Sea Turtles Swim Home

by Joo Hyun Lee and JT Kennedy:

For some immigrants to the United States, living the American dream isn’t enough. Zhuang Kang—a first-generation American—graduated from the University of Maryland and became the face of America abroad, serving as Supplies Sergeant for a United Nations Command Armor Guard unit at an American military base in Korea. But now he has decided to trade in American opportunities for Chinese ones, starting to work for Frito-Lay in Shanghai—one of the corporation’s most successful overseas branches.

Kang’s story is just one example of the growing phenomenon of haigui. A Chinese homophone for “sea turtle” and “overseas returnee,” the term describes the Chinese people who, after immigrating to the U.S., return to China in search of economic opportunity. Whether motivated by China’s explosive economic growth, government-generated incentives, or a special attachment to their homeland, the number of Chinese returning to the mainland is increasing. Familiar with both China and America, these returnees find themselves in a unique position to succeed in China’s rapidly growing economy. Capitalizing on China

In 1994, when his father accepted a job at Yale University, Kang and his family left China for New Haven, Connecticut. Kang initially envisioned himself as the epitome of the American dream. After graduating from high school, Kang decided to join the U.S. Army and was stationed in Korea for three years. After leaving the army, Kang sought a position in the private sector. “I thought to myself, ‘I’m going to be in Corporate America with a cool handheld phone and working for a major corporation,’” Kang remembered. “But eventually I found the job really systematic. I wanted something a bit different, like I had when I chose to enlist right after high school.” When the opportunity to work in China presented itself, Kang accepted the offer. “I wanted to learn about China. It’s a bigger market with faster growth, and everyone’s talking about it. I came here with an open mind.”

Kang had several motives for his return, some personal and some economic. “I thought it would be good for me to be close to my relatives, especially since my dad cannot be here,” he told the Globalist. China also offered Kang more opportunities to develop his career. Working in China, which has high salaries but comparatively low living costs, will allow Kang to save more money than he would be able to in America and will provide a larger financial base for his goal of starting a business.

Being an American-educated and internationally-experienced person working in China’s economic core gives Kang other advantages, as well. Shanghai is the center of the world’s fastest-growing economy, and the city offers countless opportunities to businessmen like Kang with its burgeoning industries. According to the Shanghai Municipal Personnel Department, 45,000 haigui have returned from the United States to work in the city, mostly as high-level managers, senior engineers, or business owners. This amassing of haigui in one city makes it easy for Kang to form valuable connections and relationships that will help him capitalize on Shanghai’s wealth of business opportunities when building his firm.

While Kang chose not to pursue his dreams in America, he recognizes that his success springs from there. Like many other businessmen in Shanghai, Kang speaks fluent English and Mandarin, but what gives him a further competitive edge over his Chinese counterparts are his openmindedness and cosmopolitan views.

“When I first came to China, I was a 25-year-old managing the entire city of Shanghai. I heard through the grapevine that people weren’t very happy about having such a young and inexperienced boss,” Kang recalled. “But gradually I changed their perceptions by resolving many key issues for important customers from all over the world—customers with different cultures and needs.” Adapting to a new life in America and moderating between Korean and American soldiers in the military taught him the skills necessary to understand and cooperate with business partners from a variety of backgrounds—these “American” experiences have paid off, giving Kang a professional advantage.

A New Generation

While unique at the time he was in college, Kang’s experience is now becoming the model for many young Chinese whose parents immigrated to the U.S. In the past, a student visa was a permanent ticket out of China, with a mere 19% of Chinese students returning to their homeland after studying in America between 1978 and 1998. As Stanley Rosen, director of the East Asian Studies Center at the University of Southern California, told the Globalist, “It used to be that the only students who returned to China after studying in the U.S. were those who simply couldn’t make it in America. However, now most Chinese students in the U.S. look to pursue better opportunities at home.”

Xidi Liu, a sophomore at Yale, is a prime example. Born in Shijiazhuang, Liu and his mother moved to Massachusetts when he was sixteen to join his father who was already working at the University of Massachusetts Medical School. “My father’s job made the move possible, but what made the decision was the chance of a better education for me,” Liu told the Globalist.

Four years after moving to the United States, Liu sees a future for himself working in U.S.-China trade. “Doing trade between the two countries, I would most likely end up going back and forth,” said Liu. “But 75% of my time would be in China, where I can use my fluency in Chinese to do the research, visit factories, and draw on the connections I already have.” Such an international enterprise would be facilitated by what Liu recognizes as an advantage he has over his Chinese friends who have stayed in the country. “Other than just the language proficiency, I feel like I have a broader scope of thought that allows me to find more opportunities around me. I’ve witnessed a wider range of political and economic happenings, and they have enriched my thinking,” Liu told The Yale Globalist. Much like Kang, Liu also believes that he developed openmindedness and teamwork skills in America. “I’ve learned to adapt more quickly, learn faster the skills I need, and apply them to what I want to achieve.”

Will it last?

The ability to capitalize on one’s multicultural background is indeed a new phenomenon. A mere 25 years ago, stories like Kang’s would have been unthinkable. Then, the United States and Europe were still the only “lands of opportunity” for immigrants. Coming from a very different culture, Chinese immigrants struggled to overcome barriers and integrate themselves into Western society so that they could ensure a better life for themselves and their families.

Today, that is no longer the case. Less than a generation after their families immigrated to the United States, haigui like Kang and Liu are moving back to their homeland. However, their family’s sacrifice was not in vain. As Rosen explained, “These people carry a dumbell—with one weight being Chinese culture and the other being American culture—that enables them to move back and forth between American and Chinese societies.” For haigui, culture has not been a barrier. It has been the key to unlocking opportunity.

As China develops further and becomes more globalized, however, experts like Rosen warn that the cross-cultural advantage of hagui is disappearing. “Originally, those in China who had experience abroad were guaranteed preferential treatment,” Rosen said. “Now, virtually anyone in China who has talent can go abroad for some time. Increasingly, the popular perception in China is that if you are any good, you should be able to go abroad for at least a year.” Rosen also points to programs like Tsinghua University and MIT’s joint International MBA program that offer Western-quality training without ever having to leave China.

Ironically, it seems the Chinese development boom that haigui have helped create may soon eliminate the niche that they have so successfully filled.