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A Week Abroad

Did anyone miss me

Day 1-2: This was the first day of endless traveling. I woke up at around 5 so that I could get to the BART station by 6 AM. I then took a 1.5 hour ride into SFO, where I discovered that there was an enormous line at the international desk. Luckily, as my flight was relatively soon, a nice airport lady moved me up in line. I then discovered that American (the airline I was on most) was unable to convert my Air France ticket into a boarding pass. I became terrified. I don’t know any French. As Sophia, Eric, and my mom will attest to, I was rather nervous about it. The flight to O’Hare was relatively uneventful. The flight from O’Hare to Paris was also rather quiet. I tried to sleep, but as I’m unable to sleep on planes, it was just me, tossing and turning and bothering the crap out of the French guy sitting next to me. What annoyed me the most was that the in-flight entertainment audio was broken, so I really had nothing to do during the flight.

I finally landed in Paris in the morning. To my amazement, everyone spoke English there. I had about an hour or so to explore De Gaulle airport, and I tried to take it in as much as possible. Not only did everyone speak English, they were all very nice — much nicer than I was used to in the US. There was also, at least to what I could see, much fewer fat/obese people, and the female flight attendants were, for the most part, much nicer than the ones I had seen in America. Air France has probably become my favorite airline — there is better-than-JetBlue-entertainment in every seat (I watched Ice Age 2, The Inside Man, and V for Vendetta), they give a huge amount of food, and I get the feeling that flights typically aren’t crowded as I was in a largeplane which could not have been more than 10% full at take-off. The airport is not laid out very well, but then again, most of Europe probably isn’t — we taxi-d for like 20 minutes both ways, and after landing, not only did we taxi forever, but we also taxi-d to a spot where airport shuttles then took us to the gate.

Arriving at the airport in Mumbai, I was overwhelmed by a single feeling. Later, when we were doing staff reflections, I think Patrick put it best: “The minute I got to the airport, I decided I never wanted to come back” — and that was my feeling. The people are rude and unhelpful. It’s dirty. It’s crowded. It smells. It’s wet. It’s poor. It’s rank. Everyone there is trying to get your money and overcharge you. The only good thing was that I happened to notice a screen which told me that a flight from Kuala Lumpur had just landed. While I couldn’t be sure that it was Adrian — one of our conference co-directors, I decided to take the chance and just wait to see if he came out — luckily, he did, and we got on the cab to the Grand Hyatt in Mumbai.

The cab-ride itself was an experience. First off, like in several countries, the drivers are on the right-side and cars drive on the left-side. That was a bit odd for me, because I’d never actually been in a car like that. Secondly, the cabs are much smaller and less comfortable than Western cars. Thirdly, driving is insane. Sure, there are lines that demark lanes — but does anyone care? No. Nobody uses the lanes. To pass people, they pass on the right — which oftentimes means, running into the lane where the other side is coming right at you. The roads are also littered with auto-rickshaws, which are effectively motorized-bicycles connected to chairs that can seat 3 people and covered with a blanket — seriously. I wanted to bring a hummer just to run them all down on the road.

The hotel was rather impressive. 5-star deluxe really means 5-star deluxe. The rooms were well-furnished and very classy (3 phones which can each access 2 different phone lines, 1 phone is next to the toilet :-D). But, service at the front desk was a bit worrisome. They somehow heard “Wu Ying Ping” when Adrian said his name was “Adrian Ow,” and in fact, to the front desk, I was basically Mr. Benjamin Singh for much of the week.

Day 3-4: Wednesday and Thursday (Indian time, not US time) was dedicated to us trying to get ready for the conference. We had emails to send, stuff to do, people to meet, etc. But, we at least put in the time to go to some nice restaurants in Mumbai. I was shocked almost immediately by the extreme poverty and simple dirtiness of the world that I was in. Poor, half-naked children would come up to our cabs, and beg us to purchase magazines from them. I also immediately noticed that this world was shockingly different from America — where for the most part, people are equal. Just because someone makes half the money I do, doesn’t mean we can’t sit with each other or talk to each other with respect. In India, the society is very stratified. There is definitely a clear distinction between classes — and I was treated as a superior for much of the week — it was somewhat unnerving. At restaurants, the waiters have a heart-attack if you try to serve yourself food — no, their waiters have to come in and do that. For the most part, the servants and watiers and AV guys that I dealt with at the hotel were completely unused to people kindly asking them to do things and referring to them by their names. When Adrian and Sid (one of the other conference co-directors) and I met with the hotel executive staff, we noticed that while there were 14 people facing us, there really were only 7 people, and their 7 lackeys. By the hotel staff, I was “Mr. Benjamin”, Adrian was “Mr. Adrian”, Sid was “Mr. Siddhartha”, and Eric — strangely — was “Mr. Eric Suh”. Go figure.

We also got to meet the team from IIM (Indian Institute of Management) Ahmedabad who had been helping us with preparations. They were a bunch of nerdy but very nice and very bright people.

On both days, I also made good use of the hotel’s wonderful jacuzzi and pool facilities, although I refused to steam in the sauna — the idea of being naked in a warm, stuffy, steamy room with strangers just does not appeal to me…

Oh, and Thursday night, the night before the conference, we crashed a Bollywood party — that was very amusing

Day 5-7: These were the days of the Harvard College Asian Business Forum. I was over-stressed. I got very little sleep. I was constantly being called or emailed. It was a difficult time.

But, meeting the speakers. Listening to them. Meeting the delegates, who for some reason kept looking at us starry-eyed even though I was probably the youngest guy there (we mostly invited econ grad students and MBA students, and since I was the youngest of the staff, that meant I was the youngest there), meeting with the media — it was very tough, but very rewarding. I will post pictures when I get them from the rest of the staff, but from the feedback I got from the hotel staff, the sponsors, the delegates, and the speakers — I know that we did a good job.

It was also around day 5 that things began to really click for me and the rest of the staff. On the first days, I was not very happy at all, I am sad to admit. I kept hoping that Sunday would just come so I could go home, but the fact that the people from IIM and the people on our staff were so nice and competent and were essentially “war buddies” after going through this made things really click, and not just between me and Eric or Adrian or Patrick or Sid — the guys that I knew — but also with Rika and Namrata, the other two members of our team who I barely knew going into this.

Day 6: we hit up a club in the Taj called Insomnia — very amusing stories, remind me to tell it some time.

Our delegates came mostly from East Asia — and they acted the part, constantly taking pictures of everything, of the two Mercedes-Benz’s (E-class and C-class) that were parked in our main conference hall (b/c Daimler-Chrysler was one of our sponsors), of themselves at the podium (they even had me and one of our VIPs move so they could finish their shot — I was completely speechless when it happened because I had no idea what to say, thankfully the Citigroup India guy had a good sense of humor), they took pictures with us, with the VIPs (and you could tell on their faces that they weren’t exactly thrilled at being just tourist attractions) and on one of the days, even the Indian delegates did it — Asian tourist behavior, I suppose, is universal.

Day 7-8: flight from Mumbai (where again I was assaulted by rudeness, poor service — very bad way to end a good week in India) to Zurich via Swiss Air (watched The Sentinel and Along Came Polly)– where again I was amazed by how clean and efficient European hotels are. I was a little unsure of myself, as I knew absolutely no German. The airport itself is covered with very high-class shopping, and a BMW booth which was larger and more elaborate than the Daimler-Chrysler setup we had. I met up with a friend of one of our VIPs there and we talked bout his life and his business and he offered to put me in contact with people if I wanted to — I guess this is networking?

From Zurich, I flew American Airlines to Dallas. This flight was atrocious. There was an Indian baby sitting three rows behind me who just kept wailing. It wasn’t even crying. It was wailing. (Yes, I just realized that I’ve been using the word “It” to describe him/her). Like the kind of wailing that lets you know its not real/sincere — how do I know it wasn’t sincere? It was able to stop wailing to scream “NO!” several times when its parents attempted to calm it down.

Then, on the flight from Dallas to SFO there was this annoying white kid who was intolerably loud, keeping me from my reading. I was close to coming up to those parents and telling them “If you don’t shut up your kid, I’ll shut him up for you” — thankfully, I was able to control my manly manly rage

And then, finally, home.

All in all, a very interesting week for me

Published in Blog

One Comment

  1. […] was the HPAIR (Harvard Project for Asian and International Relations) business conference. The experience was very rewarding and eye-opening, but more than that, it was an impetus to follow the paths […]

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