Tristan Norman came to UIC as an exchange student studying International Business and Entrepreneurship in the Division for Business and Management (DBM) for one semester from February until June 2019. He originally is a Social Entrepreneurship and Innovation student at Hendrix College, which is a private liberal arts college in Conway, Arkansas, US. Below is an account of his experiences from studying at UIC and living in China.

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Tristan getting ready to travel

Organised Chaos: My Adventure in China and the Finding of Guanxi

My decision to come to China was a gut instinct and one that was heavily pushed by an old Chinese doctor named Dr Wen Wang. In the US, we called her our “Chinese aunt” or “Auntie Wen”. She was short, energetic, and direct, but, likely, one of the smartest people I have ever met. I was eating a pomegranate at her kitchen counter when she said, “If you think I move fast, think of how fast they are moving in China. You probably have not ever heard of Shenzhen or Guangdong”. She was right as I had never heard of it. However, I was going to experience it in full a year later.

Attending UIC on a gut instinct may have been one of the most important decisions in my life. Coming from a small town in Arkansas, a small state in the US, I was immediately struck by the size and pace of everything in China. It was if they turned on a movie of Chinese history and never bothered to pause it. Time accelerated, cities grew, fortunes rose, and wonders never ceased to appear out of thin air. The old and the modern sometimes flowing, and sometimes crashing together. The soft stroke of a calligraphy brush to convey a world of meaning, but also a WeChat beep in the process of writing. Dark-skinned farmers ordering from Taobao. Needless to say, I was captivated and concerned at the same time. I asked myself the question, “Where does this all lead?”

My first encounter with China was in Changsha in Hunan province, where I met other Hendrix students and research partners, Bailey Brya and Sarah Buford. We were beginning our tour of some Chinese cities such as Changsha, Wuhan, and Nanchang. Knowing no Chinese, I had to rely on the generosity of Bailey to help us translate and navigate the cities. However, one thing that did strike me was the interconnectedness of Chinese society from the simple fruit seller on the streets to the corporate executive that sat in a tall building.

The coordination and dynamic interplay of 1.4 billion people created this thing that we call China. They were connected culturally, linguistically, and by a sheer economic wave that brought China to where it is today. The opening and reform of the Chinese economy, the declaration of an international public offering (IPO) of China Telecoms in the late 1990s, the movement of millions to new megacities, and the creation of the Alibaba Group all served as catalysts for this deeply connected but altered China. Often, this connection was facilitated by the creations of this opening to the world but also an opening to the hidden potential within China, itself. WeChat and Alipay are two such connectors. Tencent and Alibaba are others. However, in many cases, people were connected by a shared dream: the desire for prosperity and openness. An openness facilitated by an ambitious attitude and Guanxi.

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Guanxi is a personalised relationship within a network or, more directly, an individual within a community. Guanxi is an old Confucian idea that pervades all the relationships and dealings within China, providing structure to organised chaos. I say organised chaos because, in China, there is so much going on that at times, things look chaotic and unsolidified; however, everything seems to work out in the end. That or everything is entirely improvised at every moment. I am not sure which one is more impressive. As a foreigner, you have to trust that things will work out. I was to learn that trust goes a long way and is at the heart of how things work. It’s why I can throw my friend a few RMB on WeChat and feel comfortable with electronic currency. You just have to trust it and take the plunge.

Upon arriving at UIC, I was amazed by the warmth of the students. Their eagerness to meet, talk, and learn from us was truly humbling. I remember many times when we would share meals, go into Zhuhai city centre, share music, or wander through the local Huitong Village. They possessed a curiosity that was unleashed like a flood after you came to know them, and they all expressed willingness for you to see more of China and to visit their hometowns. Although more than anything, I witnessed a willingness to share stories and dreams.

We are natural storytellers, and all yearn for our stories to be heard. I met students that were musicians, artists, and future lawyers. I heard their desire to go to the UK, the US, and Europe to study other cultures and learn other languages. I wanted to give them everything I had because, during my time at UIC, they gave me all of their time, knowledge, and attention. I wanted to see them as future musicians, artists, and lawyers because, to me, they could accomplish anything. We accomplished a student short film together, which we filmed around Zhuhai and Macau. It turns out I would try out acting in China too.

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Tristan starred in a movie while he was in China

Maybe we should start calling this the “Chinese Effect”—a willingness to pursue a great idea with complete commitment and singlemindedness. However, I also felt a strong degree of procrastination on academic deadlines, which made me personally happy as a professional sprinter to project and paper deadlines. Sometimes cultural bonding comes in the form of mutual fear and loathing of a business plan assignment. More often than not, I felt the same energy that I felt when I would walk around Zhuhai, Guangzhou, Wuhan, or Shenzhen. These UIC students were unique.

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Tristan with classmates

While at UIC, I also bonded with other international students who I now consider to be family. Their eagerness to drag me out of the library and on random overnight adventures opened me up to living spontaneously. We travelled to Vietnam, as well as Hong Kong, and Macau. More often than not, struggling against our own organised chaos we checked for misplaced passports, put more money in our WeChat wallets, and pulled out our phones for fast translation of menus.

When I was not roaming around, I was meeting with my two closest friends to talk about starting two recent entrepreneurial ventures and startups. They were Concordia College exchange student from the US, Sean Feeney; and UIC freshman William Chong a person that I admire greatly. Together, along with Year 1 students, Zhang Zhan, Wang Yihong, Lin Zitai and Ren Chuyi, we co-founded OmiiTech and Plato Consulting, two collective and connected dreams of undergraduate students to help promote education, bridge building, and cross-cultural relations between the US and Chinese students as well as our universities.

We spent many nights talking till curfew of dreams that we had for the future and obstacles that we would face along the way. We were idealistic, caffeinated, and prompted with Steve Jobs quotes, and stacks of books from the UIC library (where we practically lived). We all wanted to create projects, businesses, and ideas that could inspire people and solve problems that we face in the world. Our vision included the best of us, our experiences, and our expertise and repaired some of our own defects. Ultimately, we became a team and our vision accumulated in these two ventures. We also owe thanks to DBM faculty members, Associate Professor Dr Uchenna Eze and Dr Henni Appelgryn; for their wise counselling.

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Tristan really appreciates the friends he made at UIC.

The founding of OmiiTech accumulated in a tour of manufacturers in Guangzhou and Shenzhen, business strategy, meetings with potential investors, and with the CEO of Alipay Payment Service (HK) Limited, Jennifer Tan, who spoke at UIC earlier in the semester on Blockchain tech, mobile payment systems, and the Greater Bay Area of China. She helped us determine shortcomings in our models but gave valuable insight on how to proceed for the future. To have met with a member of the Alibaba Group was a huge honour. OmiiTech is an Internet of Things startup that aims to use IoT technology and services to create smart solutions for university campuses. We believe in the potential of the Smart Campus design to provide needed services, efficiency, and interactive technology to current and future students. More than new technology, we need the creative application of innovative technology to systemic problems.

In this, we met with IoT manufacturers such as Fondpad, Dierxi, and Fanarui to acquire access to what technology and services they offer in how we can design our campus solutions. Such avenues include smart catering services, smart lockers, smart share umbrellas, and mobile share chargers and power banks. These services, while normal in China, are unique and new in the US. OmiiTech hopes to provide smart solutions to UIC and, later, to Hendrix College as well as Concordia College. Our long-term goal is to utilise our platform and services to connect educational institutions internationally under a common creative network. One interconnected Liberal Arts network. Fingers crossed, no?

The other, Plato Consulting, is a consulting firm trying to bridge the US and China together. A student network and scheduling service for students to organise and reach their academic and professional goals. Currently, we have a team developing a tech program to act as a task manager and organiser for students to use at UIC and beyond. We also aim to offer a podcast series dedicated to helping students with English and discussions on our experiences in China. We believe that focusing on simple and human stories of great importance speaks to the core of our experience at UIC. This is a big jump from where this story began, no? I can feel it too.

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Tristan visiting Alipay Payment Service (HK) Limited

I came to China with barely a grasp of the language and a lack of business experience. I was to leave China being the co-founder of two amazing startups with empowering people that I admire and trust. In a way, they have become brothers and sisters to me. We hope to grow and create together for many years. Maybe even gain some experience in International Business. But, above all, I left UIC with a sense of trust and Guanxi. A belief in the dreams of my Chinese friends and the certainty that one day we would meet again, share stories, and create something that makes the world a better place.

Call it the “Chinese Effect” but coming to UIC and China broadened my world and made me realise how much is possible once you find the right people. It also showed me the importance of China for the future. In times of economic, political, and ecological uncertainty, China and the US need to create new meaning together to help create a better future for us all. I want my brothers to one day to be able to visit Zhuhai and see how much it has changed in ten years. I want them to see a new Silicon Valley in the Greater Bay Area. That requires greater courage than disagreement and a willingness to see humanity and connectedness in the other.

Needless to say, I loved my experience and, of course, all of the food that I found. In the US, I still communicate with my friends and partners in China weekly, and I intend to come back. For my master’s degree, I will apply to Tsinghua University to be a Schwarzman Scholar and learn more about China’s ancient culture and history. There I will help find new ways to connect China with the world and create more opportunities for those that want to come to know this unique place. I hope that I can, one day, work in China and witness more of the energy, speed, creativity, and openness that I saw and received in Guangdong and at UIC. Since my first introduction to China in Changsha, I do believe that I know where this all leads. It leads to a more connected and open world.

The future of China rests with these bright young people and their trust in each other. Their openness to the world and their desire to be bridge-builders is a beautiful thing, especially at a time when the US and China may disagree. Fundamentally, we all want the success and growth of the other. Maybe with a little Guanxi, we can grow together. I trust the dreams of my friends, and I trust that we can grow stronger together. UIC students serve as young ambassadors of the virtues of Chinese society. It was a pleasure to know them. I hope we all can meet again and that we can all go with our gut feeling and take a great plunge together into something new.

Editor: Samuel Burgess (MPRO)
(with thanks to the ELC)