome was that even though I love Chinese food, I got tired of ordering primarily off of pictures on a menu. While I am sure that I will eat Chinese food again soon, I was definitely excited about ordering a sandwich after landing in JFK.

All in all, I'm glad that I went to China. I'm glad that a friend had already booked the flight and I wasn't tempted to head off on a tropical vacation or yet another trip to Europe. I'm glad that I went when I did - when there were classmates to meet up with and exchange students to show us around. Most importantly, even as I was there, I saw tremendous signs of growth and worry that the China of today may not be there in the next few years. I remember talking to a lady who moved from China six years ago... when I asked her if she missed it, she said that the China that is now is not the same China she left.

Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Guest Blog!

Classy Career Girl runs a great blog on everything career related, and she recently asked me to write a guest blog on my Darden experience. I highly recommend checking out her blog, and while you're there, you may as well read my post: Advice from a Current MBA Student.

Sunday, March 20, 2011

Hard Sleepers


Some adventures are amazing while you're in the midst of them. Others... Well, you do them because they make for a great story after the fact.

I'm in the midst of one of the latter kinds of adventures.

I could have taken a plane from Xi'an to Shanghai yesterday and be spending this moment curled up in a soft bed at the Shangri-La, awaiting a steaming fresh shower and opulent breakfast.

Instead, I left my cheap hotel by bus (not taxi) yesterday afternoon, waited in a crowded train station where my friend and I were the only white people in sight and just woke up from a fitful sleep in the middle bunk of a train's hard sleeper car. Rather than anticipating a hot shower, I am trying to figure out how to angle my blanket so I can carve out some private space to apply deodorant. I've avoided drinking water on the ride because while I can deal with squatter toilets on solid ground, I'm somewhat of a prima donna about using one on a moving train. And instead of an opulent breakfast, I've got some hard-boiled eggs that I picked up from a street vendor yesterday.

The friend I am traveling with says he likes traveling this way because it's more adventurous, it keeps him grounded, he sees the real China and... Let's be serious, we are saving a ton of money!

While I am currently longing for a shower and toilet, I think this really is a better way to travel. Even more, the way we are traveling is even opulent by Chinese standards, and while I didn't see the hard seat section of the train on my way to my relatively posh sleeper cabin (though not the nicest - the last train ride we took, I lucked out because only soft sleepers were left and that was much more pleasant!), I heard that they were crowded, with people lying on the floor.

I may not be traveling in style, but as I travel this way, I realize that I am immensely blessed to have choices and as I see people sleeping on the streets throughout China, suddenly a less-than-cozy night crammed in a somewhat noisy train may not actually be so bad.

Sent from my iPhone

Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Walking the Wall

Today was a big day.

Today I got to check something off my bucket list: walking along the Great Wall of China.

After a few iterations of our original wall plan (hike from Jinshanling to Simatai... both of which are currently closed), we settled on hiring a taxi to take us out to Mitianyu.

I'm not sure what I was expecting, but you can see from the picture above that this section of the wall is long, steep, and definitely a little restored.

Interesting tidbit about the Great Wall: the steps are designed to be uneven as a way of making it more difficult for enemies to traverse. Unfortunately, in this case, us tourists are lumped in with the enemies and it definitely makes for some interesting walking.

Another interesting tidbit: several weeks of incline training on the treadmill should have been swapped for the stairmaster. We climbed this set of stairs and another long set afterwards. It was the good workout I was hoping for, but boy was it exhausting! I'm pleased to report that I beat everyone to the top who started up the stairs at the same time as me, except for my travel buddy.

The scenery is rugged and beautiful. It's hard to believe that a wall was even necessary for guarding China (or whatever subset of unified states were in existence), given the rugged terrain. As it turns out, the wall never actually served the purpose of keeping the enemies out, since sentries could be bribed, but the lighting signals in the towers let the country know when to mobilize for war and also served as an "elevated highway." (This fact courtesy of my Lonely Planet guide; the previous one courtesy of my travel buddy.)

Anyway... the Great Wall was absolutely amazing and the drive through rural China was very interesting. I saw a lot of things I'd never seen before: people working the fields manually and making bricks in the sun. Jet lag is currently winning as I fight to keep my eyes open long enough so I don't wake up too early tomorrow morning.

Tuesday, March 15, 2011

There's Something to be Said for Low Expectations

When I was about to book my flight to Beijing with Air China, my friend who lived in China for three years said that it was a terrible idea... of course, because it was the cheapest and the friend I was travelling with had already booked a flight with Air China, I went ahead and did it anyway.

Over the next few months, I heard many, many warnings about Air China. They included things like: children will be peeing in the aisles, there is no in-flight entertainment, they wake you up when it's time to eat, and a whole host of negative reviews on the Internet. Even as I sat getting a manicure in JFK (those massage chairs they put you in are AWESOME between flights; I'm not high maintenance, I promise!), my manicurist added two additional warnings: there isn't enough food (so buy a sandwich) and they stop serving beverages a few hours into the flight, so you should go help yourself.

Anyway, given all the warnings, I made sure to prepare for the flight, dutifully buying a sandwich at the airport and stocking up with movies on every portable electronic device I have with me, buying a book at Borders, leaving my guide book reading and even going so far as to purchase a portable game of Settlers of Catan.

When I started boarding the plane, I got the impression that the warnings may have been a little extreme, as the plane was nice and new and there was even a decent amount of leg room. While, as promised, there was no personal in-flight entertainment, the movies shown on the common screen alternated between Chinese and English, so I could have gotten a good six hours of entertainment from that. The food was actually the best airplane food I'd eaten (though the novelty of Chinese food on a plane may wear thin by the trip home...), and while the flight attendants did stop serving a few hours in, you were welcome to walk to the back of the plane and help yourself. (This turned out to be mostly a good thing --- you could drink lots of water and the aisles were clear to stand and stretch your legs; on the downside, one of our fellow passengers took it upon himself to down an entire bottle of wine and got belligerent... but hey... free entertainment?)

Anyway, all in all, it was either my low expectations that made for a good flight, or the fact that maybe Air China is not that bad?

In other news... I landed in Beijing tonight and while I am crazy jetlagged (yet writing this blog despite a need for sleep), it's been good thus far. Despite having complete and total language barriers, we were able to get to our hotel (I had printed off the address in Chinese!) and order dinner (yay for pictures on the menu). Tomorrow we are off to the Great Wall and I'll probably post some pics!

Friday, March 11, 2011

Switching Gears

It's Spring Break.

I probably shouldn't say that, since there are probably still people out there plugging away at exams and papers, but having just completed my last deliverable for the quarter, I'm in celebratory mode!

The only thing on the agenda for the next two days is having fun and packing. On Monday afternoon, I fly from Dulles (airport at Washington DC) to Beijing. With "walking along the Great Wall" on my bucket list, I figure there's no better time than right now to head over there and check it out. What makes NOW such a great time is that a) I have someone to travel with, b) there will be a group of Darden students also in China, along with a Chinese-speaking professor who has given us his phone number in case of emergency and, most importantly, c) exchange students from China have volunteered to either hook us up with friends over there or drive us around. So with all of that, what better time to travel to a country that is wholly foreign? It will definitely be an adventure since all my travel to date has been to countries where I have at least a small amount of knowledge of the language.

As you can well imagine, I am not the only one headed off. As I mentioned earlier, there will be a group of students in China for the GBE (Global Business Experience), and similar groups will be in Barcelona, Brazil, Mexico, Sweden, Argentina and Dubai*.

Beyond that, I know of people headed to Turkey, Colombia, Greece, Cold Lake (in Alberta! Yay homeland!), New Orleans, Zurich, Costa Rica, Vietnam and many other corners of the globe. The break is so long that I know of many people heading to two completely opposite locations over the two-week period.

Anyway, I will strive to keep my blog updated throughout my time in China... While I am fairly certain Blogger and Facebook are both blocked, I think there may be ways to get around that... If that doesn't work, I'll try to post some photos and stories when I return in two weeks.

*There were GBEs scheduled for Egypt and Bahrain, but given the recent turmoil, Egypt was cancelled and Bahrain rerouted to Dubai.

Sunday, March 06, 2011

Dinner With the Profs

Darden has the best professors of any B-school.

Now, I know that technically, since I haven't attended every B-school, I can't say that conclusively. However, after I tell you about my evening yesterday, I'm fairly certain that you will come to see that I have good reasons to make that claim.

So every year in April, Darden participates in a charity program design to fix up houses for those in need in the Charlottesville community. It's called, appropriately, Building Goodness in April. In order to raise the much needed funds for all these projects, the auction teams run a series of auctions throughout November and December, and this year I was lucky enough to win a bid for a Danish dinner with my finance and decision analysis profs.

The dinner was last night and it was amazing. Our finance professor and his wife hosted the dinner. I would say that it was amazing to see all the artwork and the non-finance side of our professor, but the truth is that I already knew a lot about the non-finance side as we discussed architecture in Barcelona and I went to see him play bass in his Charlottesville band. The thing is that it's not at all unusual at Darden to be exposed to the non-academic facets of our professor's lives. Our section had even met his daughter previously when she came to play soccer with us for Darden Cup last year. So it was just a warm, welcoming evening.

As I was grilled by my DA prof's husband on how I would actually use the class she teaches and went into details on the value of an MBA (really, I told him he should just read my blog!), we warmed up with a traditional Danish appetizer - buttered bread, covered with all sorts of delicious toppings: shrimp and lemon, liver pate, grapes and bleu cheese. Following the first course of appetizers, we learned the traditional Danish method for drinking schnapps. (You look someone in the eye, say "skoal", do the shot and regain eye contact.) By then, the conversation had evolved away from justifying my education to urban sprawl and the issues with the American health care system. (My DA prof's husband is British.) The next appetizer was Danish dumplings... Not only are they delicious, they come with a game; whoever finds the "dough ball" (no meat) gets a prize! My DA prof was excited to win only to discover the prize was another shot.

From there we moved on to the dinner table and enjoyed a rich variety of discussion topics along with the fish course and an amazingly tender roast beef for the main course. The food was delicious, the company was amazing, and I enjoyed connecting with some of the first years and with my profs and their spouses. I truly think that Darden is hands-down the best school in this regard... which is probably why we were recently ranked #1 for professors!

Wednesday, March 02, 2011

Leadership Transitions

It seems like just yesterday that I was meeting with the DCF President from the Class of 2010, learning as much as I could about the club and eager to take over the reins. Today, we had that very same transition meeting, but rather than taking the reins, I was handing them over to a new president.

Last year, around this time, I remember remarking to then-second years at how quickly first year had passed. They told me that second year would go by even more quickly and as I have a week plus a quarter left in my MBA education, I understand just how true that statement would come to be.

The biggest shock to the system is this whole leadership transition. I'm really happy with the leadership team we have going forward, and also feel happy that we did make some improvements this year that they can build on, much like the team before us was able to make.

Over the past few years, I've had rapid role successions. In 2008 to 2009 as I was applying to schools, I remember reaching out to current students to learn more about the programs. When I became a student, I started reaching out to second years and alum, while entertaining calls from prospectives telling them about my experiences. Once second year hit, my calendar filled up with meeting requests from first years wanting to learn about my internship experience as I scheduled more calls with alum to hear about their company experiences. The reality of this current leadership transition is that I will soon transition into the role of "alum" and field calls from new students eager to get into the world of consulting.

It's funny. I remember very distinctly a video from Follies that came out as I was preparing to move to Darden. It was called "Don't Make Me Leave Darden" and I remember thinking that the time to leave would likely come sooner than I expected. Now here I am, with that reality not too far away.