China's rapid growth, coupled with stagnant Western economies, has created an increasing level of reverse migration. The trend poses opportunities and challenges for migrants and the companies that hire them to leverage their skills acquired abroad.
'What brings them back is what drove them to leave: opportunity,' says John Skrentny, director of the Centre for Comparative Immigration Studies at the University of California-San Diego.
The trend extends to ethnic Chinese who were born overseas. 'There is naturally a curiosity about the culture and language that is only experienced in part while in another country,' says an American-born worker who has lived in China for the past seven years.
The trend arises because there is now a closer match between returnees' skills and the ability to use them in China. 'For many returnees, their skills are only relevant given the right infrastructural development,' says Dan Wang, a PhD student in sociology at Stanford University who has surveyed 4,200 skilled migrants who returned to their homelands after working in the United States.
Businesses use these returnees to bring best practices to local branches. 'My company operates in seven countries and [returnees] improve our global operation through their understanding of international business practices and culture,' says Daniel Hong, CEO of Clenergy, a multinational designer and manufacturer of renewable energy products.
Returnees also lean on their newly developed connections. 'They bring the personal networks they made while abroad. Much business and science occurs collaboratively across borders, and they can take advantage of that,' Skrentny says.
Reintegration is a challenge for returnees and their companies. 'They often feel very different in the workplace, facing stiff competition and office politics,' says Mark Chen, a Chinese-born employee of Kodak who has worked for the company in China and Canada.
Workers bring with them different standards and expectations for the workplace. 'Someone from the West would rarely put up with the demands commonly made on a Chinese employee,' cautions one American-born returnee.
The companies that best use these workers are the ones that actively manage the integration process. 'Adopting programmes to help them assimilate can make a big difference in rebuilding professional social networks,' Wang says.
For some, a chance for great economic success in China contrasts markedly with a calmer but more settled life in the West.
'At times I feel like a guy with a heart torn between wild dreams and a Pacific life,' Chen says.
For others, the chance to excel in China outweighs other considerations. 'A lot of us reach a glass ceiling in the West, but in China we can take bigger challenges and achieve more,' Hong says.
Many individuals and companies find it best not to be tied to any one place. 'There is a category of transnational individuals whose careers span geopolitical boundaries,' Wang says. For these people and the companies that hire them, it's a question not of a reverse brain drain but of a brain circulation cross-fertilising the environments in which they work and live.