Wednesday, October 28, 2009

Big Kid Field Trips

When I was little, I used to dread field trips. I hated the rides in the smelly yellow busses whose plastic seats always stuck to my chubby thighs. I would always somehow forget to have my parents sign my permission slip by the deadline and I never remembered to preemptively pack my own lunch, because- what normal six year old is a vegetarian? No one ever catered to my needs- bologna sandwiches were the norm. Beyond being sticky, late and practically starving- I was one of the kids in the “front of the bus.” The back was reserved for the cool kids- a group of individuals to which I was not yet privy- I actually made my way to the back about 10 years later, at right around the time I grew boobs. Therefore, my formative years were spent only within earshot of the flirting and joking- the people who actually looked forward to field trips. I also knew that wherever we went, there was a chance I would spend the day walking around by myself- or worse, with a teacher. I knew that if we went to the Florida Everglades- I would probably overheat and spend the day in a mosquito bitten stupor. If we went to Parrot Jungle, I would indefinitely get shit on by at least two birds. By the end of the day, I would arrive home exhausted, irritable and full of crap. Literally.

Field trips, on the whole, were one of the low points of my elementary education.

Now, about 20 years later, I found myself on a flight from Helsinki to Shanghai, making my way to my first organized group outing as a grad school student. In essence; a field trip for big kids.

As an adult- a professional and a business school student- the definition and context of the “field trip” is a bit different. The ESADE China Study Tour was my first foray into the realm of adult field trips and I must say, it was quite unlike my former yearly trips to the Miami Zoo.

There are, however, a number of similarities between my childhood field trips and the week I spent with ESADE at BiMBA University in Beijing.

There were no permission slips but the preparation included admission essays, plane tickets and visa applications. The logistics of planning the routes and dates were not as simple as remembering to get a piece of paper signed by a parent or guardian.

This time, there were busses, but they weren’t yellow. And this time- although I was still in the front of the bus, I wasn't a social pariah for doing so. It actually made me wonder when the turning point took place- at what age did I stop believing that the further back in the bus I sat, the more popular I had become? In business school- there are no cool people. There are no uncool people. There are groups of students with similar interests who hang out together but no bus hierarchy exists. For this I am grateful.

Like school field trips, everything was preemptively handled and prepared- we were given mandatory timetables and schedules. If breakfast took too long, the lecture would begin or our transportation would leave. Yet, hanging out with the teachers was way cooler than avoiding them.

Beyond defining what is cool and what is not- China was an eye-opener. My greatest expectations were exceeded.

The trip was extensive and our days were full and tiring but in the end, we left China with a depth of awareness and understanding far beyond anything we could have gained in a classroom in Spain. At the same time, for many of us- it was the tail-end of summer- and our approach to the experience was much more relaxed than had it been in the middle of the year in our regular classroom with our regular books and regular material.

Our schedules were strict, but we happily complied. We woke up early but we stayed out late. We were together the entire time yet if we desired some alone time- our evenings were ours. While some students would go in search of Peking duck (we were, after all, in Peking), others would line up outside the clubs. Some would go to the posh bars at the tops of world-class hotels and others would go back for a quiet evening socializing at the hotel. Of course, the markets were frequented and we had feast after feast of local cuisine- generally with the program.

Another advantage of an adult field trip vs. child’s play was the accommodation. When I was 15, I went on a journalism trip to NY and stayed in a Howard Johnson with bars on the windows and a narcoleptic bellboy. On debate trips (yes, I was on the debate team too), we would often stay in campus housing. ESADE, on the other hand, put us up in a five star hotel next to the university. The beds were big and soft, the water was purified and we actually had HBO and wireless Internet.

As for the food, I had special ordered meals. As a child, the school staff couldn't bother to make one ham and cheese without the ham. Whereas in China, I was constantly looked after and provided with an abundance of tofu in every shape, size and flavor. This was a huge contrast from the high school Disney trip where I ate Mickey Mouse pops for three days straight.

Our “study tour” was orchestrated to provide participants with an introduction into business in China, taking into account the culture, history, business practices, milestones of the country, challenges, traditions, and differences. Our lectures ranged from “Confucianism and Business Practices in China” to “Chinese Economic Development and current economic Policies.” We had a number of company visits and attended a “Finance in China” panel session proceeded by a morning Tai Chi exercise class. We attended an acrobatic show that beat Circ du Soleil and a Pedi cab tour of Hutong (old lane areas) in order to see the dramatic changes that the rest of Beijing has undergone.

Like any travel or foreign experience, it is always in the minor details- the parts in between that we remember the most. It’s when we are not trying to learn or not looking for the best angle to take a photo- when the greatest lessons take place.

Amid these lessons, I gained an appreciation of my adulthood- of being a student as an adult. Moreover, of being on a field trip as an adult. The ominous field trips that I once dreaded have now become one of the best memories of my time in business school. Its funny what a couple of decades, infinite life lessons and a bit of maturity can transform.

Of course, when speaking of maturity, we are in some senses just big kids. In elementary school, in classes and on the bus, I passed notes. Notes about the boys I had crushes on and the girls I thought were mean. Then, in China, during a lecture given by the marketing manager of J&J describing the Beijing 2008 Olympic efforts, I felt a sudden long-forgotten urge to pass a note. Being that in business school we are all kind of one communal clan, and oftentimes I am too distracted to search for the cute boys or find out which ones are the mean girls, I decided to pass a note asking how my fellow students felt about the adult field trip.

A few hours later and a couple of strange backwards glances, I received the pages of scrawled writing and proceeded to note that no, I am not at all alone. I think that most of us would agree that our grown-up school excursion was far better than anything we had been subjected to as school children. And although no individual has the capacity to truly change that much- we do develop and our interests and objectives change. There are clear and vast differences between the old days of practical jokes and popularity contests and 40 business school students flown across the world to be immersed in one of the world’s oldest civilizations.

So here it is, some of our generation’s best and brightest sharing their thoughts on the substantial distinctions between their former elementary expeditions and ESADE’s China Study Tour.

Best parts of the 2009 China trip:

·      Lunch in a relaxing restaurant with Qin music. (Qin: Stringed instrument played since ancient times, favored by scholars and literati as instrument of refinement and subtlety.)

·      Seeing the traditional buildings of the BiMBA university (strangely reminiscent of the nearby Summer Palace)

·      Historical Sites (Forbidden City, Great Wall)

·      People Watching: seeing how the local people live, watching them in their own domain, getting a sense of their culture.

·      Seeing the well-known sites, experiencing another part of the world

·      Witnessing the change the Olympics had on Beijing compared to the capital before they hosted the games

·      Excellent lectures and insights (vs. visits)

·      Seeing my Barcelona friends out of Barcelona and getting to know them on another level

·      Eating scorpions for dinner

·      Chinese girl in the market able to negotiate in English, Japanese, Spanish and Swedish

·      Having lunch with the Chinese family in their home and learning to make dumplings

·      Getting lost in Beijing’s night clubs

·      Adventures in food- and having no idea what we are ordering and later, eating it

·      Lunch in a traditional restaurant with great couches for the early morning wake up

·      Having photos taken of us by Chinese people who thought that we looked strange

·      Silk market negotiations

·      The taxi drivers and never knowing where they are really going to take you

·      Exploring a new city, trying new foods, getting lost in foreign neighborhoods and trying to communicate with locals

·      Being in a place where I don't understand what is going on most of the time

·      Learning a new Chinese dice game

·      Being in the city we are studying in- the ability to connect the theory with the reality

·      Gaining insight into Chinese culture and mindset (i.e. lecture on Confucius)

·      Getting three credits for one of the most enjoyable weeks of the MBA

·      The hotel’s gym and hot tub after long days

·      Karaoke

Top Elementary School Field Trip memories:

·      I have none

·      Holding hands in the back of the bus

·      Not having school

·      Casual wear and bringing our own snacks

·      Not having homework, just playing sports during recess before and after school

·      The overnight trips with the whole class, losing my voice and feeling really cool about that when I got home

·      The fact that I never have to go on one again

·      Doing cool things in the forests

·      Getting to collect worms in a jar, putting in water and watching them expand

·      Fresh air and picking flowers

·      The bus driver

Worst parts of the China Study Tour:

·      Taking taxis in hours of traffic because of the parades

·      Dealing with drivers who don't know where they are going

·      Not enough coffee (too much tea in China!)

·      Having a cold the entire time and worrying that it’s Swine Flu

·      Only seeing the Chinese perspective and no perspective from expats doing business in china

·      Air-conditioning everywhere

·      Wake-up calls

·      No classes with BiMBA students

·      Too short

·      Too much food

·      Becky, the overenthusiastic guide- I mean, drill sergeant

Worst experiences as a child on field trips:

·      Lunches

·      Long bus trips home

·      Water trips always ruined my shoes and I always fell and hurt myself

·      Wet socks

·      Permission slips

·      Walkman speaker batteries running out before the end of the trip

·      Food not prepared by my mom

·      Getting sick on the school bus

·      Homework due based on field trip

·      PB&J always getting squished by the soda can

·      Ruining training bra because hay got in the lining on the hay ride

·      Being at the dorky picnic table

·      Never really knowing the point to anything we were learning, other than not being in school for the day

 “Study the past if you would define the future.”


Sunday, October 25, 2009

Off-Key Ambassadors

As time goes by and I desire creature comforts more than I ever thought I would- the mere idea of jumping on a plane, picking up a guide book, and venturing out into unfamiliar slices of the world is getting harder and harder to do.

More than the sheer desire to explore- I've realized the matter is a question of momentum. I’ve lost some of the momentum and therefore, clearly- my desire is only dormant- stalled by my inertia.

My love of airports and languages I can’t even read hasn't waned. The thrill I catch from walking out of an airport and into an alien city with sounds and smells thrust at me from every direction- the rush of traffic and adrenaline of the unknown still gets me. It gets me every time.

Luckily, my school offered an opportunity that I couldn't pass up- forcing me out of my hibernation and once again, into the visa office of a foreign embassy.

ESADE’s China Study Tour is available mainly to one-year MBA students and a few 18 monthers. The aim of the program is “to give you a brief glimpse of doing business in china, putting present day business practices into a historical and cultural context.”

I decided, a few months back, seeing as though I am not going on exchange- that I had to have at least one “abroad” experience while I am in this MBA.

The group of about 40 ESADE students arrived in Beijing on and around September 2. Individuals filtered in from all over the world- just as we did in Spain a year ago. Some were on planes from the countries of their internships, others direct from Barcelona, and a large number of attendees came from different points within China. I, along with two friends, strolled into the hotel at around noon directly off a flight from Xi'an.

At this point- I was not just in China- I was in China as an ESADE student. I wasn't a simple traveler or explorer. I got to Beijing and I belonged to a group again- for the first time in three months- and in effect, being part of a pack- heading in one shared direction, felt good.

In order to celebrate this collective enthusiasm- after an orientation, a dinner with far too much food and a few welcome presentations - a small number of us who hadn’t seen each other since the final round of finals in Barcelona found ourselves in a typical “KTV” karaoke bar.

So yes, my “welcome back” to the MBA took place in a private room- equipped with floor to ceiling mirrors, a television, microphones, disco ball and full bar service.  We drunkenly belted out old favorites ranging from “Roxanne” and “Wonderwall” with our familiar friends until 5:00 a.m. on a random street in a random district in the capital city of China.

And so, it seems that my official entrance into China was as an off-key ambassador of ESADE.
On another note, China gave me the boost I needed. I had gotten comfortable in the Western World. I took a seat- let my guard down and sunk my feet into Europe’s pavement.

I am learning in school- I’m learning exactly what I am supposed to be learning while pursuing an MBA- but I think I may have halted my cultural education. I’d gotten too comfortable.

I had always wanted to go to China. It had been on my “list” for a long time and I was saving it- there were too many places within the country- too much space to cover without the appropriate amount of time.

ESADE’s school trip provided me with the occasion to delve into China. With school, I learned about business practices in china, multiple local institutions, investment opportunities and the global market- in China’s terms. I discovered “guanxi”- the art and importance of Chinese relationships. And I learned about the economic and social dimensions of business and development. I was taken to the Great Wall, Tiananmen Square, and the Forbidden City. I was invited into the home of a local family to make dumplings and speak face-to-face about laws, practices, beliefs and daily life in China.

And because school gave me the reason to be in China, I extended my stay and flew to Shanghai. I had cocktails on the Bund, I ate a number meals whose ingredients I will never be able to identify. I perfected my bargaining skills in the markets. I went to Xi’an and spent a day with the Terra Cotta Warriors. I went to Cheng Du and spent a day with the pandas. I spent a week discovering Hong Kong and got caught in a typhoon in Macau. I am also proud to add that I may have perfected the art of peeing into holes in the ground masquerading as toilets.

I could have spent more time in China. I don't know if my lungs could have taken the smog any longer or my endorphin levels could have resisted the lack of sun, but the potential to learn is limitless- the discoveries between the regions, the people, and the traditions are extensive. The amount I covered of China was as much as I could have done in the given time- but it wasn't enough. It will never be enough. Then again, I am content with what I did have the opportunity to do. And now back in the Western World, in the comfort of the food I recognize and languages I can speak- with the ability to cross the street without the fear of being bulldozed by a rogue Cherry QQ and drink the water in my apartment without the fear of catching dysentery, I already feel myself losing this momentum.

I’m trying to hold on to the feeling- the satisfaction in knowing just that much more about the world- and the rush of having stepped out of my comfort zone again- to explore a place completely opposite to what I grew up accepting as “what I have seen” as opposed to “all that is.” I’m now doing my best to keep hold of the feeling of pleasure I get from shattering my own prejudices and forming a concrete awareness of another part of the world- a part with 1.3 billion individuals- each with their own histories and dreams and trepidations.

On the other hand, the satisfaction of having shared yet another eye-opening experience with a few of the members of my ESADE family makes the tough stuff worth it. And being challenged in a different way than what most business school trials presents, I already know that the China trip will act as the glue that will bind us together throughout our entire lives.

Besides, maybe it is exactly what I needed to regain my momentum- being forced out of my rut by the very people who have made it so easy to sit back and get comfortable in Spain.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Back to School Playlist

I make playlists because there is nothing in my life that better defines exact snippets in time and emotions more than music. Since I am absolutely hopeless when it comes to making it- I have assumed the occupation of listening to it.

I make playlists because these are the songs that fill the empty spaces between my words and the songs that prompt my thoughts. I record my playlists because they are awash with the music that fills the cavities left by the language I am oftentimes unable to place. Or utter. Or identify.

So this is it- the last “back to school” playlist I will ever make. (unless, of course, I decide to pursue a PhD. Ha.)

Mika- Rain

Eros Ramazzotti and Anastacia- I Belong to You

Alicia Keyes- Doesn't Mean Anything

Lily Allen- Fuck You Very Much

Beatles- Don’t Let Me Down

Black Eyed Peas- I Gotta Feeling

Michael Jackson - This is It

Kings of Leon- Notion

Adriano Celentano and Mina- Acqua e Sale

Robbie Williams- Angels

Kate Rusby- Planets (thank you, Jessica!)

Hotel Costes 2, La Suite- Sympatique, Pink Martini and Night Over Manaus, Boozoo Bajau

Fanfarlo- Fire Escape

Matt Hires- Out of the Dark

Zero Assoluto- Per Dimenticare

Jay Z feat. Mr. Hudson- Young Forever

Akon- Freedom

Tuesday, October 20, 2009


I have hundreds (literally. hundreds.) of unfinished drafts of random thoughts and three-worded descriptions of things and people and places. I’ve done so much in the last few months- encounters and meetings and mornings and evenings- that run periodically through my mind at the most inopportune times. They all mean something significant to me but I cannot seem to turn them into evocative language. I cant put my finger on what the significance of any of it is- and where the lessons can be found.

I spent a month in China- it was a life changing experience- and I have yet to write about it. I spent a summer vagabonding around the world for what will probably be the last time in my semi-adult life. I’ve lost someone important to me. I am back in Barcelona for the final months of the “MBA period” of my life- something I can never get back but am anticipating the end. I’ve ended friendships, I’ve strengthened bonds, and I’ve spent a lot of time wondering about the people in my life- and whether they belong here or not. 

 I’m in the process of making changes- of making decisions- big decisions…and for some reason, I feel like the consequences or costs of these decisions will be the lasting kind. And because of this, I’ve become inert. I can’t write a simple sentence about a simple experience. I can’t move. I cant say “yes” because “no” might be the right answer. I can’t look up cause I’m afraid of what I’ll miss by not looking down.

These are the biggest decisions I have ever had to make and they are looming so close that I am beginning to suffocate. It’s not about choices- because I’ve never been a believer in selecting only from what is laid out in front of me- instead I’m trying to figure out what brings me joy and then somehow mold that into a career for myself- all the while creating something sustainable, profitable (enough to validate this whole MBA thing), valuable and most importantly, fitting.

I came here a year ago not knowing what I wanted to leave doing- I had some ideas, some suggestions and some thoughts- yet everything I had outlined has expired. And every path that I had routed has either become a dead-end or so obscured that I can’t make it out anymore. This isn’t a bad thing- it’s just an unexpected thing.

I don't know how many people embark on an MBA with the objective of mapping out the rest of their lives- at least their professional lives. I had laid on the expectation and then sat and patiently waited for something or someone to come calling- showing me the way…

Unfortunately, “the way” is just as blurry as it was when I began- as it was when I graduated college, as it was when I found my first job, my second, and third- and “my path” is now as shadowy and dim as it was when I began my MBA. I know more about myself- and I have more knowledge, there is no doubt about that. I can DO more- much more. But it is where I want to apply this knowledge that is vague. There are no classes about this. Not in business school.

Right now- I am wishing I were one of those people who came to the MBA with a plan. Unfortunately, the MBA was my plan. I had hoped that throughout this experience, a more concrete idea would form- but it hasn't. The MBA is still my plan. And when it’s over? Then what?

Until that fateful day, I will keep attending career fairs, keep writing sentence-long journal entries and then abandoning them. I’ll keep reading cases and waking up for classes and hopefully- before too long, I´ll have a clear direction to go in. I’ll see everything that is indefinite as definite- and everything ambiguous as decided. I’ll be able to define all my relationships and compartmentalize them perfectly. I’ll find the words I’m looking for and I’ll use them as they were meant to be used. I’ll do with my life what I was meant to do all along- whatever that may be.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009


In the unofficial/unwritten guidebook about MBAs, the second year is a breeze. We actually get to choose our own courses and therefore, tailor them to our interests and needs. Schedules are a lot looser and free time is actually free.

What I didn't expect was the squeeze- the time when you are so close to the edge of something that you know if you don't go left and you don't go right- you are going to fall right off. And after two years and a lot of dinero, you definitely can’t go backwards.

So it’s decision time- time to make choices. And if I were to write this “brochure”- direct and openly, I would have a million footnotes in there too. Like all the peripheral influences making these choices harder.

I know that not everyone is like me, that there are many different profiles found amongst MBA students...but I know and understand my situation- and I know that 1. I am not married. 2. I am 28 years old  and 3. I'm still searching. I think I would be more “OK” with a new beginning and a new path if it weren’t for everyone around me seeming to exist on a different level.

I spent my first long weekend in quite some time at home. I hung out in my flat, didn't leave Barcelona by plane or train and I gave myself the gift of “me” time. This means: catching up on Grey’s Anatomy and Entourage. It means listening to the Beatles and eating grilled cheese in bed. It also means scanning facebook in order to catch up on all the gossip I missed.

In the past, my perusal of facebook consisted of seeing who got fat, who got a great job, who moved across the world. Now- it’s more of a tally of who is married, who is engaged, who is pregnant, and who has kids. This info isn’t too hard to unearth- considering the people I know who kindly put their sonograms as their profile pics- and each new wedding photo or honeymoon shot or adorable little family foto is like another thorn in my side. Because at the end of the day, here are all the people I grew up with – and they have families and secure futures and its kind of all just settled in a nice and tidy parcel. And here I am- on the totally opposite side of the spectrum- deciding on a new career- making choices about who I want to be, what my professional goals are, how much of a difference do I want to make in the world and what continent I want to tackle next. And yes, this is me…I am an explorer and I have so much more I would like to accomplish before I do any kind of settling- but at the same time, I have the moments where I wish I had chosen an easier path.

The unknown is scary…but the unknown for someone nearing 30 is far more terrifying.

Before the MBA, and during- I had this as my identity: Business Student in Barcelona. The future was just the future and the past just the past. Now the future is approaching at lighting speed and I am realizing that I can no longer hang on to the “ESADE student” identity that has been my padded cushion for the last couple years.

I am not a wife, I am not a mother and it doesn't look like I am any closer to having a ring on my finger than I was when I was applying for the MBA. I can’t go backwards, I have learned that. I don't know what’s to the left, and I don’t want what’s to the right.

So as time passes far too quickly, I realize that I am being pushed forwards- frenziedly- and six months from now, I will fall off.  It’s up to me to figure out what is waiting at the bottom.

It's “go- time”…and time to get rid of my facebook account.