Wednesday, May 13, 2009

BTO: An abrupt end to a delightful stay

Business Times - 09 May 2009

An abrupt end to a delightful stay

Melvin Yang
Third year student,
Nanyang Technological University's
Nanyang Business School


BEFORE I arrived in Mexico, the country seemed like a strange and distant place, and perhaps not the ideal location in which to do a five-month exchange programme. Little did I know that I was about to embark on a most extraordinary journey.


Extraordinary indeed, because the last thing I expected was for a deadly flu to break out. When I first heard about it, I dismissed it as just another ordinary flu and it did not bother me much. Then came alarming news of deaths and reports that the flu had spread rapidly to other countries. My classes at Tech de Monterrey were suspended. This really made me sit up and pay attention. Just how serious was this flu? Should I stay or should I leave?


People started staying at home instead of hanging about outdoors. Businesses were open as usual, but people were walking around with face masks. In emails to all the exchange students, the host university explained that the temporary suspension of classes was just a precautionary measure and there was no need to worry. NTU contacted us daily to confirm our safety. But many exchange students flew home as concerns about the seriousness of the flu increased.


Though my parents did not demand that I return home immediately, they increased their communication with me, mostly via MSN. But I could sense their concern and understand their unspoken worries.


This was a situation that really tested my decision-making abilities. I thought of the people I was accountable to, identified the implications and arguments to stay or to leave. But just weighing the pros and cons of the situation did not make it easier to come to a decision. This was when I realised that I had failed to focus on my own individual values - values that, everything else being equal, lead us to prefer or choose one thing over another. To me, safety came first - it was a promise I made to my parents. Therefore, I chose to return home.


But my Mexican experience was not just about the H1N1 flu. Living in Mexico for four months was definitely an enjoyable and memorable experience.


The language difference was the first thing that struck me. With no knowledge of Spanish, communication was a real challenge. Social interaction started off with gestures and pointing; slowly it became more vocal as I picked up words along the way. The Mexicans whom I met were helpful and patient. They would take their time to understand what I was trying to say. The shop owners did not let a long queue of customers affect their patience; their focus was always on trying to provide what the foreign customer wanted. Those who understood a bit of English were more than willing to step forward and offer their help.


Mexicans know all about having fun. Parties or social gatherings are common occurrences from Thursday to Saturday nights. Pubs, discos and even apartments are packed with people, so you can imagine how the H1N1 outbreak cramped their style.


Similar to the Asian culture, family is very important to the Mexicans. Sundays are kept aside for family gatherings only. It's a day for family members to catch up with one another.


Travelling in Mexico is relatively easy, with the country's well-established network of bus coaches and budget airlines able to accommodate any kind of travelling plans you might have.

One thing that struck me was the attention to security. At every tourist site I went to, it was quite common to see police patrols. As a foreign visitor, I found it reassuring to know that a vigilant and safer environment was being offered to everyone who wanted to enjoy the sights and attractions of Mexico.


Interestingly, with the growth of China as an economic powerhouse, there has been an increase in the number of Mexicans taking up Mandarin and a growing interest in getting to know more about Asia. In school, students were keen to find out about Asia's different cultures, places of interest, food and lifestyle. I was surprised to see familiar Chinese characters hung up in front of Chinese restaurants. In every mall with a food court, there was one if not two Chinese food stalls. One of the stall owners remarked that the number of people coming from China to set up businesses in Mexico had increased tremendously over the past few years.


I left Mexico abruptly because of the H1N1 outbreak, but I did not leave behind the experiences I gained and the friendships that were forged during my four months at Tech de Monterrey. Geographically, Mexico is on the other side of the globe, but culturally, I felt it was quite similar to Asia. And I truly believe that it is one place that will change your perspective on life. AdiĆ³s!

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