A recent trip to China opened the eyes of many Dominican University students and Oak Park and River Forest residents, forever changing their preconceptions. A group of 18 business school graduate students and professors went to China for a week in late May, and the next week a group of political science professors and students followed for an additional seven days. A few of the original group joined the second group and enjoyed two weeks in China.
Bonnie Burns, an Oak Park resident and assistant professor of education at Dominican, was one of those fortunate enough to stay both weeks. Not a business or political science student, Burns said she went on the trip because it was a wonderful opportunity.
"I have always had a long standing interest in the country of China," she said.
What Burns and the others observed was not what they expected to find. "My biggest revelation from the trip was discovering that I was about 20 years out of date in my impression of China," Burns admitted.
She thought people, especially the older generations, would be dressed in traditional clothes but that was not the case. "Everyone was in Western-style clothing and they are very fashionable there," Burns said.
Jim Winikates, a River Forest resident and retired CPA, was one of the business school students who visited Shanghai. Winikates, who only stayed for the first week, said he was also surprised how very wrong his perception was of China.
"We are talking about Manhattan times 10," he explained. "There is every U.S. brand on display you can think of." Hooters and Starbucks were just a few he named.
Burns was expecting China to be a country just beginning to develop. "Instead I found a country on the march. It is a modern country in every way," she said.
For her, the quintessential moment of the trip, when she realized she was really in China, was standing on the Great Wall. "[The Great Wall] was something so big, something I have always read about, but when I was there, I could not believe I was actually standing on the Great Wall. It was amazing!" she said.
The groups also visited the Forbidden City, Tiananmen Square (the site of the 1989 massacre of hundreds of pro-democracy student protestors by the Chinese army); and the Terracotta Warriors in Xian as well as the Peking Opera and the Children's Palace.
However, the trip was not all about sightseeing. On most mornings, the business students met with Chinese entrepreneurs as well as expatriate Americans doing business in China and heard lectures on Chinese economic history and its current social market system. In the afternoons, they visited area businesses. Winikates said they toured some of the larger companies in the country, such as General Motors, DuPont and Baosteel, a huge steel company in Shanghai.
"Because of the low cost of production and operations in China, a lot of U.S. companies have plants there. Their economy is growing so rapidly," he said.
Molly Burke, dean of the School of Business and a River Forest resident, and others from the university have been taking business students to Beijing and Shanghai for the past four years in order to give them an opportunity to immerse themselves in China's business world. The purpose of the trip is to dispel misconceptions about China and provide greater insight and understanding than can be had from reading textbooks.
"China has emerged as one of the largest markets in the world and successful business people really need to understand Chinese business practices and the unique opportunities they present," Burke said.
From the business aspect, Burns said China is a country that doesn't get the recognition it deserves.
"Americans need to take note of China, as a country on the move," she said.
Since the trip, Burns is now much more aware of global concerns. "I notice China in the news more, and in different issues that come up," she noted.
Dominican professor of political science and the leader of the university's cultural trip, Ann Charney Colmo, believes China will be a "very important economic and political force in the 21st century. The more we understand China, the less we'll fear it and the better decision we, as a society, will make about it," said Colmo, who was also joined on the trip by Dominican President Donna Carroll.
In an effort to give participants an idea of what it's like to live and work in China, Colmo included in the trip several lectures by Chinese working in the fields of economics, education, politics and history, along with informal cultural exchanges with Chinese students.
According to Chris Colmo, Dominican professor of political science and Ann's husband, there's still a huge disparity between the big cities and rural countryside in China, as well as a large gap between the rich and poor.
Winikates said from the business people they also got to hear about some of the problems associated with doing business in this complex country.
"While China's economy, rising standard of living and huge population make it ripe for foreign investment, and the opportunity to sell products to the largest and fastest growing economy in the world is very attractive to American businesses," he said, "the country presents a number of problems as well. Its archaic and undeveloped banking system, its undeveloped infrastructure and the need to import many raw materials were all mentioned as sources of frustration for the business people we met."