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Creative Thinkers

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Thursday, June 28, 2007


Kong TEH

Overseas working experience may add value to a Returnee's CV. However, I would suggest keeping the tenure to a short period. There's sufficient anecdotal evidence to suggest that a shorter time away from China increases the likelihood of a Returnee's integration upon their return.

As a Overseas Chinese, I have experienced the dilemma of a Returnee. On the one hand, a Returnee's single biggest value-add to his Western employer is his perceived ability to integrate with the locals better than a non-Chinese; this coupled with his/her training in Western business ethics/governance/process-oriented-thinking/straight-talking should in theory make the Returnee an ideal 'expatriate'.

In the past ten years I was twice 'returned' to the Greater China Region. While I had experienced success at a business level, my social integration was at best described as abysmal. The respect for me as a senior manager was there, but cultural norm did not encourage after work or weekend socialization between my staff and I. Instead, my social circle comprises of a mix of non-Chinese expats and some Returnees.

My times in Greater China had also allowed me to better understand the racial composition of the 1.3b Chinese citizens. While 92% of them is classed as Han Chinese, there are NINE distinct language groups (each with its own dialects) among the Han - Gan {9 dialects}, Guan (Mandarin) {49 dialects}, Hui {4 dialects}, Jin {6 dialects}, Kejia (Hakka) {9 dialects}, Min (Hokkien) {47 dialects}, Wu (Shanghainese) {35 dialects}, Xiang (Changsa) {18 dialects}, and Yue (Cantonese) {38 dialects}.

Their linguistic difference (oral at least) is as far apart as say Putonghua and Japanese or Hanggul (Korean). In essence, these nine groupings could have become a different nation had Chinese history taken a slightly different twist.

Even though I was posted to a 'province' which majority Han people came from the same region as my grandmother, i.e. Min, they wouldn't accept me as one of their own. During my other posting among the Yue speaking people, I faced the same hurdle.

In short, being a Chinese is no assurance of being a successful Returnee.


Thanks for the great comment! It's fascinating to get that insight. I have to admit I've also heard some tough stories about Returnees and Expats not being able to integrate into their positions and/or communities in mainland China. It's a good reminder that it's still early days for China as a global business destination for knowledge workers. I'm sure this is changing quickly though. But that also for many returnees and expats it means Hong Kong, Singapore and major cities like Shanghai are preferred over provincial postings.

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