Returning ‘turtles’ no longer treated like conquering heroes
By Ni Tao (The story appears on Page A6 of print edition)

MY first contact with a Chinese returnee, or hai gui, took place when I was seven, when a friend of my mother’s came back from Japan. After working there at a factory processing raw fish products for three years, she made quite a fortune and radiated grace and opulence.

She was among the first generation of highly unskilled hai gui, literally translated as “sea turtles,” to be followed by a steady trickle of student returnees, who brought with them skills and expertise that set the nation on a path that globalized its economy. Returnees’ success stories strengthened my belief that overseas experience is necessary to build a good career.

That belief has largely fallen apart. As domestic companies begin to stress real ability over foreign diplomas in recruiting new hires, “sea turtles” now find themselves on the shallow side of an increasingly crowded talent pool. Unless they are of the highest caliber, and thus are wooed, they have no apparent edge over local job-seekers other than English proficiency. As a popular joke has it, “sea turtles” have become “seaweeds,” or hai dai, referring to their modest social status.

And the pressure in finding jobs is just one aspect of a double whammy they may face once “home.” Their overseas experience can be a source of what some scholars call the “reverse culture shock” that causes tremendous psychological stress.

While the effect of “reverse culture shock” remains to be seen among Chinese returnees, it has also been proven to exist among certain people, according to Nan M. Sussman, psychology professor at the College of Staten Island, City University of New York.

In an interview on January 27, Professor Sussman told Shanghai Daily that Europeans and Americans fall into the category she termed “subtractive” in their self-identification, which means they can no longer feel as American or European as they did before settling in another country.

Life back “home” is often so miserable that they change residences, quit jobs and even divorce spouses to try to relieve stress, only to find moving back to their adopted new homes can cure culture shock, said Sussman.

Unlike the Westerners, the Chinese have displayed remarkable flexibility in this regard, especially the Hong Kongers. In her new book “Return Migration and Identity: A Global Phenomenon, A Hong Kong Case,” Sussman traces the “out and back” migration of Hong Kongers before and after Hong Kong’s return to China in 1997.

Sussman argues that few Hong Kong returnees suffered the same kind of mental stress as do Westerners. Lured back to Hong Kong by the economic opportunities and the pull of home, they could fit in again without feeling ill at ease after living for an extended period in Australia and Canada, two of the largest receiving nations, despite the very different lifestyles they represent – Hong Kong fast-paced, Australia and Canada laid-back.

This is because, as Sussman explained, Hong Kongers are a product of the Confucian culture, where emphasis on harmony allows for the blurring of identity boundaries. Hence Hong Kong emigrants don’t lose home culture, rather, they add many layers to their identity.

Whereas in the West, based on Greek philosophy, identity is monolithic (less malleable). It has to be one way or the other, not both. And that is why Westerners cannot switch as easily as the Hong Kongers between different roles, said Sussman. While the Hong Kong case is indeed interesting, Sussman said the city may be a unique example in which “sea turtles” swim effortlessly in local currents, due to its mixture of pragmatism and cosmopolitanism.

Things may be more complex on the mainland. We’ve already seen small ways in which the returnees are now behaving differently from the local norm, and feeling awkward as a result.