Mainland Moments: From Sea Turtle to Seaweed

Whether you are a foreigner, an overseas born Chinese or a returning Chinese, different rules and stereotypes apply when living and working in China, writes Karen Tye from Shanghai.

 
Chinese basketball fans have been in the doldrums ever since Yao Ming retired from the NBA in 2011, but when ‘Linsanity’ swept across China earlier this year, Chinese people swiftly laid claim to overnight American sensation Jeremy Lin on the tenuous link that his maternal grandmother was born in Zhejiang Province.
 
This made me think about overseas-born individuals of Chinese descent, or huayis (华裔), a category that I fall into, and how we are viewed by Mainland Chinese people. Although I don’t know a single relative of mine that still lives in China, I’m often pressed by the Chinese people I come across as to where my ancestral roots are, which by the way if you were wondering, is Guangdong Province. Upon my answer, there is usually some sort of acknowledgement and a sense of satisfaction on their part that I have Chinese blood in me.
 
While it is terrific that I seem to be viewed as a cultural chameleon and can straddle both Aussie and Chinese cultures, this did not always give me the leg up on other Caucasian-looking foreigners in the business environment, and on some occasions, my Chinese appearance worked to my detriment. This is because until a couple of years ago, I was really only equipped with oral “survival” Mandarin skills, so much so that I was often reproached by taxi drivers for not being fluent in what was supposed to be my mother tongue.
 
“In a business setting, Chinese businessmen are more willing to accommodate Caucasians who cannot speak Mandarin than a huayi who speaks minimal Mandarin. Chinese people are generally very lenient with Caucasians and often compliment their rudimentary Mandarin. On the contrary, a huayi’s elementary Mandarin would sometimes be met with lighthearted mockery,” says Wilson Chew, a Malaysian huayi, who has lived in Shanghai for over four years and works in the financial services industry.
 
There’s also the perception by Chinese people that a huayi’s standard of English is subpar when compared to a Caucasian, something that I’ve personally grappled with in China despite journalism experience that spans over 12 years. I’ve had to go the extra mile to prove my worth and there isn’t a week that goes by that someone condescendingly tells me that I “speak good English.”
 
I have a blonde-hair blue-eyed American friend who has taught English for three years in Shanghai. “It’s a tough gig for any huayi who wants to teach English in China. Even though they may have terrific English and credentials, there are not many parents who want a Chinese-looking foreigner to teach their child English,” she once told me. “During the hiring process, English schools often weed out huayi applicants by requesting a photo to be sent along with a resume and it’s common that a teaching position would go to a non-native English speaker from France or Brazil rather than an ABC,” she added.
 
Nevertheless, Chew, a Stanford graduate, thinks that he does have an overall advantage as a huayi working in China.

“I speak Mandarin with my parents and friends, and I have a very good understanding of local Chinese business culture. I was raised in a more traditional Chinese environment,” he says. “And because I’m a foreigner, I’m automatically excused from needing to participate in those drinking business dinners!”

 
So if language and cultural insight are the determinants of being successful in the Chinese business world, then Mainland Chinese who have overseas education or haiguis (海归), sometimes known as sea turtles (海龟), should be a shoe in for success, right? Not necessarily so, my haigui friend, who works in a multinational company, tells me.
 
According to China’s Ministry of Human Resources and Social Security, from 1978 to the end of 2010, there have been over 600,000 overseas returnees, of which 100,000 returned in each of 2009 and 2010.
 
“That’s how the term haidai (海带, literally translated into seaweed), came about. Many overseas returnees just spend a couple of years doing their Master’s in a different country and come back with no work experience and unimproved English. Haidais are a dime a dozen,” she says. “It’s the ‘sea turtles’, with overseas work experience and great English, who are precious commodities in China these days.”
 
My Shanghainese girlfriend did her Master’s and spent time in England working for a MNC for a total of 10 years. But she says that while there are more opportunities for her in China thanks to her English language ability and understanding of Western and Chinese cultures, she admits that sometimes she doesn’t feel a hundred percent in sync with her Chinese colleagues and that she has to work harder than usual to prove herself to both her Chinese and Western colleagues.
 
“It’s tricky, those Chinese colleagues who don’t have overseas experience are often suspicious of haiguis because the role is technically the same but haiguis are paid more,” she says. “So I spend a lot of time developing work relationships or guanxi and act as a go-between for my Chinese colleagues and Western managers, which can make my job more tiring than it should be.”
 
A great Chinese saying goes: 各有千秋(ge you qian qiu) – each have their own advantages. This summarizes what anyone can expect to experience when traversing local Chinese business culture. 

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