Job Opportunities Lure Asians Back Home
Shuo Liu, 27, planned to stay in the United States after completing his undergraduate business program in New York, but staying turned out to be tougher than he had thought.
“First of all, you have to win a ‘lottery’ of H-1B visa,” said Liu, from Chengdu in Sichuan province in southwest China. “So your future is based on some luck.”
He found a job after graduation but failed the visa application process. He got lucky on the second try, getting a visa and a job. But the experience made him reconsider. After working for two years, he enrolled for a master of science program in marketing at Baruch College. After graduation next summer, he plans to go home.
“After all, China is my home,” he said with a genuine American accent while sipping Starbucks coffee. “I’ve got my family there, and honestly, I don’t like to be an immigrant. I want to be the mainstream people.”
Asia, the number-one exporter of trained laborers to the United States, has long seen its students sail out and rarely come back. Only those who fail to find jobs resort to going home. But economic growth in Asia and intensifying competition in the U.S. labor market have gradually reversed the trend, with more Asians going home. Nearly 83 percent of Chinese graduates of Western universities returned home in 2013, versus 67 percent a decade earlier, according to the Chinese Ministry of Education.
“The landscape is changing,” said Meghna Sabharwal, assistant professor at the University of Texas at Dallas. She studies Indian graduates’ repatriation and plans to widen her research to Chinese and South Koreans.
The trend of Asian students’ going home started a while ago, but it intensified during the financial crisis, she said.
There is no single reason U.S. university graduates decide to go home, but rather a combination of factors that are carefully weighed, said Sabharwal, co-author of the research paper “Why one leaves?” with Roli Varma, professor at the University of New Mexico. Among the major reasons are career prospects and family ties, given the Asian tradition in which children live with and take care of their parents.
Manoj Gopalkrishnan was an assistant professor of mathematics at Duke University when he decided to return to India to do research in thermodynamics of computation at the Mumbai-based Tata Institute of Fundamental Research in 2009.
“I was yearning for a position that would allow me a high degree of independence to pursue particular problems that were quite challenging and long-term,” he said by email, adding he had found his prospects in the U.S. unfavorable.
“I might get slotted into a very particular role as a researcher who works on a certain kind of problem, whereas my heart was set on exploring other problems and other areas,” he said.
Five years later, Gopalkrishnan says he is happy with his decision. He is doing the work he wants. Mumbai is an “exciting and happening place,” and he visits the U.S. every year to attend conferences.
Liu also sees a promising career in China, where his U.S. education, work experience in New York and fluency in English are valued assets. With an economy growing by around 10 percent annually, the chance of making big money in Beijing or Shanghai is equal to that in New York, he said.
“In China, there are better chances for you to go to higher and higher positions,” he said.
Liu has weighed the financial difficulties of an immigrant’s life and the possibility of having fewer chances at promotion because of the challenges in a new environment. But at the same time, he knows that when he goes back to China, he will miss the chance to work at the top professional standards. Even the world’s largest firms apply a double standard in developing countries, he said.
“What the Big Four is doing in China is different from what the big four accounting firms are doing in the U.S.,” he said, referring to Deloitte, PwC, Ernst & Young and KPMG. “They need to adjust to the local situations, so they make some steps back and lower their standards and professionalism.”
For educated Asians, the U.S. is still the magnet with the best academic and professional environment. But economic expansion, the improved work environment and Asian governments’ attempts to bring their students home have given the graduates a chance.
It is now easier to get a research grant in India than in the U.S., said Sabharwal.
“These countries have realized they need that human capital to keep up to the world,” she said. “They might do more and more investment in human capital to attract these people back.”
Gopalkrishnan returned to India with a Ramanujan fellowship, from a scholarship program launched by the Indian government to attract researchers back home. In 2009 China established the Thousand Talents Program to lure its top scientists home with favorable grants and lab funding.
The gradual trend of going home has raised a few eyebrows in the U.S., with some calling it reverse brain drain. In the 2011 State of the Union Address, President Barack Obama said the development “makes no sense” and called for loosening visa requirements for trained foreign-born laborers.
“They come here from abroad to study in our colleges and universities,” he said. “But as soon as they obtain advanced degrees, we send them back home to compete against us.”
Sabharwal looks at the trend from a different angle.
“I don’t think migration is the complete loss to one country and the complete gain to another,” she said.
“Now we live in a very interconnected world… These people work here; they build their own networks. When they go back, they carry their networks with them, so they collaborate with people in the U.S.”
For many Asian students in the U.S., it is still a struggle to decide whether to stay or leave.
Grace Hu, 26, used to have a promising job in a theatre in Shanghai, where she had a chance to join its flagship projects, before entering a master’s program in arts management at New York University. Under the stronger competition in the U.S., she just managed to find an internship at a small theatre in New York, regularly dealing with mailing invitations. That’s a less challenging job than she could get in China, but she values the personal freedom in the U.S.
“Here you can be whoever you are and live your life totally on your own will,” she said just after a business trip to Boston.
“In China you feel huge pressures when you are already 28 and unmarried,” she said. “Then your information may be flying in Renmin Square.”
Hu was referring to the infamous Shanghai square where Chinese parents, so worried that their offspring remain unmarried, bring along their personal information sheets and try to negotiate matches even without their children’s consent.
Being the only child in an affluent Shanghai family also puts Hu under pressure. Chinese society expects her to succeed in work and marry a successful man whose achievement is measured by his bank account, apartment and car.
“I’m not happy here because my family is in China and my job is not as challenging as I had in China,” she said.
“But I’m not happy in China, either, because I feel like I lose the opportunity to have a better life.”