The recent (re)emergence of China and India as global economic superpowers has seen corresponding shifts within each of their respective expatriate communities. Where once the opportunities for ambitious Chinese and Indians lay outside their borders in Europe and the US, the advantages now seem to be back home and many are returning to reap them. The economic downturn in Europe and the US seems to have quickened this shift. The US National Intelligence Council, in its report on Global Trends 2025, confirms that
“…in terms of size, speed, and directional flow, the transfer of global wealth and economic power now underway roughly from West to East—is without precedent in modern history.“
In many ways, the transfer of Chinese and Indian expatriates back to their motherlands is part of this flow. According to The Economic Times of India, about 60,000 professional non-resident Indians (NRIs) returned to the country in 2010. Beijing alone saw a 28 percent increase in returnees, or “sea turtles” as they are called, from 2008-2009, with a total of over 51,600 moving to the capital from abroad according to the Chinese Service Center for Scholarly Exchange.
These repats are not only drawn by India and China’s booming economic growth and the opportunities that come with it, but also because of family ties, rising salaries, and a shared heritage. These returnees often represent the best and brightest exports from their country. Their international experience had provided them with enviable skills and also uniquely positions them to add innovative value to their home culture. Repats are joining multinational companies, starting new businesses, and are part of the solution to talent shortages.
In an interview for Aperian Global’s research into Emerging Leaders in Fast Growth Markets, the vice president of human resources for a French multinational stresses that returnees often have a competitive advantage in China.
“We are looking for a strong professional backgrounds coupled with strong previous experience outside of China. We are locating global functions here so we are looking for people with strong experience in the West, but there are not so many locals with this profile. Looking at returnees helps to broaden the talent pool. Scarcity is the critical issue for us in China.”
In spite of the strong pull factors to come back home, many returnees find the move surprisingly challenging. A recent study found that 34 percent of repats found it difficult to return to India — compared to just 13 percent of Indian immigrants who found it difficult to settle in the United States. The repats in both China and India complain about traffic, lack of infrastructure, bureaucracy, and pollution.
The challenge for returnees is that they are often held to local standards regardless of their Western background. Returnees run into trouble when they “look Indian but think American,” said Anjali Bansal, managing partner in India for Spencer Stuart, the global executive search firm. People expect them to know the country because of how they look, but they may not be familiar with the way things run, she said (Timmons, 2009).
The former head of leadership for a global retail company who returned to India to start her own consulting business says,
“I feel very inhibited returning to India. There are a set of very strict expectations for Indian women and I am judged on the basis of these protocols. These did not apply to me in the US and in many ways I no longer agree with them or want to live my life bound by these. This is a constant struggle for me here as I don’t seem to fit in with other Indians, I feel I have lost my freedom.”
In China, expectations around language capability is often an issue. One returnee working for a law firm in Shanghai left China when she was only five years old and grew up in New York City. While she speaks to her parents in their local Hunanese dialect, she only started studying standard Mandarin in university. Although she speaks better than many of her American colleagues, her Chinese colleagues and counterparts are critical of her language abilities.
“When my American colleagues speak two words, everyone praises them and says how wonderful their Chinese is. But when I make one mistake, they tell me that it is disgraceful that I cannot speak my mother tongue. Don’t they understand that I grew up in another country?”
Many returnees struggle to find acceptance and success in the workplace due to these expectation gaps. Local colleagues openly admit that they sometimes resent returnees who model themselves on Western management styles and then position themselves as change agents within the local organization. One Chinese manager explains:
“In many ways, they are worse than an expat. If you relocate an American here, they will be treated with different expectations and can challenge the culture, but a returnee cannot do this. The local staff will be offended. It is also not helpful that these returnees are often coming in at a management level ahead of locals who have been working there many years.”
Returnees who have cut their teeth in a Western working environment sometimes find the cultural differences they face back in their home country too difficult to overcome. The key challenges most often cited by returnees to both countries are around hierarchy, efficiency, quality standards, and communication styles. The flexibility and relational acumen required for each of these markets are traits rarely cultivated in Western corporate cultures.
The expatriate experience requires a great degree of adjustment and expats adapt to their new environment by changing their behavior and some or many of their values. When they eventually return home, they often expect it to feel like home: comfortable, familiar and easy. The transformation these returnees have undergone in their adopted country, however, often means that “home” no longer feels like home and disillusionment, rejection and anger soon set in. Expecting and preparing for this re-adjustment process goes a long way towards softening the blow. Returnees should also take the time to explore the fundamental cultural differences between their home countries and their adopted cultures, looking at how each has influenced personal values and working styles.
For example, the US and much of Western Europe fall at opposite ends of the spectrum from China and India on key cultural dimensions such as Hierarchy and Egalitarianism, Indirect and Direct Communication Style, Relationship and Task Orientation, Approach to Risk. These differences affect everything from initiative to comfort saying “no” and have the potential to impact almost every work interaction. Knowing the potential gaps in working styles as well as gaining an understanding of one’s personal approach can help returnees to manage expectations and also create strategies to bridge key differences.
GlobeSmart Profiles: China, India and the U.S. (average country profile)
For many potential returnees, the lure of professional opportunities and cultural ties in their home countries proves hard to resist. Few, however, expect the reverse culture shock they encounter upon return. Many multinational companies are starting to realize that it is not just foreign expatriates who need cultural training and adjustment strategies to succeed in India and China. Returnees represent a unique set of needs and are often surprised by the degree to which they have changed in their years abroad. Working with these repats prior to their return and during their adjustment period to provide coaching and cultural training is an investment well spent and allows individuals to realize the full potential of their unique cultural hybrid status.
Are you supporting employees who are repatriating back to their home country or are you a repatriate yourself? Want to learn more about how we can help?
[Data, themes and quotes for this article were taken from a larger research project at Aperian Global on Emerging Leaders in Fast Growth Markets.]
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