Why are growing numbers of overseas Chinese students returning home?

Society & Culture

As China’s latest cohort of international students prepares to start classes at universities abroad this September, The China Project takes a look at the other side — the rising numbers of international graduates returning home to navigate new lives in China.

From the very beginning of his two-year mechanical engineering master’s program at Purdue University, Luo Xinyu 罗新雨 had his American job hunt in mind. He watched the market, attended job fairs, and dreamed of settling in a country where, he says, people are “living the best life on this planet.”

After graduating with a bachelor’s degree in business from the University of Wisconsin–Madison, Ma Rui 马枘 imagined what her life would be like if she accepted one of the human resources and marketing jobs offered by large American companies. With a comfortable salary, these positions came with the possibility to buy a home in a couple of years and a well-worn corporate path.

Actuarial science major Bi Weiqiao 毕伟桥 looked at her friends who graduated before her, some of whom had worked in America for several years on student visa extensions, but were forced to return to China with no luck in obtaining work visas. “Why not just come directly back if I’ll have to come back in two years anyway?” she asked herself.

Luo, Ma, and Bi are part of a growing number of Chinese who pursued higher education abroad and then returned to their home country to live and work, where they must acclimatize to an environment with vast cultural differences from the American college campuses where they studied. This trajectory is becoming increasingly common as more and more internationally educated Chinese return to their home country. These overseas educated graduates make up a privileged cohort in Chinese society; as students, they are well known by their cultural nickname “sea turtles” (海龟 hǎiguī), a pun on hǎiguī 海归, which literally means “sea return,” or coming back home after working or studying abroad. Together, they account for about one-third of the world’s and the United States’ international students. There were an estimated 901,500 Chinese people studying at higher-education institutions outside China in 2015.

A look at data from recent decades illuminates this homeward trend: From the time China first sent students to foreign countries at the beginning of the reform and opening up policy in 1978 up until 2003, 700,200 Chinese studied abroad, but only 172,800 of them returned. But that number has risen significantly in the past decade. In 2012 alone, 159,600 overseas students returned, and four years later, this number grew to 432,500, according to government data. Of course, the numbers abroad are also greater, but these days, between 70 to 80 percent of students and graduates come back to China; the ratio of departees to returnees has now nearly flattened to one-to-one (1.28 to 1, to be precise).

This may indicate a shift in thought, suggests international education specialist Sissi Chen, who works with Chinese high schoolers preparing for college in the U.S., the top destination for China’s international students. “More and more people are having this idea to explore the world, they are not thinking, ‘I just want to go to America and never come back.’ That’s not the mentality anymore,” says Chen, who studied at Barnard College in New York and then returned to her native Guangzhou after graduation. “They want to open another door to see a bigger world and get an educational advantage.”

For these graduates of American institutions, the path home is often shaped by economic and political forces: China’s development, the American job market, work visa protocols. But theirs are also individual journeys that require navigating the vast cultural divides between U.S. college campuses and China, and reconciling the two as they reintegrate back home. One example is Yang Shuping 杨舒平, a Chinese graduate from the University of Maryland, who delivered a controversial commencement speech in May.

To learn more about this experience that is affecting more Chinese than ever before, The China Project spoke with five recent graduates from around China about their homecoming.

Ma Rui

Ma Rui had majored in supply chain management and marketing at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, and there were plenty of jobs available. Accepting an American corporate job offer was the straightforward choice. Returning to China was not. “If I come back to China, I know if something happens to my dad’s business, if I can’t find any job, I cannot even feed myself,” she says. “But I also cannot see how far I will go. Maybe I will have more opportunities; maybe I will have a better future. It’s a risk, but it’s worth taking.”

Ma turned down her American job offers and returned to start her career working on the marketing team at her father’s poultry company in Kunming, the capital of China’s southwestern Yunnan Province. When she arrived, she found her hometown in the midst of a transformation. An Apple store and other Western luxury brands that she’d associated with America and China’s major cities had cropped up on the constantly evolving streets. “Kunming is always surprising me,” Ma says, and in her mind, this development means opportunity and better standards of living.

Bi Weiqiao

On her visits home, Bi Weiqiao had observed how quickly China was developing and adapting to new technologies. Like Ma, Bi was studying at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, but she found herself increasingly excited about China, and less interested in staking her future on obtaining the coveted H-1B work visa in the U.S.

International students in America have an allotted Optional Practical Training (OPT) grace period, which allows those with job offers to work for one to three years in the country after graduation. But staying beyond the three years, in most cases, requires both visa sponsorship from a company, and luck — the 65,000 annual visas for bachelor’s degree holders are awarded based on a random lottery system, although that method has reportedly been placed under review by the Trump administration.

After graduating with an actuarial science major this past May, Bi had a choice between a job offer as an analyst at a company in Washington, D.C., and another as a data analyst in Shanghai. Bi decided to head back to China, and avoid the future challenge of the H-1B process down the line. But she didn’t feel this was a trade-off: “I had this concept when I first went to the U.S. that I should have one to two years of working experience before I come back,” says Bi. “But actually now I feel that in China, some of the job opportunities are very great.”

However, leaving the job market in the U.S. for China comes with its own set of challenges. The most competitive jobs are typically limited to a handful of cities in eastern China where real estate prices have soared to vertiginous heights. And the job market is tough — this year, an estimated 7.95 million new domestic college graduates entered the job pool. Over 80 percent of them found the job market “challenging” or “very challenging,” according to a recent survey by recruitment website Zhaopin.com 招聘网. And as these graduates flood the market, monthly salaries for the college-educated have plummeted, dropping 16 percent from last year, Zhaopin reports.

Luo Xinyu

International education can give job applicants an upper hand in employment, but it comes at a high premium.

“I would not be able to afford my American education on this salary if I didn’t have help from my father,” says Luo Xinyu of Beijing’s neighboring city Tianjin. Luo studied for the first three years of his undergraduate degree at Shanghai’s Tongji University, where tuition cost him 5,000 yuan (about $740) per year. He then spent his senior year abroad at Purdue University, where he later returned to complete a mechanical engineering master’s degree, paying around $90,000 in total. Affording this generally requires family support: For most international students in America, each year’s tuition needs to be paid up front, and they are not eligible to take out federal student loans.

Because he does not have student debt, Luo says the lower salary and lower standard of living in China is a trade-off that he was happy to make for his dream job as a calibration engineer for automobiles. But Luo’s decision to return to China only came after a string of disappointments job hunting in the American auto industry. “You are Chinese, right?” he remembers one internship recruiter asking him, before explaining that they only have places for American students.

Back in China, Luo found a position with a multinational engineering company that had rejected his online application for its U.S. branch. Compared with his international classmates, Luo considers himself lucky that his home country is China, because the country’s rising global economic importance and international investment from multinational companies means “more and more chances are piling up here.”

Zhang Aoying

Among some returnees, working at a multinational company or a startup venture is more appealing than a domestic corporation or a state-owned enterprise. This has less to do with salary or job description than it does with company culture, they say.

For Zhang Aoying 章傲颖 of Hangzhou, leaving Vassar College and going directly into the finance department at a state-owned security exchange company in China was “a really big culture shock.”

“The company is really male oriented,” she says. While Zhang thinks hierarchy and patriarchy are endemic problems in the financial industry around the world, she adds, “At least in Wall Street, when you face gender discrimination, you can sue them, but in China, it’s kind of impossible to do that.”

Several of the women interviewed for this article brought up gender issues as a component of the cultural transition they experienced from American college campuses back to China. Zhang says that she had been aware of gender inequality from a young age, after realizing that her grandparents had wished for a grandson, but her study at Vassar gave her “a clearer sense of how things should be.” For others, being exposed to the American political dialogue raised their awareness of gender inequality in China.

Maple Li

This was the case for Bryn Mawr alumna Maple Li 李丹枫, whose senior year coincided with the U.S. presidential elections. As Li learned more about gender wage gaps and sexual discrimination in America, it became impossible for her not to identify these things when she returned to her hometown of Suzhou after graduation. “When you become aware, you are very sensitive and you are hurt by friends, by parents,” she says, thinking of times when she confronts gender stereotypes in family conversations or finds offensive comments tossed out in group chats with friends.

Li tries to discuss gender inequality she faced in the workplace with her female friends, who are embarking on their job hunts in China, where on average women make 77 percent of what men do. “It’s actually hard to tell them that there is this kind of thing happening, that there are gender disparities in China,” she explains, referring to her friends who attended Chinese universities. “Even though they are women, they think it is better to just ignore them than to be aware of that, because being aware is actually pretty hard.”

All the recent graduates interviewed for this article aspired to contribute their overseas education and some of the values they learned abroad to China. For Ma Rui, that means applying what she learned in the U.S. at her new job as the youngest employee by a decade in her father’s 25-year-old poultry company. For Sissi Chen, it is sharing her own experiences studying abroad with the next generation to help it navigate the system. For Zhang, it is putting aside plans to study law in America in favor of staying and volunteering in the civil sector in China.

Zhang believes that it’s important for her generation to be in China and to improve their country. “Or else,” she says, “you are just giving away your hometown to some people you disagree with, and that’s not a good thing, right?”