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Published on 30th April 2017

By Samantha L. Stewart


With her hands cupping the side of her weary face, Meirong Song, 40, sighed, as she looked at the cash register in her little Chinatown flower shop. Her dismay was clearly written across her face as she added up the day’s receipts and disappointing totals.

“It’s really bad now. I just don’t know what we’re going to do,” said Song. 

When Song was an ambitious young 20 year-old woman, she left China and immigrated to the United States in search of economic opportunity. Like thousands who came before her, she settled in New York City’s Chinatown. An enclave almost exclusively inhabited by Chinese immigrants and populated by mom and pop retail shops along every street. Soon she married and gave birth to a baby girl. Twelve years ago the young couple opened a small flower shop along East Broadway.

Business was good for the first few years; so good that they decided to open two additional shops on the block. But that was the 90’s when the American economy was booming on the back of the inflated real estate market. People had money to spend and it seemed as if the good times would never end. 

By the time the real estate bubble burst in 2008, family owned storefronts along East Broadway were already struggling to pay their sky rocketing rents. The recession that followed brought with it boarded up stores and economic uncertainty. Song and her small family were barely hanging on. It was then that they began to consider the unimaginable-returning to China.

“I came to the United States for economic reasons. It has been my home. It’s hard to believe, but now I would leave the US for economic reasons,” said Song. “Even though this is the only home my daughter has ever known, maybe China would be better for her future.”

She isn’t the only one thinking this way.

There are no statistics on how many Chinese are leaving the United States. But the number of Chinese immigrating to the US is on a sharp decline.

In the past 5 years, the number of Chinese immigrants entering the US dropped from 87,307 in 2006 to 70,863 in 2010. That represents a 14% drop.

There are many factors drawing people back to China. From the negative push of US immigration policies and weakening economy, to the positive pull of culture, family, and promise of economic opportunity. Despite these factors, many who return find the reality of China filled with many pitfalls.

The ‘Push’

“There is the pull of China and the push out of the United States that is creating this trend of reverse migration,” said Prof. Nan Sussman, Cross-cultural Psychologist. And Specialist on Chinese migration at the City University of New York.

The United States has a long history of anti-Chinese immigrant laws that have long  impacted Chinese people’s ability to live in the United States.

Dating back to 1882 the United States formally adopted the ‘Chinese Exclusion Act,’ a piece of legislation that singled out Chinese immigrants. It specifically banned the Chinese from entering the U.S. and marginalized the status of those immigrants already in the country. 

This Act sent a chill through the Chinese immigrant community, as large portions of the population had strong anti-Sino sentiments at the time. People feared for their safety and their livelihoods.

And although the Act only lasted 10 years, its impact has had a lasting residue.

In the 1880’s large numbers of Chinese immigrants began migrating to urban areas-finding security in their numbers and insular communities.

Today, this trend still holds true even as they face a new wave of discrimination.

“Part of the ‘Push’ out of the US has come from recent changes in immigration laws. It’s hastened the departure of lots of immigrants back to China. Not just the undocumented ones,” said Sussman.

In 2011, the States of Arizona, Alabama, Georgia, and Utah passed legislation making it easier for law enforcement to stop suspected undocumented immigrants and ‘ask for their papers.’ These laws have been roundly criticized as encouraging racial profiling and harassment, according to immigrant activist groups.

Since 9/11, Federal and State governments have stepped up their anti-immigration policies and rhetoric, creating a hostile environment and discriminatory backlash against immigrant communities, according to the New York Immigration Coalition.

The Department of Homeland Security is currently implementing a nationwide ‘Secure Communities’ program designed to increases its power to deport undocumented immigrants who have committed crimes.

The program, in essence, mandates that if a person is detained for any reason by the police that individual’s information gets processed by ICE and the FBI to screen for legal status. Prior to this program, they would not have been screened.

If they are discovered to be undocumented they are then subject to deportation.

In New York, ‘Secure Communities’ has already been implemented in 27 local jurisdictions.

Most visibly affected by these policies are the Latino, Arab, and South Asian communities. However all immigrants, including the Chinese community, are impacted, according to the Organization of Chinese Americans.

“Laws like Secure Communities and even the State anti-immigrant laws in Alabama and Arizona have a negative effect here in New York,” said Liz Yang, President of the Organization for Chinese Americans in New York.  “Chinese Americans just like Latinos are easy targets for the police to stop and question about their status.”

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) has announced its intention to fully implement the Secured Communities initiative in every State by 2013. Currently, the measure has been implemented in 41percent of the local jurisdictions around the country.

These wide-reaching immigration initiatives have some States government’s concerned about the potential negative impact on it’s legal immigrant communities.

New York City is home to over 680,000 Chinese and hundreds of diverse immigrant groups. In response to the immigrant communities concerns, Governor Cuomo-along with governors from Illinois and Massachusetts-have opted out of enforcing this policy.

“There is concern about the implementation of the Secure Communities program as well as its impact on families, immigrant communities, and law enforcement in New York. As a result, New York is suspending its participation in the (DHS) program,” wrote Gov. Cuomo in a June 2011 press release. 

Still, these efforts to protect legal immigrants from far reaching anti-immigration policies may not be enough.

The DHS in response has indicated States may not have the right to opt-out. It is currently being reviewed in Congress as to whether this initiative should be binding over States.

These laws are impacting entire immigrant communities, not only families with undocumented members.  But also families who had come to America legally in search of a better life, to find themselves now treated like criminals.

When Tina Kao was a child, her family legally immigrated to the Unite States from China. Now at 41-years-old, she a neuroscientist and research fellow at Columbia University. Kao’s parents had immersed themselves in American culture, learned English, gained US citizenship, worked hard, and recently retired. They have, in many respects “lived the dream” the family envisioned when they fled political persecution in China’s Cultural Revolution.

But with the advent of harsh anti-immigration sentiment and laws, this dream is tarnishing.

“I am an American citizen,” said Kao. “It’s disturbing when people treat me like I don’t belong here. Now it seems like we’re all targets.”

“Immigrants are often afraid to go to the doctor or to the police, for fear they’ll be asked about their legal status.  I’ve lived here almost my entire life, I’m a citizen, and now these laws are making even I feel like I’m a criminal,” said Kao.

Kao’s experience is like that of many Chinese immigrants around the country. The increased hostility towards people perceived to be illegal immigrants-regardless of their actual legal status-has lead to fear in these communities.

“These laws are chilling,” said Lisa Yang, President of the Organization of Chinese Americans. “It’s driving people away.”

“Our community is mixed. We have US-born, documented, and undocumented residents. We’ve heard of stories where documented Chinese particularly in Chinatown were stopped by police and asked for their papers. It’s causing anxiety. And it can have a long-term crippling effect on our community and our families,” said Yang.

Some in the immigrant community view these laws as a reason to leave the country on their own accord-regardless of their legal status.

“Changes in immigration laws have hastened the departure of lots of immigrants back to China. Not just the undocumented ones,” said Professor Nan Sussman.

“These aren’t just the people in low wage jobs who feel there’s an increase in discrimination so they leave.  It’s also the highly skilled and educated who are leaving, “said Sussman.  “It’s a real loss for the United States when they go.”

To help improve US relations, the US Senate this past September passed a resolution officially apologizing for decades of anti-Chinese discrimination legislation. Including the repealed Chinese Exclusion Act from 130 years ago.

“The resolution cannot undo the hurt caused by past discrimination against Chinese immigrants, but it is important that we acknowledge the wrongs that were committed many years ago,” wrote Senator Scott Brown (R)-Mass, the Bill’s sponsor.

But Chinese immigrant advocates feel this move is too little too late. The current climate in the US remains hostile and China seems eager to have them back.

“Obviously the economy is a factor. But the perception of the US being less welcoming now has really hastened the return to China,” said Sussman.

There are many other factors that act as that ‘pull’ to return as well.

The ‘Pull’

“At this point-despite the increased perception of discrimination-the pull is primarily economic. I’d say 90% go back for that reason,” said Sussman.

China for instance has opened up its markets, embracing democratic trade policies. This move sparked an unprecedented rise in the value of the Yuan as the US dollar tanked and the Euro fell. Allowing citizens to feel wealthy and spend more money.

The major cities in China have most benefited from this change in economic fortune. It has given rise to a Chinese middle class that had never existed before. This fact is a powerful draw to Chinese immigrants who may want to return.

“But there are many other factors like education, cultural values, and government policies luring them back besides this,” said Sussman.

For some, education is a major concern both pushing and pulling at their decision to return. Chinese families in the US often consider the education system inadequate to prepare young people to be competitive.

As China’s influence around the world is increasing, so is the importance of being able to speak Mandarin. Returning to China is one way to ensure their children learn the language.

For Meirong Song, this was a concern she had for her daughter. She currently has her enrolled in mandarin classes in Chinatown, but feels even this is not enough to ensure she is fluent.

Young families who strategically return for their child’s education are often met with unforeseen obstacles.

Balancing the Realities of Return

“These kids find it hard. They go from the top of the class to the bottom of the class,” said Sussman. “And a lot of the teachers and other students are very unkind to these returnees. They make them feel stupid.”

The children also have a social adjustment that is quite challenging. Many were raised in the American culture and find Chinese norms difficult.

“Kid are used to a more independent life in the US. Now you’re back in a context in China that parents play a much bigger role in the lives of children, teenagers, and even college students. So it’s very difficult,” said Sussman.

Then there is the other side of the coin. The Chinese highly value American collegiate and graduate level education. They view it as superior to the educational institutions currently in China, though that is changing. 

One major ‘pull’ back to China is the Chinese government’s initiative to attract Western educated MBA’s, PhDs, and MD’s back to the mainland.

“The government even on municipal levels is falling all over each other trying to lure these migrants back. They throw returnee job fairs in all the provinces, promising help with housing, start up money, research labs for doctors, and all these incentives to professors,” said Sussman. “They want them. They just haven’t been able to produce them locally.”

Even this ‘pull’ to China has its drawbacks. Often the labs are subpar, the work hours excessive compared to what they are used to, or the demand for research and published articles is well beyond accepted Western norms.

Then there is the issue of social culture in the workplace, which migrants living in the West sometimes find difficult adjusting too when they return.

One such migrant is Dr. Chen, a former clinical physician at the University of California. Chen asked that his real name not be used because he is still under contract with the Chinese government.

Chen was offered an opportunity to join a research lab in Shanghai by the Chinese government. He and his wife decided it would be a great idea and a good move for their young family. But the reality was very different than the promise they’d been made.

The ‘state of the art’ lab ended up being in an old facility with outdated equipment. He was required to work almost 20 hours a day to meet up with the demands of the contract. And he shared an office with a very old senior researcher.

“It wasn’t at all what I had expected. It made my work very difficult,” said Chen.

In China the older generation expects a certain level of deference from younger generations. There is a sense that you must be subordinate to an older person-even professionally. Chen found that he was unable to do the work he needed to do, partly because his hands were tied when dealing with the senior researcher.

Cultural values can be a major obstacle for returning migrants, even though that may have been one of the ‘pulls’ that brought them back. This is a problem for both young and old returnees.

“People often have a more difficult time going back to their country than they did in their initial move to a new country,” said Sussman. “It seems counterintuitive, but it’s true.”

For instance, the issues that ‘30-something’ couples face in returning to China are markedly different than that of elderly couples.

A person in their 30’s may find it challenging to return to the strictures of extended family structure or lack of modern amenities.

“Often it’s the husband who wants to return and the women don’t. They are independent and suddenly find themselves in the extended family loop again. The women are often expected to be very subordinate to their mother-in-laws and it’s a very difficult situation,” said Sussman.

Likewise, an elderly person may seek to return because they want to return to the China of their childhood.

“The older couples will find China unrecognizable,” said Sussman.

In the last 20 years, Chinese society has changed extensively in its large cities of a million or more people. Since China has 165 cities of that size, compared to only 9 US cities, this is a considerable change.

The clothing, amenities, access to media, language, and westernizing of these large cities can be very shocking to a returning migrant who hasn’t visited China in the last few decades.

The rural areas of China, however, remain trapped in the 18th century. Many areas still do not have running water or electricity. The gap between the cities and rural China’s progress is enormous. Westernized migrants who return to these rural areas face major adjustments backward.

The Decision


Currently, there are approximately 3.3 million Chinese living in the United States. Half of them are concentrated in the large cities in California and New York. Families in these communities are confronted every day with the social, political, and economic realities of living in the United States in 2011.

Balancing these factors can be the tipping point. As they determine whether they stay or return to a country offering what used to be considered a uniquely ‘American Dream’ for acceptance and economic opportunity.

“Things are getting better in China. So why stay here if it is going to be so hostile,” said Song? “Then again-this is my home.”