Back to School at Donghua University – Day 10

Our travels today took us to Donghua University not far from the hotel. Driving through the campus, it wasn’t very large or flamboyant; it had what the school needed – dorms, dining halls, classrooms and lecture halls, recreational and sports centers – but it seemed comfortable and conducive to a university setting. We were led into what I thought at first was a dormitory but soon realized was an academic building. I made this mistake because of the need to scan a school ID, on one of those threshold machines that reminds me of metro stations, to enter and because the ground floor hallways were simple and remarkably narrow like a hotel hallway. Up the stairs and down the hallway found us in a classroom much different than the lecture hall in CUFE. Here, the room was much smaller with clean white walls, a whiteboard up front, and a raised platform across part of the front. On the platform stood a podium near the windows, complemented by a drop-down projector screen closer to the door. The desks were individual tables like those we had in high school, organized in twos at the left, center, and right sides of the room and repeating in each row to the back of the room.


Commerce, Consumer, Competition

To start the morning, we heard “E-Commerce in China,” a lecture by Simon Koffi Kpotchie, a professor at Donghua who hails from Togo in Africa. He discussed the characteristics of Internet and e-commerce use in China, what it takes to survive and thrive in the Chinese market, and why e-commerce is exploding in China. He touched upon some information that we’ve learned in past lectures, such as the closing gap between Internet users and mobile Internet users in China. However, he did explain that in the US, Europe, and Japan, brick and mortar stores that supplement with an online presence are prevalent, as well as some pure-play online retailers like Amazon; in China, on the other hand, the retail market is not well developed, which is why e-commerce dominates the Chinese marketplace – it provides a solution and fills the need.

He mentioned that less developed cities in China (tiers 3 and 4, based on GDP) spend more of their disposable income online. I read River Town by Peter Hessler for AP Human Geography, and although that was based on a portion of China in the 90s, I had a preconceived notion that less developed cities and the more rural areas of China are isolated spatially and digitally. Very apparently, I’m wrong. Even in the 90s, the city that Hessler worked in looks to still have been quite large, and twenty years later, electronics and the Internet have permeated much of the country. As a reverse trend, Professor Kpotchie talked about the infusion of online retail into brick-and-mortar stores in these third and fourth tier cities. These physical buildings serve as delivery outposts for online-ordered parcels, manned by an agent sent in to train locals how to use the Internet.

Some of the “key factors of success in China” that the professor provided and detailed was shockingly lengthy but evidently important: localization in China, logistics, price, gaining confidence, websites respecting Chinese standards, streamlined purchase process, media about the products, promotions and sales, visibility in the marketplace, and instant messaging (think WeChat versus email). The professor showed us a Chinese website and compared it to a US website. In the US, we like organized, clean, spacious website interfaces. In China, the website pages are crowded and colorful and, to me, look like an overwhelming mishmash. Now that I reflect on the website interfaces, my thoughts hearken back to the mall in Beijing that was near our hotel, as well as some of the markets we visited: lots of colors, sounds and bright lights, stores and booths close to each other; storefronts and restaurants beckoned to you with eye-catching architecture or windows opening onto the eatery or a wide-open front with the merchandise seen promptly and easily.

With intense competition, easy access to the latest and greatest on the Internet, and the escalation of e-commerce, the market in China is turbulent with some companies scraping to stay in the game and other companies grappling to control most, if not all of the market. For example, as of 2016, and Tmall dominate the online superstore market. Another example is in the mobile phone market; drawing from this lecture and the Microsoft visit, Xiaomi was a fledgling company several years ago that attained great power in the market, but several years later, Oppo and Vivo – owned by the same parent company – are huge names in the game.

New Students and Dining Hall Food(…)

After the lecture with Professor Kpotchie, a group of students from Donghua entered the room. In front of Chloe and I sat Betty and Dotty. We talked to them for a little bit before all of the local students were invited to introduce themselves. Pairs of us, or threes, were assigned to each student so that they could show us around and talk to us. Betty acted as the student guide for Athena, Kevin K, and me. The four of us conversed about different topics: school, TV shows, music, etc. I found out that several American TV shows are viewed and may even be popular in China and that tuition for Donghua is, I think, about $1000 USD per year for Betty’s fashion design major, compared to $30,000 or more in the United States.

Betty guided us to her preferred dining hall of the two on campus. She had to order our lunches for us and pay for them because none of us had any iota of a clue as to what anything was and how to obtain food. I ate crusted fish with a shredded potato side, a poached egg, and a light soup with a few tomatoes. The fish was astonishingly tasty, even better than any fish that I’ve had at Market or the Perch. I also received a compliment from Betty on my chopstick skills, so after lunch that day, despite the (many) chopsticks mishaps that have preceded or will follow, I know that my skills in eating with chopsticks are somewhat legitimate.


Surveying the Territory

Next up came a campus tour. As we traversed the relatively small campus, I perused the outside of the indoor gymnasium in addition to the outdoor facilities. Betty told me about their physical education requirement and about the badminton class that she took. The earliest class that she has taken began at 7 AM, which struck me as exceedingly early for the average college class, at least in America.

We passed the dormitory buildings, and I noticed AC units in windows, miniscule outdoor spaces for each room (which is more than can be said for many individual dorm rooms in the US), and the line of laundry hanging outside of each dorm room. Betty explained that you could come back to the dorm building at any time, but once you were inside and curfew passed, you couldn’t leave. I believe she said that lights out, and possibly curfew, was at 11 PM but that she and some of her friends might still stay up with desk lights to study. Surprisingly, I discovered that the students at Donghua University are generally more inclined to go out to parties or clubs than the students at CUFE in Beijing. The student at CUFE blatantly told me that there isn’t much of a party culture in China, which might very well be true in comparison to the college party culture in the US, but I expected from that comment that most students stayed in and studied all of the time, venturing into the city every now and then, which isn’t necessarily true. Perhaps it’s the city near each university, maybe it’s the location of the school in proximity to the city, or maybe it’s something else that elicits the differences in the students’ social and city life.


As a cultural note, I was surprised by how open the students that I talked to were when conversing. Based on the book River Town, the topics that you might not bring up with people from a culture so seemingly different from your own (politics, religion, etc.), and the idea of being in a university setting, I – for one reason or another – held the notion that the students would be very reserved about the subjects of conversation and about their opinions. However, at CUFE and at Donghua, the students talked about everything from their cultural curiosity and criticisms to nightlife and hobbies to school and tuition.

Tying the Knot

Back in the classroom, everyone had the chance to tie their own Chinese knot, one of which each of us received just before the hutong tour in Beijing. Betty had never attempted to tie one before, and Dr. Li openly told us that tying Chinese knots is difficult. There was a lot of crisscrossing and weaving of the string, which we had to discern from a set of confusing step-by-step pictures, and a little handful of students managed to tie one, but I tried three times and still managed to mess up somehow. Regardless, throughout today, I made friends with Betty, and now we’re connected on Snapchat, Facebook, and WeChat.

Shopping Trip

Not long after returning from Donghua, Sophie, Angeline, Lauren, Hanna, Chloe, and I decided to go on a walking escapade through the French concession to the H&M. It seemed to me that, in Beijing, many of the recognizable retailing brands and other “high-end” merchandise were bunched together into malls, but in Shanghai, there didn’t seem to be this clustering. H&M, for example, had its own storefront, as well as some athletic brand also sold in America and another designer retailer.

Shopping for clothing is already difficult in the US; I have to consider cost, size, style, and fit and ensure that not only am I comfortable but that the clothes also suit my body type. Many of the Chinese locals that I encountered on the trip have been smaller than me in height and stature, so I harbored an inkling of a concern in my mind that the clothes for sale in China wouldn’t fit me. Granted, we were shopping an internationally retailed brand, but I have seen some articles of clothing in stores here that would squish me uncomfortably. Shockingly enough, I was even able to find a pair of pants that fit, and let me tell you that searching for pants that fit, in a store that I don’t frequent, in a sizing scheme that I don’t understand is like trying to find the back of an earring on the floor – possible, but painstaking.

Americans Eating Mexican Food in China

Donning the sleeveless shirt, black pants, and black sandals that I bought, the new friend group of thirteen students walked with purpose to a Mexican restaurant several minutes down the street. It did happen to take more than the suggested several minutes because we initially embarked in the wrong direction down the street, but once we found what we believe was a Cuban restaurant instead of a Mexican restaurant, we turned around. The evening was cool, and the outdoor signage promised 20 yuan tacos… and it was a Tuesday… which means… Taco Tuesday! I should mention now that tacos are hands down one of my favorite foods. Anyways, I ordered a taco with ribeye steak and one with brisket, and both were soft, juicy, and delicious. After dinner, we walked back past the hotel through other parts of Shanghai, meeting up with Robert on our way.

End of the Day Blurb

The sun set on an eye-opening day professionally, culturally, and socially. Through my powers of observation and through dialogue with a professor, students, and peers, I have gleaned information about smartphones and commerce in China, life as a student in China, and the personalities of my new Pitt friends made in China. Thus far, a lot of our professional activities have focused on a business perspective, but I think that this has been a crucial focus for me so that I can tease out the essential interactions between engineering and business. When I applied for Plus3, I sometimes thought, “Why do I need to know about business? How is this going to affect me as an engineering student and as a working professional? And why do business students need to know anything about engineering?” As it turns out, the connections between business and engineering are indispensable, especially in the smartphone and technology industries. The knowledge that I have gained so far on this Plus3 excursion is immense, surprising, and satisfying, and I’m curious to discover what else I will learn before Saturday!

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