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In China, Pulled by Opposing Tides
At Lunar New Year, 'Sea Turtles' Who Have Returned From Study Abroad Confront Unsettling Cultural Changes

By Maureen Fan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, February 5, 2008

CAOTANG, China -- This week in Caotang village, members of the Huang family were preparing for the Chinese New Year by making traditional dishes, scrubbing their already spotless homes and paying their respects to the family patriarch.

They were also discussing the fortunes of one of their most promising members, Huang He, a film and television student. In 2006, after 10 years of study in Northern Virginia and Michigan, Huang returned to China. Now, at the dawn of the Year of the Rat -- a symbol of prosperity -- he is contemplating heading back to the United States for work.

"I'm caught in between. My friends think I should set my feet firmly in the U.S. because I have already spent so much time there," said Huang, who wonders who will look after his parents if he leaves. "I'm not really lost. I'm not panicked. I'm just looking for my next opportunity and my next home."

Huang, 36, is a "sea turtle," one of the thousands of students who return to China each year after spending time abroad. For many of them, a visit to their family villages during the Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, is near mandatory. But such visits also force them to confront changes in modern China -- changes that may prompt them to swim away again.

More than 1 million Chinese have studied abroad since this country began opening up in 1978, with just over a quarter of them returning after their studies. As the number of Chinese studying in the United States has risen over the years, so, too, has the number of sea turtles, so named because "overseas returnee" in Mandarin sounds like the word for the animal. According to the official New China News Agency, 42,000 students came back to this country in 2006, up 21 percent from the previous year.

But the China those students return to is not always the China they left. The phenomenal economic growth here has led not only to the development of villages and towns, but to a shift in Chinese values and priorities. Meanwhile, the sea turtles have experienced changes of their own.

After a decade studying communications, broadcasting and cinematic arts at Shenandoah University in Northern Virginia and Central Michigan University, Huang is a faithful mimic of President Bush, a regular viewer of "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart," a fan of the Green Bay Packers and a lover of steak. But he is also a citizen of China who misses his hometown dishes and his aging parents.

Fluent in two cultures, he is not quite at home in either.

"After living in the U.S. for so long, all sea turtles have to relearn their own culture," said Huang, who has been working in Beijing for a company that makes historical television dramas. "China is not the same China I remember. People's values have changed."

The media business that he recalls focusing only on propaganda is now driven by ratings. Deals that depended only on relationships now also require creativity and money. "People think in a more complicated way. I'm more straightforward now, but they're all zigzagging," said Huang, who also goes by Derek.

Even the village here of his father and grandfather, just 20 miles outside the central Chinese city of Xian, where his parents now live, has been marked by change. Most of the old-style houses with gently sloping roofs and mud walls have been replaced by modern brick and tile boxes. The street named after his late grandfather, a village leader who helped build the local irrigation system, is now just a numbered road.

Caotang used to be blessed by three crops a year. But graffiti attest to the recent sale of village land to a developer who has cut off water pumps, reducing the harvest to two crops a year. Across the main road from the village, residents can glimpse brand-new townhouses that overlook a golf course. The houses start at $280,000 -- to most villagers, an unthinkable sum.

"A cousin told me many of the young people in the village did not want to be farmers anymore, so they didn't oppose the sale of the land," Huang said. "Many who received money spent it on motorcycles."

At Chinese New Year, the village's population of 5,000 can grow to up to 10 times that number. Some traditions persevere: On Wednesday, a New Year's address from village officials will be carried to homes by loudspeaker. Officials will make their rounds delivering liquor and pastries to dozens of village elders.

Next week, the village square will fill with people selling paper and silk lanterns, plastic toys, cold rice noodles and sweet desserts. A sign above an outdoor stage, erected during the 1966-76 Cultural Revolution, declares that art and literature should be for the common people, not the bourgeoisie. But traditional opera performances are now supplemented by amplified pop music. For the first time, there will be a village-wide basketball tournament, to make the traditional holiday more relevant for younger residents.

For Huang, going home means visiting his village relatives whenever he returns to his parent's apartment in Xian. He has been trying to persuade a poor cousin to go out and find work.

"My plan this year is to add a few rooms to the house and then go out to look for a construction job," said the cousin, Huang Gang, 35, from the bed where he spends most of his time. "Can you tell me where I should go look for work?" he asked his more successful cousin.

Huang He, meanwhile, has difficult career decisions of his own. He has walked away from his Beijing job and plans to return to the United States in order to make more use of his valuable green card.

That's a prospect that worries his father, Huang Ruike, a music professor who has changed jobs only twice in his life. He can't quite understand how his amply educated son has switched jobs four times already.

"Many years ago, I was very proud of sending both my children out to the U.S. to study. Many of my friends were jealous. But now that feeling has faded," Huang Ruike said over a lunch of fish and scallops.

Turning to his son, he added, "The American education you and your sister received is no doubt very positive. But many of your peers who did not study overseas, they all seem to be better off. Many of them were not as outstanding as you were in school. But those who didn't leave got caught up in the fast-paced development of China. If you didn't choose to go out, you'd probably have a car, a house, a wife."

Those are crucial barometers of success to most Chinese families, as opposed to the abstract ideas that Huang has in mind: a dream career and job satisfaction. His father, after all, gave up conducting and composing for the stability of teaching.

Nevertheless, Huang's parents are proud of him and his sister. And this being a new year, they tell him so.

"When your sister used to say, before the 1990s, that she wanted to study in the U.S., I always said, 'Stop dreaming!' " Huang's mother, Wang Lianyun, chimed in. "But now look at her. She didn't stop dreaming, and it happened."

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