Two months ago I embarked on a whirlwind MBA tour of China. Over a two week period I explored a new land, met new people, made new friends, and learned all I could about this magical place. It’s taken this long to process the experience, partially due to my own busy life preventing me from putting hands to keyboard to write this, but mainly because it is impossible to digest all of China overnight. Even the little I managed to see took weeks to mentally process. China does everything big, even filling your heart and mind.
In all of my travels, China is quite possibly the most foreign place I’ve ever been. Growing up right next door in Korea did not prepare me for the experience, even with so much shared history and culture. Seeing a chicken being butchered on a little wooden table on the street certainly reminds me of growing up in Korea, but that life just doesn’t exist there anymore, at least not in Seoul. Even in the biggest, most modern cities of China this was not an unusual sight.
It is this dissonance that struck me more than anything else. Never before have I encountered such extreme poverty or wealth, much less both sitting so close to each other. China’s cities and its citizens are a discordant mashup of rural and urban, tradition and modernity, all woven together in an intricate, unfathomable tapestry. No books, pictures, or travel blogs can really capture the experience. Some places you feel like you get right away. I doubt I will ever truly understand China.
And that is the real draw of the country. It remains a beautiful mystery that you really want to try to solve, even knowing you never will. Xi’an has a population of 8.5 million (as of 2010), yet vast swaths of the city feel completely abandoned. On one side of the Huangpu River in Shanghai lies a modern, almost futuristic city. The Shanghai on the opposite bank feels almost ancient. You can read all you want about how and why these dualities exists, but experiencing it yourself as you cross from one side to the other is altogether different.
In the end, the only thing of which I’m certain is that I wouldn’t hesitate to go back. The amazing people, culture, food, sights, sounds, and smells have found a place in my heart. It is an experience I will never, ever forget.
A very special thanks to Peking University, Arizona State University’s W.P. Carey School of Business, Xiaokai Wang, Julia Hu, all of my fellow classmates in the Guanghua School of Management’s Doing Business in China program, and everyone else who made this memorable experience possible. I hope I will see you again someday.