Want to Understand Business in Asia? Put Down the Book, Go Work There

“The world is a book and those who do not travel read only one page.”  ~St. Augustine


While this is applicable to any aspect of globetrotting, I have found how particularly relevant the quote is in regards to bettering your knowledge of international business.

Having been fortunate to do summer internships in both Shanghai and Singapore, I am afforded the opportunity to reflect and realize how much my understanding of the globalized business landscape – especially in Asia – has been influenced by these opportunities.

And what I attained while there was far beyond one page, one chapter, one book or even an entire library. As I work towards completely my university studies, I thought I’d share three invaluable benefits I gained from my experience working in Asia.


 

Your day-to-day personal interactions change

Business guides about Asia often discuss the role of guanxi (building relationships) in China, the importance of saving face, or the great respect for authority, among other major facets of Asian business interactions.

In theory, this sounds great – the intricacies of person-to-person communication have been boiled down into a easy-to-swallow list of do’s and don’ts, just enough for you to review between movies during your 15-hour flight to Asia.

 

If only it were that easy. I have been awkwardly shunned from a lunch group during my Chinese internship, having not built a relationship with the employees soon enough. I even occasionally caught a few Indonesian company executives off-guard when I made slightly too-upfront requests while on the phone with them.


 

Humans are complex, and the way we interact is complex – be it in Asia, the U.S., Europe, or anywhere else in the world. Unfortunately, no guidebook will ever be comprehensive enough to capture that depth. As the adage goes, practice makes perfect – and immersing oneself in a foreign work environment helps soften those communication barriers as you adapt to new ways of interacting.

You are a part of the Asian market

In the age of 24-hour news from almost every part of the world, this point might seem like something you don’t need to book a plane ticket to experience.

However, when the news you read and the information you receive relates to something that affects your daily work, you tend to pay a little more attention.

 

For instance, I noticed myself becoming more attuned to the brand strategies of major cosmetic companies in China while in Shanghai, and the development of the Southeast Asian luxury market while in Singapore – because my work directly related to these markets.

It’s easy to read the news about another part of the world and how the markets are doing there, but it truly resonates when you see its effects on the work you do everyday.

You empathize and relate to a culture that is not your own

While the office is where the work is done, relationships don’t stay within the workplace. Many of my best memories and most poignant insights about a country’s culture came from simply walking around the city, eating at restaurants with colleagues, or people-watching in the midst of rush hour in the crowded metro trains.

 

This may be a slightly less tangible benefit than the first two, but I like to think that in the future, when I am connecting with colleagues in China or Singapore, I can relate to them in a way beyond the usual niceties. I can sympathize with the complaints about a particularly smoggy day in Shanghai, or relish my memories indulging in Singapore’s national pastime of eating at cheap but extraordinarily delicious hawker centres.

***
Working abroad has been an absolutely rewarding and eye-opening experience. There are countless reports and articles on the globalized world and the growing Asian market, but reading can only do so much. After all, you can’t know for sure until you see it for yourself.
So go out and explore! I’ll see you there.

 

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