“What’s the most interesting aspect about living in China?”
Gabby Cooper-Vespa, first-year management student at PKU HSBC Business School, is mulling over my question. Ask anyone who has been a resident for a few years and nine times out of ten you’ll get something along the lines of ‘China is still an adventure.’ You arrive and you learn new things every single day; be it a local slang term (666, anyone?) or the nuances of the Chinese workplace. For Gabby, this is still the case even now with a couple yearly residence permits filling up her passport. “Every day, I don’t know what’s going to happen and that keeps things interesting,” she says of her daily life in Shenzhen. “You have to be flexible and adapt, but if you keep that mindset then every day is a surprise.”
Her path to China unknowingly began in middle school and high school in the United States, during a time when China was frequently in the news but hardly touched upon in western history-focused curricula. “I was really interested in the other half of the world, and that’s what initially attracted me—I knew nothing about this huge country that seemed to have a lot of power and influence.” She explains that the lack of information on China eventually influenced her decision to major in Chinese Language and Culture at Wellesley College in Massachusetts, alongside her other major of Biological Sciences. During her junior year she spent a January term in Beijing and a spring semester in Kunming, where she purposefully chose a language pledge program in an effort to vastly improve her spoken Chinese skills. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it is an agreement to speak only Chinese (except for situations like Skype calls with family and friends back home) or face repercussions. “It was my first time in China, and it was a very eye opening experience that definitely made me want to come back.” She capped off her eight months of Chinese immersion with an internship in Beijing, eventually returning to Massachusetts to finish her program.
After graduating in 2015, Gabby returned to China to teach at Nanjing’s Nanjing Normal University through a two-year placement with the Wellesley-Yenching Fellowship. “I learned that to get things done in China, you need to act like you know what you’re doing even if you don’t. It really pushed me to be confident with myself and what I know. Even if what I know isn’t a lot, it’s still something I can work with.” Though her time as a teaching fellow was a great experience, it had always been a stepping stone back to China. So when the time came to explore options for the future, she wanted an opportunity for a transition. Around November of her second year at Nanjing Normal, she learned of the PHBS Master of Management Program through one of her alumni networks. After some research and a campus visit during a trip to neighboring Guangxi province, she accepted her offer in April and prepared to rejoin the ranks of student life.
Now in October (at the time of interview), she is well into her major’s required courses: financial accounting, operations management, global communications, etc. “I’m taking classes I have no background in and I’ve found a lot of my classmates already have strong foundations in most of the subjects,” but she adds that there’s no issue as long as she puts in the time and effort. To balance out the academic side of things, Gabby enjoys the active campus life here at Nanyan. “When I need a break the most efficient way for me to relax is to exercise, so slowly I’ve been figuring out how to do that socially on campus.” If you’re around University Town, you can catch Gabby playing badminton or running at 6:30 AM with the Marathon Running Group. If you’re not a morning person, you can find her at meetings for the Asia-Pacific Student Entrepreneurship Society, rock climbing every Sunday at the track and field, or T.A.-ing for various classes. “Associations are good for mixing with people outside of PHBS,” and mingling with non-PHBS students happens to be the best way to practice Chinese.
As someone who started learning Mandarin roughly six years ago, Gabby acknowledges language skills to be a big part of her personal success in China. “It’s made me self-sufficient and confident in things I hadn’t done before, like traveling alone in China.” However, she guesses she speaks Chinese only 10% of the time, an inevitable consequence of being enrolled in an English-based program. Gabby explains that she is always looking to change that percentage, as is evident by her student association involvement. As for life off-campus, she finds that speaking Chinese provides perks far and wide, whether it’s making friends on a 33-hour train ride while crossing China or simply ordering food in restaurants. “I’m a major fan of Chinese food; when I first came to China the things I studied most were menus so I could always know what to order.”
In regards to the future, it’s a little early in the game to say where Gabby is headed. “Definitely something management related and connected to China, but I’m leaving it open to see what happens and where this program takes me.”
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Reported by Megan Mancenido
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