Going Beyond the Classroom: Mario Esteban Rodríguez, Master in International Relations Professor
For IE Professor and China expert Mario Esteban, moving to the other end of the world is eventually what led him right back home. What started as an interest in China and Chinese culture grew into something much bigger and took him places, both literally and figuratively, few Spaniards have been. He has since emerged as one of Spain’s leading China experts with a mastery of the language and unique cultural and political perspective of the rising global powerhouse, granting him the opportunity to introduce Spain, the country he calls home, to China, the country he grew to love.
Mario was raised in Getafe, on the outskirts of Spain’s capital city, in a house only 5 minutes away from where he currently lives with his wife and children, ages 2 and 5. His family was working class- his mother was a housewife and his father was a blue-collar worker in the Airbus factory. 25 years ago, a sizeable Chinese population had yet to take root in Spain. However, he traces his interest in China back to his childhood precisely when China was just a place most Spaniards read about in books. Like so many other children, Mario practiced martial arts and became intrigued by Asian culture. He also befriended a young Chinese boy who sat next to him in primary school, exposing Mario to his first brush with Chinese culture when going to play at his friend’s house.
As a junior in high school, Mario found his way to Middlebury College in Vermont on a French language scholarship. But 10 days alone in New York City made it very clear that, although a strong Chinese presence hadn’t quite yet arrived to Spain, Chinese people were numerous and thriving in other major cities around the world. “I got the feeling that the Chinese were on their way to Spain. This was a huge window of opportunity to merge teaching and research with Chinese culture. First it was an interest, then it became a career move. So as soon as I got back to Madrid, I started learning Mandarin.”
A year in Taiwan and three years in mainland China gave Mario the opportunity to really immerse himself in all things Chinese. He grew so found of Beijing that he calls it his second home and dreamed of spending summers there with his wife and children. That, however, has changed with China’s increasingly worrisome trend of environmental degradation. Nevertheless, his children have already been to China and are familiar with the world beyond Spain. “I don’t want to impose my interest in China on them. What’s most important is they discover the world that exists out there, whether it’s China or not.”
What Mario regards as the West’s biggest misunderstanding about Chinese culture is assuming their values are our values. “We think Chinese people would behave just as we behave if only they didn’t live in an oppressive environment. But that’s simply not true. They wouldn’t necessarily live like us because they don’t want the things we want. Their perceptions on human rights and civil liberties are different. Westerners have a hard time understanding this. First, you have to understand what leads them to want what they want, why they think what they think, otherwise it’s like talking to a wall.” As Westerners, a perpetuated Cold War paradigm pervades our thinking and reduces the world to the following mantra: capitalism= good, communism= bad. “It seems as though we can’t come to grips with the idea that there’s more than one way to be a successful nation.” This is a lesson China seems to be teaching to the world at this very moment.
From Getafe to China and back again, Mario Esteban took what started as an interest as a young boy and turned it into his life’s work. “My 5-year old son and I get up early on the weekends, at 6 o’clock even, to play some video games and spend time together.” I hope they talk about China and all of Mario’s experiences in a place which relatively few of us truly know or understand. And if his son takes after his father at all, this could be the beginning of a life-long affair that started out as a boy and an interest.
The Beyond the Classroom series is a monthly installment on our blog where a current Academic Fellow for the Master in International Relations shares with us insights into current MIR professors and faculty. The scope of this series is to see our diverse faculty in a different light away from the classroom, highlighting aspects of their rich personal lives and experiences.