We were just returning from our week-long break in Paris. The day was hot, at times in mid-thirties. We anticipated cooler weather in the UK. When we reached Folkestone, the temperature didn’t plummet. I thought for a brief moment that it was perhaps the wrong week to be on holiday. It would have been better had the weather here been worse.
But that thought made me think further. Why is it that the weather had to be worse here to make a holiday abroad seem more pleasant? Is it because spending all the money and effort for a break away from the usual cold and damp weather now seemed worthless because anybody who stayed here enjoyed the sun just the same? And is it not the same problem with wealth? No matter how well off one seems to be, they don’t feel exclusive enough if the others had what they have. That we are not happy with what we have got, no matter how much it is — isn’t that the first symptom of inequality of wealth? Sunshine is ubiquitous, just like all resources on earth that we exploit, but we all want a bigger share. So when we look in contempt at other people for being wealthy and not doing enough to help the poor, we should look at ourselves as well. WE, are part of it, and it needs reminding all the time if we even hope to make a difference one day.
The day after, we were eating Father’s Day dinner in a restaurant. It’s not a Michelin star place, but a chain restaurant mainly catered for middle-class clientele. I couldn’t help but overhear the conversation at the table next to us. A middle-aged man, his Aussie partner and opposite them sat a young man of early twenties with headphone on the ear and a woman about the same age. It seemed it was the boy’s family and the girl was the girlfriend. They were talking about the Grenfell Tower and the young woman was vociferously explaining the shortcomings of the councils, the legal implications, where Labour was wrong, where Tories were wrong. She sounded compelling and had won the debate at the table.
Yet, her argument, albeit filled with facts and legal jargon, lacked a basic factor. It lacked empathy for the families that were ruined — the human factor in the equation of the accountabilities. She is a Uni student, and with her knowledge, I wouldn’t be surprised if she was doing politics. I thought of the time if she became a politician. She could present an excellent speech but could still be totally aloof from the people she’s standing up for.
The political elite of this country, irrespective of the party, has this issue of connecting with the common public. If not all, the majority of them, especially the party frontbenchers, hails from a privileged upbringing, and learned politics as theory and analysing the history rather than following the first principles of politics — understanding people. And by not understanding the public or by making the public think that politicians are above their class, it alienated public from most mainstream politicians and paved paths for opportunistic populist parties. The image of one Nigel Farage holding a pint of beer comes to mind.
Brexit results showed the danger of populism and the permanent damage it’ll inflict on the course of UK’s future. It’s about time that the mainstream parties start diversifying their candidate portfolio. Some barriers have been broken in recent years in terms of politics and inclusion of candidates of various background, but classism is another hurdle to overcome. Social engineering in UK public service is a fact, and unless these prejudices are removed, a politician will never be representative of the public they are meant to represent.
And this realisation brought home the two random thoughts together. We live in a society where we are taught seek more, have more than others. Our actions define our future, and others’ as well. Until we reach a point where we learn to think differently or our inherent tendency to create inequality is neutralised by a system fair to all, we will not be living in a society we can be proud to be a part of. And to achieve an equal society, equality should not be devolved or merely representative, but the equality which will be entitled, ubiquitous.
But then, will it ever happen? After all, sitting here, writing about all this rather than doing something about it, I’ve just followed the benevolent socialist bandwagon, who talks about reforming the world but does nothing.
This is an exact copy of the report I had written as a synopsis of the personal reflections during the International Business Experience tour to China during my MBA in 2009. Just sharing this report here as it raised some poignant questions on our view to society…
Scenario-1 Day-1 in China, at the Urban Planning Exhibition Centre, Shanghai
The Chinese guide explaining in her inept and deeply-accented English the history of Shanghai and the upcoming Expo 2010 to her entourage from Cranfield. Not many understood everything, but a number of us stated smiling derisively, some aloud. People marvelled at the miniature architecture, but not the guide for the showing us around – the mechanical way of speaking without much personal touch was considered, to the least, cold.
Scenario-2 Same Day, at McDonald’s restaurant
We had difficulty in placing an order for the vegetarian menu, as would happen anywhere in the world. The conversation between my colleague and the lady managing the till was like this:
Colleague: “Do you speak English?”…Lady: “No English”… Co: “Does anyone understand English here?”…No reply… Co: “ENGLISH! ENGLISH!”… After much toil when we are seated, my colleague commented: “Oh hell, no one speaks English here, we are far better off in India”. I’m still struggling to find the link between being an Anglophone and being better off in life.
Scenario-3 Day-3, Yuyuan garden commercial centre, the silk factory
Our tour guide for the day, Marie, showed me around the area, and I purchased some raw-silk items. On our way back, she excused herself to register some information about visitors at the counter. Afterwards, I asked her blatantly about the amount of commission she gets. She informed that it’s something they have to do for the municipality. In that unfamiliar situation, I tried to make assumptions drawing from my Indian context.
Scenario-4 Day-7, Beijing Chaoyang theatre acrobatic centre
The entry pass to the acrobatic show mentioned that the guests must enter before the time of the show; else they’ll have to wait until the intermission. Yet, some entered the hall even after 30 minutes from the start. Most of the people in the hall were foreigners. The ticket said, “no photo or video during the show”. The trapeze artists were performing a frightening game of balancing on a 30 feet high wheel, without any safety rope. Yet, the majority of the visitors clicked their cameras indiscriminately – most of them with a flash. The temptation of capturing some memento on a foreign land contained the risk of life-threatening injury. But why bother! “The security didn’t prevent us!”
I tried to provide a few snapshots of some of the situations I encountered on the China trip, but as a whole, it reminded me of the lectures we had during OBPPD and People Management, especially about doing business with completely different national cultures. Although IBE meant to enhance the business experience, and with visits to the numerous companies from different industry sector and size, the learning was exceptional, to me, the best learning was the cultural exposure, to watch and be a part of the transactions among people with geographical, cultural and linguistic diversities.
The key learning was when realised that it is easy to fall into the trap of comparing and judging other cultures from one’s cultural mindset. It is easy and dangerous because once a false image about a person is created; it almost always gets more distorted following different form of ‘ladder of influence’. It might seem difficult to interact with people from a completely unknown cultural values and contexts, but I realised from this trip that it only takes the willingness to learn and accept the contrasts, to bridge the gap. Kudos to the MBA curriculum to have stressed on the people aspect so much – it is ABSOLUTELY important to do business internationally.
To this point, I’d try to turn to the theme of this report. The IBE experience: visits to the companies, made us captivated within the glossy façade of cityscapes, which is expectable in most of the South-East Asian places. I wanted to see, as Jeanne-Marie Gescher mentioned – ‘the Invisibles’ of China. In Shanghai, the contrast in living standards was visible, unlike in Beijing. I wanted to interact with people to have a better insight into people’s lives; our two tour guides – Marie and Matthew provided helped me a lot on this. However, in the concluding section, I’ll talk about two other experiences, that will lead to another crucial learning from this tour.
Scenario-5 Day-6, Wangfujing shopping district
I arrived at the wrong time, as most of the shops were getting closed. A young woman approached me and asked if I speak English. Then she asked that she wanted to talk, and we talked about the place I’m from, what did I see etc. After about 5 minutes she asked whether I’d accompany her for a massage. On my denial she asked me to go for a coffee; I agreed on the condition that I chose the café. We talked for about 15 minutes, and she told me how the local police, despite prostitution being illegal in China, keep silent and extort illegal sex workers by threatening prosecution. I also, learned that tens of thousands of women, from neighbouring provinces (she was from Hebei), come to Beijing willingly or by force.
Scenario-6 Same day, same area, China foreign language book shop
I wanted to buy a book on ‘learning Chinese’. The bookseller showed me an unabridged language learning pack, with speech modulation tools etc. I kept on mentioning that I’m looking for a basic book, but she wanted me to try and learn some words in Chinese, how the accented words are pronounced etc. Only after 15 minutes of the demonstration did she mention that it’s a great language pack and it will only cost Rmb 499.
The key point that emerges from these two scenarios, confirmed by Rob Hughes of Linde, that business in China is all about relationships. Establishing a workable relationship or communication is a prerequisite, before even making a business proposition.
To conclude, the China IBE added new dimensions to my lines of thought – to understand, interact and do business with people from the diverse cultural setting, which will enrich me and my values in the long-run.