Tea Leaf Nation

March of the 'Sea Turtles'

Some of China's best and brightest return home after jaunts overseas -- only to leave again.

To one user posting on MITBBS, a website that caters to mainland Chinese living in the United States, even a U.S. green card and a job that pays $100,000 a year would feel like like "a fate worse than death." By contrast, another wrote that he had studied in the United States, then returned home to the Chinese captal of Beijing to find a wife -- with that accomplished a year and a half later, he was ready to depart again.

Debates and about-faces like these are part of being a certain kind of modern Chinese person: largely well-educated and young, holding degrees from foreign universities, often in science, engineering, or another technical field, and lucky enough to have a choice between two destinies. They often must choose between being a haigui -- a term that denotes a returnee to China who has studied or worked overseas, sometimes known by a homonym, "sea turtle" -- or its inversion, a guihai, which means "return to the sea." The latter are sea turtles who feel no longer fit to live in the natural habitat of their motherland and leave China once again for a life abroad. The stakes of this decision are high, not only because these Chinese often take their families and financial assets with them, but because they are the brains China desperately needs to power its growth.

Since 1978, more than 2.6 million Chinese students have gone abroad. Of those, about 1.1 million have returned, according to China's Ministry of Education. China's economy, which has boomed amid a general global downturn since 2008, has attracted an increasing number of its prodigal sons and daughters. In 2012, the most recent year for which data is available, more than 270,000 Chinese students returned, about double the number in 2010.

But many sea turtles make the long swim back home only to find disillusionment in China's increasingly murky waters. While accurate data is hard to find, one December 2012 article in the state-owned newspaper People's Daily cited a survey that estimated half of all returnees leave again, often within six months or less of coming home. Qiushi, a state-owned and ardently pro-Communist Party magazine, voiced worries about "losing top talent again after getting them back," citing marginalization of new people, lack of suitable positions, and cumbersome bureaucracy as key problems.

David Zweig, a sociology professor at the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology who has studied the returnee phenomenon, said that returnees often complain that in China, "who you know is still more important than what you know," and some researchers have come home only to find that it would take "three to four years to make the right contacts to get the grants" they need.

A returnee posting on MITBBS shared his reasons for wanting to move back to the United States, even though he is now making more than $120,000 a year in Beijing as an e-commerce expert. Concerns about worsening air pollution topped his list, closely followed by schooling for his children. He wrote he had heard it would cost approximately $25,000 to grease the wheels to get his older child into a good public elementary school in Beijing, but he could not even find the right connections to pay this bribe. "We are totally in the dark, and have so many bumps on our heads from running into walls," he wrote of the experience. His second child was born in the United States and could not get a hukou, the Chinese household registration document that would open the doors to public school in Beijing.

This experience is not atypical. In addition to air pollution and schooling problems for children, returnees also complain about sky-high housing prices in Beijing, where a 1,000-square-foot apartment costs on average approximately $620,000. Backstabbing office politics, poor food and water safety, and a money-worshipping culture unfit for bringing up children make the list of common negatives in China as well.

None of this means the Wild Wild East has entirely lost its allure. For one, China's economic rise has significantly increased the opportunity cost of paying dues as a new immigrant in the United States. Chinese graduates in the United States usually start from the bottom rung of the corporate ladder, and often must then stay in the same job for years in order to obtain a green card.

In his study, Zweig found that several factors often motivate Chinese students to return. In the United States, many harbor little ambition to reach the top in their profession because of a real or perceived "bamboo ceiling:" racial or cultural barriers limiting their rise. To some returnees, this is a path that leads, at best, to a mediocre career, and at worst, toiling in menial and unstable jobs in a foreign land. Caring for fragile aging parents and rearing children who are connected to their cultural roots are often part of returnees' calculations as well.

The Chinese government has also tried to change the equation by introducing programs designed to entice top scientists and researchers back to China with large subsidies, not to mention convenient shortcuts through the bureaucratic maze, like a quick way to obtain a coveted hukou in large cities like Beijing and Shanghai. Wang Huiyao, director general of the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing-based think tank, said that after late 2008, when the Chinese government started a program called the 1,000 Plan -- which provides financial and bureaucratic assistance to top scientists considering a return to China -- the number of tenure-track researchers who have since chosen to return markedly increased. However, according to Zweig, some of the most talented researchers turned their backs on the 1,000 Plan, fearing bureaucratic overreach in Chinese academia.

Start-up opportunities in China, particularly in the Internet sector, seem particularly attractive to returnees, said Wang, because they can take advantage of "a bulging market, high-growth economy, and favorable government policies." Zweig noted that many local governments have built incubator parks for returnees who want to start companies, including in Haidian, the Beijing district often called China's Silicon Valley. Less entrepreneurially-minded returnees can still enjoy an upper hand in China's ferociously competitive job market: One 2013 survey conducted by a large online job search site in China found that 30 percent of employers reported a preference for so-called sea turtles, at least where other qualifications are held equal.

Beyond these tangible benefits, there is also a sense that returning to China boosts one's social standing and opens up opportunities to vault into elite circles that may be completely closed off to new immigrants in the United States. Instead of being condemned to leading a life on the margins of mainstream American culture, many returnees believe they can fully realize their potential once they return to a place that they understand and a personal network that they can put to use.

Some of the largest companies in China's new economy, such as Internet giants Sohu and Sina, were built by sea turtles. In the movie American Dreams in China, a 2013 Chinese blockbuster loosely based on the founding story of the giant Chinese test-prep company New Oriental, one character initially works as a lab researcher at Columbia University and has to moonlight as a waiter at a New York diner to make ends meet. Only after returning to Beijing does he find success as a key founder of one of China's largest education companies, which eventually lists on the NASDAQ.

Tensions often run high when Chinese emigrants defend their decision, whether it is to stay overseas or to return. Fierce flame wars have broken out among complete strangers sharing their stories on online forums for overseas Chinese like MITBBS or huaren.us: those choosing to stay in the United States are called "self-hating sell-outs" while those choosing to return to the polluted and high-stress living environment in China are "naïve dumbasses." The issue is understandably emotionally charged: Not only must peripatetic Chinese make a cold calculation about China's future vis-à-vis America's, they also must engage tough questions about their national identity and their values.

It's unsurprising that Chinese discussing the fraught issue often choose to do so in highly personal terms. One ex-returnee posted a farewell on a Chinese expat forum when she was about to leave China again. "I feel like a prisoner at the end of her sentence, a bird leaving its cage, and a child going home," she wrote. "Bye bye Shanghai."

AFP/Getty Images

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