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Why China’s “Sea Turtles” Face Inner Struggles After Returning to Home Shores

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When NJ, as he likes to be called, arrived at his midwestern liberal arts college in Fall 2010, he expected — and was prepared for — an academic challenge.

Like many in China, his parents believed that a strong secondary education abroad could secure their child’s future. But as NJ attempted to immerse himself in the white, middle class school culture, it soon became clear that the most difficult tests would come from outside the classroom.

“Going to college abroad is like discovering yourself on ‘hard mode,’” he says, referencing the term for playing video games at a higher difficulty. “Different language, new environment. It’s a complete withdrawal from everything that’s comfortable.”

As part of China’s “reform and opening up” in the late 1970s, former leader Deng Xiaoping famously called for “tens of thousands of students” to go overseas to learn new skills and technologies. As of 2018, 5.86 million Chinese students had studied abroad in the years since, and Chinese nationals now make up the largest number of foreign students in the US, UK, and Australia.

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Initially few who left returned, but tightening visa restrictions, a booming domestic economy, and incentives such as the Thousand Talents program, have led to a sharp increase in the number of haigui (海龟), or “sea turtles,” as returnees are called — a play on the homophone haigui (海归), meaning “return from abroad.” In 1987, the return rate was around 5%. In 2007, it had grown to 31%, and by 2018, it had increased to 80%. Upon repatriation, however, many haigui experience disappointment; life back at home is often not what they had anticipated.

Originally, the haigui were fêted for having skills and knowledge that were then inaccessible in China, but were needed for the country’s development. Pioneering tech companies, such as Baidu, Sohu, and Xiaomi, were either founded by haigui or have one in a top leadership position.

However, as the haigui became more numerous, securing the prestigious, high-paying jobs they thought an overseas education guaranteed became ever more competitive. In a 2018 Center for China and Globalization survey, 80% reported receiving lower salaries than they had expected, and most also reported working in a field different from what they’d studied.

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Other issues the haigui face are less tangible, and have to do with a sense of self and interpersonal relationships. Not only have they spent years in an entirely different culture, but they’ve had access to personal freedoms and information that their peers have not. When haigui return, they don’t just experience “reverse culture shock” — their worldview may no longer adhere to the Chinese norms and politics with which they grew up.

Sakenya McDonald, a doctoral student in psychology at Prescott College, explains:

“For a student attending college in a different country, who they are [at college] may be drastically different from who they are at home. Social groups they belong to will also differ. These differences may create an ‘identity crisis’ which…may include a changed sense-of-self and/or difficulty relating to family and [old] friends.”

26-year old NJ now works as an online editor, and lives with a roommate in Tiantongyuan, a congested neighborhood of residential superblocks in northern Beijing not far from where he grew up. He remembers his first two years of college as an intense period of socialization and personal transformation. Like him, his classmates were fresh out of high school, but they seemed much older. They had cars, conversed freely with the opposite sex, and shockingly, financed their own educations through loans. In Chinese culture, secondary educational expenses are generally considered a parental obligation. “I never thought parents could be so cruel to their child, making them go into massive debt just to do something everybody had to do,” NJ says. “Granted, Chinese universities cost 5,000RMB per year [around 700USD] — a much lighter burden.”

Equally bewildering was how little his peers knew or cared about China. He was the only mainlander at the college, and they asked ridiculous, almost insulting, questions: Is Beijing in Japan? Does it snow in China? Is everybody there a communist? Though not from an especially pro-government family, NJ spent years in the Chinese public-school system which integrates a nationalistic agenda into all textbooks and regulated activities. “I had to say that I loved everything about my country, and anybody who believed otherwise was malicious and stupid. I didn’t think people who knew nothing about China existed,” he recalls.

Between this, and hearing his new friends — particularly a military trainee who was the most demonstratively proud American he knew — speak critically of the US, something inside him clicked. “I slowly understood the extent to which China… instill[s] an ignorant sense of nationalism amongst its citizens,” he says, “and I’ve been feeling ‘motherland-less’ ever since.”

“I loved everything about my country, and anybody who believed otherwise was malicious and stupid. I didn’t think people who knew nothing about China existed.”

Not all haigui are as wholly affected by their time overseas as NJ. He Ruiwen*, a 30-year-old who earned his Masters at a large public university in the American South, didn’t mix much with the American classmates in his accounting program. It was only when his professors provided opportunities for foreign students to spend time with local residents that he expanded his social network. “This was a very good opportunity for me to know more about Americans, and to build relationships,” he says.

At one point, some of his local friends took him to their church. “I trusted [my friends], so I went with them and listened to what they had to say,” he explains. He became a Christian soon after, and while in the US, was an active member of his church. Upon returning to Beijing, however, he was unable to join one of the city’s larger congregations, as he didn’t have a foreign passport. “Some [foreign churches] will let you join as long as you have a US driver’s license,” he says. While he continues to pray daily, his faith is now something he considers private; he is cautious about where and with whom he discusses it.

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McDonald believes that haigui may experience a similar conflict around the idea of “home” as observed in diasporic and migrant groups, though often to a lesser extent. “When a person has a strong attachment to a place that is not their homeland,” she explains, “they may give greater value to their new ‘home’ and experience tension or confusion when moving between the two.”

As NJ sees it, attending college in the US allowed him to explore a culture that emphasizes individuality over conformity and greatly values personal happiness. Having grown up in China where “‘a certain degree of self-denial for the ‘greater good’ is expected,’” and the collective is stressed over the individual, he often finds himself facing an internal battle.

Motivated by his former classmates’ financial independence, NJ hasn’t asked his family for anything since returning to China. He initially lived at home, but when the arrangement began to feel too claustrophobic, he went against his parents’ objections and moved out. “It freed me mentally from ‘a debt I cannot repay,’” he says.

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The desire to be near family, especially aging parents, is a primary reason why haigui return; at the same time, familial tensions frequently arise when haigui veer from social convention or fail to live up to others’ ambitions for their overseas education. Fang Hui spent nine years in the US getting a PhD in genetics, but once back in China decided to become a stay-at-home-mother rather than pursue a career as a scientist.

To Fang’s dismay, her family and many of her closest friends judged her for her choice. “Only women who make their own money are considered independent, [otherwise women] are looked down upon,“ she explains. “If one day my marriage comes to an end, I will have nothing. That’s their view.” Numerous studies have shown that stay-at-home-mothers are on the rise in China; however, because mainland divorce law is so unfavorable to women, many see wives and mothers who no longer work as imprudent, or even lazy.

Though Fang says she is happy to be back in China regardless, she now recognizes that her time in the US impacted her. “I didn’t realize that I changed a lot of my views and thinking patterns until I came back to China,” she reflects.

A 2015 Center for China and Globalization study of 918 haigui found that 68% showed a willingness to “zai gui hai” (再归海) or “return to the sea” — that is, go back and live where they got their degree or go to a third country. NJ would love to return to the US where he believes the quality of life is better, but current immigration realities make that unlikely. He’s now considering Canada.

For others, like Fang and He, there is often a process of readaptation when returning to shore, and a learned acceptance that they may always be a little at odds with the world around them. But in their eyes, China is their home — how can the good not outweigh the bad?

* He Ruiwen is a pseudonym used at the interviewee’s request.
Header image: Mayura Jain

Elyse Weingarten
    Elyse Weingarten is a freelance writer who splits her time between the US and Beijing.