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The Return of the 'Sea Turtles:' Reverse Brain Drain to China

China rising economy is seducing its Diaspora back to the homeland. So far almost 200,000 immigrants from overseas have returned. But, according the PNS contributing writer, Jun Wang, there's a price to pay for new opportunities back home.


San Francisco- Chinese call them "sea turtles." In the typical clever Chinese play on words, the word "turtle" has the same pronunciation as the word for "coming home."


Like turtles migrating across the ocean, they arrived in America either as international students or even as young children half a century ago.


But now they are retuning to mainland China or Taiwan for job opportunities.


In a reversal of the century-old pattern of Chinese immigrants leaving their families to seek fortune in the United States, these "sea turtles" are leaving their wives and children in America.


Lured by no-interest business loans and tax cuts in China more than 190,000 "sea turtles," many from the United States, had returned to China by the end of 2004, according to the Ministry of Education of China.


Besides favorable business policies from the Chinese government, "sea turtles" are discovering better career opportunities back home. "They are promoted much faster back in China," says Steve Orlins, chairman of the private non-profit National Committee on United States-China Relations.


Many Chinese immigrants face the glass ceiling in the United States, Orlins says, "but they won't face cultural barriers or language problems in their own country." Instead, they have the advantage of their experience in America, which will help them get better positions than those who never left China.


Typically, one of the spouses decides to return to China or Taiwan for work, leaving their families in America. More commonly, the wife remains in America to take care of the children.


One exception is Qiming Sun, who left her husband, 10-year-old daughter, and 6-year-old son in Fremont, Calif. After living in the United States for 20 years, Sun returned to Shanghai in July to work as the Asia and Pacific regional manager for Roche Diagnostic, a pharmaceutical company.


Sun, who had worked in the lab at Roche in Palo Alto for 10 years, wanted to change her career path toward managing and marketing. Her career ambition is clear. "I have been chosen to be a pioneer," she says. "This is tailored for me, someone who always wants to do better."


But changing her career came with a price.


"When I see babies at the market or on the street, it makes me think of my children," she says sadly. But her new job keeps her too busy to call her children often. Sun is hoping to return to the United States after her three-year contract in China is over. She hopes her experience in China will help her climb the management ladder at her company back in America.


While some people split their families across the Pacific for career ambition, others do it for their children's sake.


"Our main reason for not going back [to Taiwan] together is our child. We want her to go school here," says Diana Huang of her 15-year-old, American-born daughter. After the dot-com bust, Huang's husband took a job offer from a telecommunication company in Taiwan. Huang decided to stay with her daughter in Cupertino, Calif.


Huang and her husband did not want their daughter to face the overwhelming culture shock that is inevitable if the family returns to Taiwan. "My daughter is used to being here," Huang says.


Huang plans to return to Taiwan to stay with her husband once her daughter is older.


Living in the middle of Silicon Valley, Huang knows many neighbors whose husbands left to work in China or Taiwan. The families typically reunite every two or three months. But between reunions, the wives here have to keep themselves busy and not worry about "what's my husband is doing now."


The media certainly provides them with reasons to fret with: stories of infidelity. The divorce of Jian Ding, the chairman of AsiaInfo, serves as a cautionary tale of the pressures on families who live apart.


Perhaps one of the most well-known "sea turtles," Ding graduated from Stanford University and started a hugely successful business in Beijing. Forbes estimated his net worth at over $80 million.


"We came back from overseas to start our own business. But because husbands and wives live so far apart, the pressure from separating from our families is incredible," Ding told local media. Ding and his wife divorced after he returned to China, leaving their two children, the younger only five months old, in the United States. Shortly after his divorce, in a sensational story that gripped the attention of Chinese tabloids, Ding married a Chinese TV star.


"I'm really afraid of being another Ding's wife," says a housewife in Cupertino whose husband recently returned to Shanghai for a job. "Many wives share my concern, because our husbands have high salaries, high positions plus an American background, which are very attractive to the local girls."


Besides the high risk of divorce, children are often already suffering the family's separation. Though the parents are living across the globe so their children can have a better education, "many such children are like living in single-parent families," Huang says.


(China Daily/New America Media September 27, 2005)

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