Friday, December 04, 2009

Finals, DEX, and a Tale from My Trip to China

I only have to survive two more weeks before it's home I go for a much-needed break from this craziness. This has been the busiest and most challenging semester I've ever had, academically speaking.

I've been forced to spend 90% of my time maintaining a good grade in my two honors courses: Analytics - Math Models and Medieval World. My business and language courses -- the "easy A's" -- have been all but neglected, which is frustrating since those relate directly to my major and I would like to spend a lot more time on them rather than just scraping by with the minimum required for an A.

In the midst of all this, plus a million other responsibilities, I almost reached the point of a nervous breakdown the other night. It's a lot of pressure.







Fortunately I was able to maintain my composure and resist completely losing it by breathing deeply, pulling out my yoga mat for some self-induced therapy, and praying big prayers...it's going to take a miracle to come out of this round of finals with my GPA in tact.

On the upside, this little episode prompted me to reconsider what matters most in life. As much as I strive to maintain a perfect GPA -- because I know that it validates all my hard work and helps open doors to opportunities for scholarships and admission to travel and study programs, and eventually jobs -- sometimes I need a reminder that my GPA isn't a measure of my personal worth and ultimately, there are a lot of things in life that are more important, such as time spent with my family and time set aside to serve others, and time set aside for God.

Today went much better, even with the DEX (Delta Epsilon Chi - Entrepreneurship Club) Competition this morning. In this competition each team (2-3 students) was given the same prompt (watch it by clicking here) and instructed to come up with a business idea that takes advantage of the trends depicted in the video. My team came up with an idea for a business called The Back Room: America's Voice. This would be an online political forum where users would be encouraged to propose solutions to current local, regional, national, even global issues. Other users would have the opportunity to make "amendments" (instead of comments) to the proposition, and would be able to offer criticism or give their support. Mock elections would be held from time to time, and the most popular users would be given the opportunity to create their own virtual political party.

Data from the Princeton Review shows that 53% of Americans are unhappy with the two-party political system. According to the PEW Research Center for the People & the Press, there are 14 million political activists online. This evidences a large potential audience for a forum such as The Back Room. The goal of The Back Room would be to increase the number of Americans who feel as though they have a voice in U.S. politics, and ultimately, to highlight the brilliant ideas of low-profile citizens who otherwise might not be heard.

We ended up making it to the finals, but scored 5th there. Overall we placed 5th out of 12 teams. But, Jamie, C.J., and I were happy to have even made it to finals. This was the first competition for all of us, and there were several experienced teams there who didn't even make it to the final round, so we felt very honored. We have another practice competition (just between Belmont students) and then we're headed to Nationals in St Louis in March 2010!
(We're going to be fundraising to help offset the costs of participating in this competition, so look for more info about how you can support us in the future!)

Last year the Belmont team came back from this competition with some big time achievements, so excuse me while I brag on my peers a little bit. Apparently half of the entire group of finalists were Belmont students! Way to go, guys!


Andrew Birchfield, Julia Cecere and Brandon Littleton won first place in the Entrepreneur Challenge at the International meeting of Delta Epsilon Chi in 2009. Noah Curran and Julie Zaloba won second place. Andy Tabar took first place in the Business Plan Competition, and Julie Zaloba was a top ten winner. Noah Curran was a top ten winner and Julia Cecere was a national finalist in the Travel and Tourism category. Kaitlin Adams and Susan Harbison were national finalists for Business Ethics. Kirstin Long and Mandy Thompson were national finalists for Marketing Management. Kirstin Long also won an award for her essay on an advertising campaign. Andrew Birchfield was a national finalist for Fashion Design.



Another big current undertaking of mine is my pursuit of scholarship money for my impending 15-month trip to Russia. Many deadlines are coming up this month, so I'm dividing my time between studying for finals and completing pages of applications and essays. I'm really passionate about traveling and discovering though, so these are a great opportunity to take a break from my coursework and write about something I enjoy immensely and am greatly looking forward to!

After months of searching, I've finally found the perfect organization that will allow me to customize my trip while still providing a safety net -- an in-country support staff, travel insurance, a direct contact at the US Embassy, and a vast network of useful contacts in the cities I'll come to call home -- all things that I've realized the importance of since my last experience in China.

I don't know if I've ever told this story to anyone besides a few family members and friends, but as a short-term traveler, it's one of my worst nightmares. In fact....it's actually two of my worst nightmares -- yes, there are two parts -- and I didn't start having nightmares about them until after I'd returned home to the States and realized the gravity of both situations.

I'd been living in Australia with my aunt and uncle since March, and thus, already in the adventurous traveling spirit, was very eager to be off again to discover a new continent. I had known since the previous November that I was to be privileged with the opportunity to visit China, but the reality of leaving the Western world didn't dawn on me until just days before I boarded the plane. My world seemed to turn upside down when the 2008 Sichuan earthquake happened three weeks before my anticipated departure, killing over 68,000 and destroying several chemical plants, releasing harmful chemical clouds into the air. The Chinese media was, as usual, highly censored, and it was difficult -- in fact impossible -- to tell from outside China what the true impact had been on certain areas of the country, which worried me since I was scheduled to visit four different regions over five weeks. On top of this natural disaster, the 2008 Beijing Olympics were only 68 days from coming into full swing, and there had been several terrorist attempts and a few arrests during the same week as the earthquake and in the weeks following.

The vast and foreign Chinese continent and all its problems worried me. At one point, two weeks before expected departure, I called and completely cancelled the trip. Having realized soon after that I would be refunded much less than full tuition, I opted to keep my spot open -- hoping the situation would improve -- but if worse came to worse, I would simply neglect to board the plane.

In the end, things did get better, and I realized that China was larger than the United States. When Katrina hit in New Orleans, did I have second thoughts about traveling to Washington D.C.? When there was an earthquake in Los Angeles, did my family in Oregon have any doubts about their safety? Nope. None at all. Put in perspective, my visit to China didn't pose as much of a threat as I had initially estimated.

So, on a beautiful Australian winter morning on June 6, 2008, I boarded a plane headed north to Asia. My 17-hour trip from Adelaide, South Australia to Beijing was broken up by a quick stop-over in Sydney and a longer one in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. I was surprised at how westernized Malaysia seemed -- at least the International Airport part of it. As I sat down for a midnight mango smoothie at a little kiosk-café, I looked up to find a space-age type elevator back lit by a glowing Burger King sign. There were traditionally-dressed women selling all sorts of native art, jewelry and costumes at kiosks scattered throughout the main strip, but most of the shops were filled with high-profile boutiques such as Louis Vuitton, Prada, Gucci, and Swarovski Crystal.

Beijing is only a few hours behind Adelaide, so when I arrived in China's capital at 5:00 am the next day I was adequately groggy since my body thought it was 8:00 and sleep hadn't come easily on the plane.

I disembarked and followed the crowd of all Asian-looking people through a few gates and out into the main terminal to collect my baggage. I didn't see any signs in English, let alone French, Spanish, Italian, or anything else that remotely resembled a language I could attempt to decode, but at that time of the morning the terminal was largely deserted and I didn't have any trouble locating my bags at one of the two baggage claim areas. There was no security guard to ask me for my passport or look at my visa. Sure, they had checked in Kuala Lumpur before I boarded the plane, but I was certain that those hadn't been Chinese officials. Although I was certainly prepared for something less than one of Europe's grand hall train stations, I couldn't help but think it strange that the capital of such a large and populated country would have such a puny and understaffed airport.

There were 400 other college students from around the world that would be arriving in Beijing that day for the Global Youth Leadership Summit, and we had been divided into groups by our expected time of arrival and told to look for a GYLS staff person that would greet us and put us on a bus to the Beijing Friendship Hotel. It was 5:15 am, and my group was scheduled to meet at 8 am. That would give me about two and a half hours to freshen up, explore the airport a bit, and try my first Chinese breakfast. I found the women's restroom thanks to my superior recognition of the international stick-figure-in-a-skirt symbol, and eagerly anticipated washing my face and brushing my teeth, two things that are not easily accomplished at 40,000 feet. At first glance, I was relieved to find a normal-looking western bathroom, and began to brush my teeth (with bottled water since the water flowing from the sink looked questionable). It was when I turned around and entered a stall that I realized something was terribly wrong. There were little dividers between the toilets, but no doors. Oh well, I thought, If this is the way they do it here at least I'll be exempt from any strange looks. I've only been here a few minutes and I'm already encountering a major difference, but I might as well accept it from the beginning if I'm to make the best of this experience. And so I did. Truth be told, it was a little awkward, especially when some middle-aged Chinese women came in to do their hair in the mirror directly opposite my stall and started obviously snickering at the pale girl with freckles and red hair who obviously didn't fit in. But it was okay. I was different. Throughout my travels I'd gotten used to being stared at, my every move and expression contemplated because of my distinctly different appearance and accent. It had never happened in such a private place though.

I returned to the terminal and set out, wheeling my luggage cart, in search of something edible and something novel. Three hours later, it was approaching 8:30 and, starving because nothing was yet open, I had paced the length of the terminal several times. The hall was quiet and almost desolate. There were windows down one side of the hall representing different businesses. Young-ish Chinese people were behind them all, ready to help the occasional customer. I asked them all if they spoke English, French, Spanish, or Italian. They spoke only Chinese. I started to get worried. Had I flown in on the wrong day? Was I supposed to come the 8th instead of the 7th....or had the group already come and gone? Luckily I was armed with a WorldPhone -- a cell phone whose SIM card automatically detects the available network, be it CDMA (like the US uses) or GSM (used in Europe and Asia). This meant I was immediately able to call out. I dialed the "emergency number" I had been given by GYLS. This was supposedly a cell phone that a group leader held at all times. No one answered. I left a message. I called three more times. I left messages three more times. I waited another hour, nervous and worried, but no one ever called me back. I finally took to the small groups of people meandering about the terminal, systematically searching for anyone who could help me figure out what was going on. Everyone around had jet-black hair. To me they all looked identical at that point, because I was not yet accustomed to the distinguishing characteristics of Asian features. I was sure I asked several groups more than once if they could help me, but I was too scared to feel self-conscious about bothering them. I needed help.

Finally, after another hour, I saw a little blond ponytail bobbing at the opposite end of the terminal. Accompanying her was a man whom I was positive was also a foreigner. His shaggy hair, grey t-shirt, board shorts, and Tevas stood out in this crowd of conservatively-dressed Chinese people. I practically ran towards them, my luggage cart picking up momentum. Soon I wasn't going to be able to stop it very easily, so instead I left it unattended in the middle of the terminal and bolted for the foreign couple who were walking hand in hand and chatting animatedly. Excusez-moi, vous parlez français? I asked. Do you speak English?
- Oui, et Oui -- we speak both. I don't think I have ever been happier to see two people as I was to see those two in that instant. They were truly a gift from heaven. The woman was French; she had been teaching French and English in China for 5 years. Her boyfriend was from Seattle. He had come to teach English at an elementary school a few miles away and they had met in Beijing. They were fluent in Mandarin and explained to me that I was at Beijing's domestic airport. The international airport was eight miles away and accessible by bus.

Why had my international flight landed in the domestic terminal? The French woman explained that sometimes international flights within Asia are not always treated the same as international flights from elsewhere. With the world flocking to Beijing for the upcoming Olympics, she said, there may have simply not been enough room for another flight at the international terminal, so they had made a detour to the domestic one. The good couple helped me find my way to the shuttle and sent me on my way. I eventually found my group in the international terminal but was too exhausted to explain my delay. They sent me back to the hotel on the next bus and I was able to catch up on some sleep before the Summit got underway the next day.

Fast forward five weeks. My travels in China, as a whole, had gone pretty smoothly. It wasn't until the day before my flight home that things began to head downhill.

I had bought a discounted student ticket from Guangzhou to San Francisco back in February 2008. I hopped online the night before I was scheduled to fly out to ensure that my flight was not delayed and that everything was still on schedule. First problem: my flight number did not appear on the United Airlines website. So I called United, sure that there must have been some kind of communication error. Within a six-month period, it's expected that some of the route numbers may change; I was sure that once I got a human on the line, we could sort this out in seconds. Second problem: no humans answered. I called about 3 or 4 times that night before I could get through to someone. When I did, I gave the lady my route number, destination, ticket number, and passport info. I was indeed registered in their system, but there was a big, big problem.

-We no longer service the Guangzhou airport, she said.
-Excuse me? Are you saying that there are no United planes flying in or out of this city? I questioned in disbelief.
-That's right ma'am. We have no access to the Guangzhou airport.
-Well, I've already purchased this ticket, and you haven't notified me of this change.
-I'm sorry ma'am, the third-party website through which you purchased your ticket is responsible for notifying you of any changes to the ticket status.
- I've heard nothing of this. I was in shock. My knees started to shake. Can you please transfer me to a different airline?
-I'm sorry ma'am, that is impossible. You have already bought this ticket with United. The best I can do is to arrange for you to fly out of Hong Kong. I won't charge you the extra amount. Would you like me to postpone from tomorrow to Thursday so that you will have time to travel to Hong Kong?
-Oh, well thank you, I thought....how very kind. Uhhh....yes. But excuse me, where is Hong Kong? Can you please help me arrange a flight or other transportation so that I can get there in time? I'm traveling along and my visa is going to expire.
- I'm sorry, I cannot do any of that. I don't know exactly where Hong Kong is. Perhaps you will be able to fly there, or maybe use a train or bus. All I can give you is a flight from Hong Kong to San Francisco.

What could I say? What could I do? The woman had left me effectively stranded in China. By now it was 12:15 am in Guangzhou -- the middle of the night. My host sister, Xiao Jun, came in when she heard me get off the phone. By the dazed look on my face, she could tell immediately that something was amiss.
-What happened? she asked.
-I'm not sure, I replied slowly, but I can't fly out from Guangzhou. The airplanes don't come here anymore. I need to go to Hong Kong.
-Hong Kong? I'm not sure how far that is. I've never been there, and I have no idea how you'll get there.
-I know it's late, I said, but this is really important. Do you think you could wake up your mom really quick and ask her how I can get to Hong Kong? I need to know tonight. I may have to leave very early tomorrow morning. Respect -- especially towards parents and elders in general -- is a big thing in China. I knew I was pushing the line by waking up a parent in the middle of the night; but this truly seemed like a life or death situation. The internet was not working very well and I was nervous about not making it to my flight in time. The last I needed was to miss a flight and have to deal with United again. They were perhaps the least helpful an airline has ever been in such a situation: a single girl, traveling alone in China, has a limited visa, and who knows but a few basic phrases in Chinese, the most complicated being "shi bao leu" -- "I've had enough to eat, thank you." It seemed unbelievable to me that this woman would refuse to do anything more to help me.

Xiao Jun's mother, a kind, gentle woman, was able to confirm that Hong Kong was only three to four hours away. She thought there was a bus that left daily from an American hotel downtown, but she didn't know for sure, and she had no idea what time it might leave. She said that, for now, I should just go to sleep and worry about it tomorrow.

I don't recall sleeping much that night: besides battling the average 100-degree F temperatures throughout the night and the 95% humidity which made the heat considerably worse, I was extremely worried that the bus would leave before Mrs. Xiao even had the chance to call about the potential existence of a bus.

As it turned out, there was a bus, and, after hauling all my luggage downtown using a system of city buses, I arrived at the hotel just as the greyhound-looking coach pulled in to pick up passengers headed for Hong Kong. There were not many passengers on this particular bus. I watched as some tall, dark, thin, well-dressed Namibian men prepared to load several 3' x 4' x 2' pallets of something bundled up in blue and white tarp into the bottom hold of the bus. Three middle-eastern-looking men in glasses, each with a high-tech digital camera around his neck, waited for their turn to board in earthy colored polos, blue jeans and khakis with fanny packs strapped around their wastes. They kept making jokes and snickering together, and when I boarded the bus they started to laugh and point and snap pictures of me. I was the only female passenger. I feared that the Namibian men were up to something illegal -- there was a lot of sketchiness about them and I had seen enough scams in Italy to be able to recognize the signs of someone bartering fake jewelry, watches, and handbags. I was sure that this was what these guys were up to. The Namibian men headed for the back of the bus, and the middle eastern men situated themselves on the left side of the isle about four rows back from the driver, so I set up camp about seven rows back on the right: just far enough from the group of three for privacy's sake, but still close enough to the driver for comfort's sake.

I payed $120 USD for a ticket to Hong Kong which I thought was a little steep until I realized that at the halfway point, before crossing over to the island, we would stop at an inspection point and I would be taken the rest of the way in a private limo. I was given a white and blue sticker labeled "HK" to put on like a name tag when I bought the ticket (basically I was being labeled like luggage since I wasn't able to communicate). When we pulled up to the border crossing station we were all unloaded and I was literally herded by an official through the station, patted down, and deposited on the other side in front of a large parking lot filled with several different kinds of transportation: taxis, cars, bigger cars, little buses, coaches, euro-vans, small limos, and bigger, raised-truck-style limos. A man immediately approached me, beckoned for me to follow him, and took me to a black, raised-truck-style limo with tinted windows which he opened to display my luggage. After I saw that he had my passport in hand (which I was very, very unwilling to part with at the inspection station -- almost to the point of being uncooperative -- which was completely justified by my fear of someone stealing the only hard-copy proof I had with me of my American citizenship), I thought, Well, guess I better go with this guy, and let him help me into the limo.

The second half of the trip was a pleasant hour and a half.

I arrived at the Hong Kong International Airport Hotel -- the largest airport hotel in the world --at about 3 pm, paid a ridiculous $420 USD for one night in the only room they had left -- the super wedding suite or something to that effect, and enjoyed my first taste of the comforts of the Western world in over a month. I lounged on comfortable little furniture pods of a very modern, sleek design in one of three spacious, air-conditioned lobbies. I treated myself to my complimentary massage, took a real shower, dressed up for dinner, and enjoyed a complimentary five-star international buffet -- even the prestigious French and Italian wines were on the house. There was kangaroo, rattle snake, and alligator delicacies available, corn bread that was even better than in the South, all sorts of fruit and vegetable salads, along with a the largest, most delicious sushi bar I've ever seen, and tables of delectable desserts. It was amazing, and very relaxing. I was blessed to spend just over 24 hours in this heavenly resort before being whisked off to my flight back home. It was an amazing way to end the trip, and I'm glad that I had the opportunity to visit Hong Kong, but the circumstances were rather nerve wracking there for a while.


Someone asked me today what inspires me to travel. I could answer with some generally inspirational-type things, but I much prefer to answer with a story, one like this. It's the process of knowing that the unexpected is coming, experiencing it, making the best out of it for the time being, and then ultimately figuring out how to cope and be genuinely happy at the same time that I find exciting. I'm sure I'll have some equally exhilarating experiences in Russia. And I know that there's going to be a certain amount of risk involved; some things are going to go wrong, as they always do. But it's the challenge of navigating life in a completely new environment that drives me on to explore new places.





I've arranged to spend
this coming Fall 2010 interning directly under the CEO/COO of a multinational firm in Moscow while taking 20 hours/week of intensive language study at Moscow State University.

In the Spring 2011, I'll be taking
a semester of the International Business grad program at St. Petersburg State University, and hopefully interning at Russia's largest travel agency, МИР
(say "meer").






1 comments:

  1. I love your business idea with DEX. I'm a member in Utah. Maybe I'll see you at ICDC.

    ReplyDelete

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