Thirteen of my 14 students were from countries in Asia and the Middle East. Only one—Brian—was an American-born native English speaker. For the first few sessions, whenever I asked the class for input, only Brian would raise his hand. When I tried calling on different students, they often would cast down their eyes and stammer out the words. Their responses were usually good, but it was clearly painful for them to speak aloud.
One day as I sat in my office just before class, my eyes fell on a plastic purple hippopotamus I kept on my desk. Desperate to engage my students, I had a flash of an idea. That day in class, to break the ice, I tossed the hippo to Brian and asked my question. After he answered, I said, “Throw it to someone else!” He launched it across the room to Jung-Ho, an older freshman from South Korea. I pointed to Jung-Ho, said, “You’re it!” and asked a follow-up. Caught off guard, he answered with barely a pause. I gestured as if to say, “Who’s next?” He tossed it two rows over to Judy, a shy girl from China. I asked for her thoughts on Jung-Ho’s comment. She responded—and smiled.
I was astonished. They laughed; they engaged. It was a turning point. While their hesitance didn’t disappear, it diminished. Who knew a toy hippo could bridge cultural divides?
I was reminded of that class as we prepared this issue, which explores cultural barriers, differences, and growth in the context of Asia’s growing influence on education. It includes perspectives from the Philippines, Singapore, India, Thailand, France, China, and the U.S., on topics ranging from designing a more culturally inclusive MBA to encouraging more collaboration between business schools in developing and developed markets. In “How Will Asia Change Business Education?” author Ricardo Lim of the Asian Institute of Management has this message for the industry: “The sooner business schools understand the differences and unique phenomena that are driving growth within Asia,” he writes, “the sooner that growth can be mutual and sustaining.”
Lim also emphasizes Asia’s vast diversity, which I saw in microcosm during my office hours that semester. Ai from Japan wrote papers that merely summarized my own remarks, until I encouraged her to write in her own voice. Jung-Ho told me about his two-year mandatory service in the South Korean army. Judy asked me to clarify the use of “a/an” and “the,” which was the first time I had given much thought about why we use “the” before “Pacific Ocean” but not “Lake Michigan.” I read papers on the role of women in Japan, the rise of the economy in Hong Kong, and the debate on legalizing euthanasia in Taiwan.
Those few months were eye-opening for me. I can only imagine what the next decade will be like for business educators around the world.