International Business Exchange Program: My experience studying abroad in China

Booth offers the opportunity to spend 3 months abroad as part of its International Business Exchange Program (IBEP). The list of partner schools Boothies can study at spans 5 continents and 30+ schools, including London Business School, HEC Paris, IESE (Barcelona), CEIBS (Shanghai), Sydney Business School, Wits Business School (Johannesburg), etc. I decided to take advantage of this program and use my winter quarter to explore a new part of the world…China!

Do you even WeChat?

I landed in China on January 1st, 2019. My very first impression was that the country is clearly at the leading edge of technology. Your life in China is dependent on one thing only: WeChat, Tencent’s superstar app (think iMessage, FaceTime, Whatsapp, Venmo, Facebook, Instagram, all combined and used by roughly 100% of the population). Cash payments have pretty much disappeared and you’ll need WeChat to pay for literally everything. Your WeChat is also the first thing your Chinese friends will ask for to keep in touch (phone numbers are so 2008), so don’t even think of having a social life without it.

Taking public transports in China feels like being in a sci-fi movie. Trains between cities are incredibly fast (Shanghai’s Maglev is the fastest in the world, peaking at 270mph), and even small cities have an intricate network of metro lines, making it super easy to navigate.

Great Wall of China, Zhangjiajie Mountains, Local eats in Huanghe Road (Shanghai)

Exploring China

My first few days in Shanghai were a WHIRLWIND. The city is a massive financial and cultural center, and there are so many things to do: enjoy the magnificent skyline from a rooftop on the Bund, taste the best dumplings of your life in Huanghe Road, learn about 4,000 years of Chinese history and culture at the Shanghai Museum, explore the Yu Garden, etc.

China is big, we all know that. Well, it feels even bigger when you get there. With a metropolitan area of 35 million people, Shanghai is “only” the 2nd biggest city in the country (the first one being Guangzhou, with 44 million people) and there are TONS of things to explore in the country. Some of my highlights include being invited by my friend Zhao to spend Chinese New Year at his family home in Shanxi, hiking in the Zhangjiajie Mountains (famous for having inspired the planet Pandora in the Avatar movie), visiting traditional town Pingyao and hipster city Chengdu, and of course pandas!

Muslim street in Xi’an, Chinese New Year in Taiyuan, The Bund Skyline in Shanghai

Attending b-school and building a network in Shanghai

Booth’s partner school in Shanghai, CEIBS, is China’s leading business school . At first sight, it seemed like a “standard” business school and the environment felt similar to Booth’s. After a few days however, I quickly realized that all classes had a very distinctive feel as well as a local lens. Cases were mostly about Chinese companies and I got to learn about managing the increasingly educated workforce in China, how Tencent and Alibaba carried out a mobile payment revolution in the country in just a couple years, and about state-owned enterprises’ operations in China. 

Getting to meet my Chinese classmates and the other exchange students was definitely a highlight of my CEIBS experience. Exchange students came from a diverse set of business schools like Kellogg, Cornell Johnson, NYU Stern, Sydney Business School, etc.

Pingyao, Pandas in Sichuan, Chinese Cooking Lesson

Adapting to a foreign culture

China was the first Asian country I’ve lived in, but the 7th overall (having lived in 5 different European countries before moving to Chicago in 2017 to attend Booth). Living abroad is UNBELIEVABLY enriching: you’ll discover gorgeous places, meet lifelong friends, and learn a lot about yourself. But it also comes with challenges and my experience in China was definitely not exempt of hurdles.

The main one was obviously the language barrier: this was my first time living in a country where I haven’t fully mastered the language, and random things like ordering food or catching a taxi can quickly become daunting. Adjusting to Chinese culture, even in a cosmopolitan city like Shanghai, took time and learning on my side.

Living abroad always seems glamourous, a perception that is reinforced by social media as we all tend to only share the positive, the social gatherings, the best food, the travels, etc. All that is definitely part of the experience, but let’s not forget that at the end of the day, adapting to a foreign country anywhere in the world is always a source of anxiety and takes time, effort, and resilience. Do your best to go through that process, and you’ll create an experience that you’ll remember your entire life. I know I have!

First day at CEIBS, trying Sichuan style hot-pot, exploring Suzhou with other classmates, post-class dinner and Chinese New Year Celebration at CEIBS

My 5 tips if you’re thinking of studying abroad

  • Talk to people. Get in touch with the students who went to the schools you’re interested in, talk to your friends living in your target cities, research online, etc. It’ll help you get a better sense of the experience.
  • Prepare! If, like me, you’re more of an impulsive person, it may sound exciting to just buy a plane ticket and leave on an adventure. But preparation will help you avoid unnecessary headaches and make the experience better for yourself. Research the best neighborhood to live in, make sure your schedule is feasible and fits Booth’s requirements, get the necessary documents, download the apps you’ll need, etc.
  • Stop comparing! It’s easy to compare everything to what you have at home, but this is likely to trap you in a negative mindset. Home is always home, everything will always feel more comfortable there, but also be open to the great things your new environment has to offer.
  • Stay in touch. It’s only normal to feel homesick, even if you’re having fun abroad. Never hesitate to reach out to your significant other and loved ones at home. Nothing like the feeling when you hear a familiar voice when you’re abroad!
  • Trust your gut. Always listen to your instinct! If for whatever reason you feel too intimidated or stressed about going abroad, don’t force yourself too much. Conversely, if you really feel an urge to study in a foreign city, don’t overthink it and do it! You don’t want to miss out on a great experience.

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