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Overseas Chinese Try to Build a Community in Homeland
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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 lifestyle.

"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.

Common experience

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 consultant.

"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 China re-discoverers.

"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 Assurance.

"I had sort of always missed the Chinese part of my culture," she said. "There was no Chinese community when I grew up in Australia.

"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 meetings.

"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 difficult.

"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 professionals.

(China Daily December 11, 2006)


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