Student movie

New film triggers interest in ‘sea turtles’, though not the aquatic ones

Student movie

Model approach to acting: Du

She was the first Asian face to grace the front cover of French Vogue in 2005 and her pictures have adorned numerous ad campaigns from Benetton to Louis Vuitton since. And soon Chinese supermodel Du Juan will also make her movie debut in director Peter Chan’s upcoming film American Dreams in China.

The movie tells the story of three young men in the 1980s who are denied visas to study in the US. Instead they start an English-language training school in China. The tale is inspired by the true story of Michael Yu, who founded the New Oriental School in 1993 (see WiC100). It spans several decades from the early economic reforms in 1980s China through to the present day.

Du, 30, plays a proud and intimidating Peking University graduate in Beijing whose only goal is to study abroad. In that regard, American Dreams in China looks out of kilter for many overseas Chinese who are giving up their American dreams to return home.

According to China’s Ministry of Education, the number of “sea turtles” or haigui (the Mandarin term for overseas-educated Chinese who come home from abroad) has surged, with 180,000 returning to China last year, compared with 135,000 in 2010. Most haigui say they are returning for a better quality of life but stronger career prospects are also a factor. A survey conducted by the US-based Ewing Marion Kauffman Foundation last year suggested that over 80% of returnee Chinese saw more opportunities at home than in the US.

But does returning to China really lead to much better salaries for haigui versus their less travelled peers? Not according to the latest research published by Zhejiang Foreign Service, a government agency. Its findings suggest that over 70% of returning students from overseas enjoy a monthly starting salary ranging from Rmb3,000-10,000 ($480–$1,600), with only 3% of the students receiving a salary higher than Rmb30,000 a month. That looks like better pay than the average but it doesn’t necessarily indicate that a foreign university diploma automatically translates to a fast-track up the corporate ladder.

“It is a matter of supply and demand,” Xu Hainan from the China Association for Labour Studies explains to China Radio Network. “The number of overseas returnees rose substantially in the last few years. But there simply aren’t enough white-collar jobs in China. That explains why salaries for overseas returnees have gone down compared with previous years.”

The other problem is that while most haigui in the past were doctors, scientists and engineers, many of those now returning to China do not have the same specialised skills, says the Ministry of Education.

The flood of returning expatriates in recent years tends to be less technically-educated students with less work experience. Those with more specialised expertise are often choosing to remain overseas.

“I think when Chinese students went overseas 20 years ago, most had to rely on [state] scholarships, which were mainly awarded for studying physics, maths and engineering,” Wei Jiang, Google’s director of marketing for Greater China, told City Weekend, a magazine.

“Recently, as Chinese people have become more affluent, students can choose to study what they like, so their academic achievements are more diversified.”

So perhaps it should come as little surprise that the number of seaweed or haidai (overseas returnees without jobs) is going up. Another survey from last year, this one released by the World Human Resource Lab, a human resources agency, shows that only 57.5% of haigui found employment within six months of returning to China.

With data like that, more of the sea turtles might decide against starting out on their homeward journey…

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