Having returned to China for language classes again and again, I have noticed a large number of overseas Chinese studying alongside me. In an effort to find out how they felt about China, and how their experience and perspectives of China have affected them, I asked some of my friends about whether their perspectives and expectations of China had changed, and whether they thought they would stay in China long-term.
Why return to China?
Many of those with family roots in China come to China for the same reasons as other foreigners do; to learn Chinese, understand the culture, and see what opportunities are out here for young people. For some of them, there is even a sense of magic, as China is often portrayed as a mystical and far away country, waiting to be discovered. Paul Young, a 4th generation Chinese-American from New York, proposes the eternal Chinese language student problem as a reason for coming to China: “You can study the language, but you’ll only improve so much and eventually hit a ceiling. If you can manage it, the best technique is really immersion. Also, from a more practical standpoint, coming here and learning the language is the best way to set yourself up to take advantage of all the potential opportunities available to you in China.”
Yvonne Lee, a student at Syracuse University in New York, currently on an exchange program at Tsinghua University, quotes another popular reason for coming to China: “I decided to study in China because I think it’s an extremely important area of concentration since it has become increasingly influential in the world. I’m also ethnically Chinese but I didn’t really feel connected to my culture since my family hasn’t lived in China for generations so I wanted to kind of get a better feel for where I come from.” However, Lee also demonstrates her parents’ hesitation at her decision to spend some time in China: “At first, even my parents were wary of the idea of me coming to China, considering the reports on the poor air quality and food safety.”
Xiren Yuan Wang, who moved to Spain from Nanjing at the age of four, agrees, and says, “I wanted to go to China because I felt at the time that there was still much about China that I didn’t understand, despite it being my place of birth.” He went to Peking University to study Chinese, as part of his gap year before starting at university, both to improve his Chinese and go back to his roots.
Changes in perception
Studying in China has changed the perceptions for those who ‘return’ to the country their ancestors are from. Lee, for example, says that she has been discovering similarities between her and her Chinese classmates: “It has made me hyperaware that Chinese values like ‘saving face’ are intrinsic and so embedded even among the Chinese Diaspora. I feel like I have been raised with similar values to my Chinese classmates and don’t feel foreign in that aspect.”
Wang too, had a change in perception of China: “I, like many other Westerners probably, had a quite traditional and backward image of Chinese society. After coming to China, I was amazed at the progress that Chinese cities have experienced in the last couple of decades.”
These changes in perceptions make China a much more attractive place for 3rd or 4th generation overseas Chinese, as they are discovering that China is neither the place that their ancestors found reasons to leave, nor is it the place that the Western media likes to use as a scapegoat at times.
Short-term or in it for the long run?
It seems, for those reasons, that many overseas Chinese are likely to remain in China, or at least come back in the future, yet reasons for this vary. For example, Young says that he has already returned, as his initial studying experience in China was in 2006: “Working here and finding career opportunities was always the long-term goal.” While Wang says that although he travels back frequently to see family and friends, he wanted to come back for the long term in the near future to discover more of China itself.
Lee also confirms this, and says that although she is planning to return soon to finish university and see her family in the United States, she feels that she will be back in China soon.
Having overseas Chinese come back to China to study or work can really benefit China in its path towards development. These adults are able to bridge the gap between the Chinese and the foreign population, whether linguistically or culturally. In return, China can offer them a great deal of opportunity, in terms of employment and discovery. However, with reasons for families’ initial migration varying, and increasing reports of air pollution, the question is whether the younger generation of overseas Chinese will take the chance and return to China.
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Keywords: come to China Chinese-American overseas Chinese returning
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8 Comments Add your comment
To fully benefit the acceptance of returning Chinese generations you must make a welcoming home for them to come back to. The economy, pollution, housing, and salary limitations will be hard issues to resolve but is necessary. These issues are not only necessary for foreign born but also locals. To unite is the only way China will survive and finally become a balanced country it struggles to be.
Apr 23, 2014 02:02 Report Abuse
Interesting article. For sure, I can understand ABC need to understand where they come from, their roots. It's a great opportunity for them. However, I guess this cultural bridge will never be complete until china become a democracy and a country where the freedom of speech will be the rules. Perhaps, environment is a complete disaster in China so it won't attracted these people for settle down in China. I should add also until Chinese social transformation appear (social rights, better income etc).
Apr 23, 2014 02:34 Report Abuse
China will always be an excellent place for travel but a horrid place to live/settle down in most areas. Until China is able to manage with these issues, I am certain ABCs, CBCs or whatever will not permanently stay in China. The compromise, long-term, just isn't worth it.
Apr 23, 2014 11:45 Report Abuse
As an Asian/Chinese-American living in China, the tone and content of this article really confuses me. I don't see how ABCs are a bridge between Chinese and American culture, especially those from the 3rd and 4th generation Most Asian-Americans I've met in China (myself included) feel just like any other foreigner here when it comes to language and culture (some react positively, others negatively). Furthermore, I don't see hordes of Asian-Americans wanting to stay in China long term. While there is no denying that "overseas Chinese" come to China to learn about their roots and heritage, I feel the whole "returning" to China trend is mainly a by-product of more foreigners coming to China in general.
Apr 28, 2014 14:59 Report Abuse
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