A foreign face in China is hardly unusual nowadays.
But with tens of thousands of new expatriates flooding the
country, a trend is emerging. Some of these newcomers are more or
less indistinguishable from most Chinese. That is because they were
either born in China or have Chinese parents.
Every year, more and more of these people come "home," many with
the aim of learning about their culture and background.
Alwin Lee, 27, is one of these newcomers. He was born and raised
in Australia, but has been living in Shanghai for four years.
"You can basically divide overseas Chinese into two categories,"
Lee said. "First, there are those who were born overseas or
emigrated to a foreign country at an early age. Their first
language is probably not Chinese, and their culture is probably not
Chinese either, having a Western upbringing and a Western
"The second type is the 'sea turtles' who speak Mandarin as
their first language and who went overseas for an MBA or to work
for a few years."
Sea turtles pronounced "hai gui," is a homonym for different
characters that mean "returnees from overseas" have been struggling
of late in China.
They flourished at first because of the country's shortage of
home-bred managers with global experience, but as domestic
education has improved, not only are their skills no longer deemed
so impressive. Their salary and job expectations are also
considered too high by some employers.
Like many people in this situation, Lee came to China to learn
Mandarin and learn more about his roots.
"When I came, I was going to do only one year, to learn
Mandarin, and then decide whether I would stay or go back to
Australia," he said.
"But after a year here, I could speak enough Mandarin that I
thought it would be a waste if I didn't stay."
He ended up joining IBM in Shanghai as a business strategy
"I had been here to China once before, on a government-sponsored
excursion that was aiming to get overseas Chinese to come back,"
Lee said. "So, I think they achieved their objective with me."
Lee saw many other overseas Chinese in Shanghai who needed
support, so earlier this year he co-founded the Overseas Chinese
Network (OCN). The group now boasts about 800 members.
"We noticed that in Shanghai there are more and more overseas
Chinese coming in, but we lack a sense of community," Lee said.
"Our aim is to get overseas Chinese together, get them talking
and get them building a community."
At meetings, Mandarin is not often heard, and English
predominates. French and Cantonese are also in the air.
One of the big factions within the network is called the young
"They couldn't speak any Mandarin, but have a good sense of the
language because they've heard it through their parents but can't
actually speak it," Lee said.
"Being an overseas-born Chinese, you feel you never quite fully
merge into the country you grew up in, so China is a place that you
will always have a connection to."
Another OCN member, Lei Feng, 29, was born in China, but
emigrated with her family to Australia 22 years ago.
She came to Shanghai earlier this year to work for AXA-Minmetals
"I had sort of always missed the Chinese part of my culture,"
she said. "There was no Chinese community when I grew up in
"I think in the past 10 years there has been a huge growth in
terms of Asian migration there. But about 20 years ago, there was
no such thing as an Asian community.
"After I graduated from university in Australia, I went
backpacking around China for about three months.
"I knew from then on that I wanted to spend a longer period here
to help me really get into the culture."
One difference that Feng had to adjust was the Chinese work
culture, something that many overseas Chinese must contend with
when they arrive.
"Certainly in dealing with working relationships, I noticed
differences and found it a little hard at first," Feng said. "When
I was trying to settle in, there were a lot of misunderstandings in
"I would often come out and say something directly and would be
straightforward, which is something that isn't really done."
Lee said he experienced similar problems and has found that
being a foreigner with a Chinese face can sometimes be
"I think 50 percent of the time I am treated as a foreign expat,
so to speak," he said.
"But being a foreigner without a foreign face can work against
you. You may have a great idea but, because you cannot speak the
language that well, it may not be as readily accepted as it would
have been if you had a typically Western face.
"I think it's still the case in China that having a Western face
can still get you immediate respect."
However, foreign-born Chinese on the whole face the same
difficulties as all foreigners coming to China, Lee said.
"The most challenging thing for me was definitely the level of
directness, the idea of 'saving face.'
"In the Western business world, it's a lot easier to be direct
and to be very upfront when giving feedback.
"But in China it has taken me a long time to learn that you have
to be very tactful and very careful to save the face of the person
you are talking to."
Shanghai is becoming increasingly proactive in finding foreign
talent, especially overseas Chinese.
In September, it sent a recruiting delegation to New York, San
Francisco and Toronto to attract expatriates and overseas Chinese
(China Daily December 11, 2006)
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