The face of Chinese immigration has changed over the past few decades, but how many immigrants are heading back?
Ying Li speaks little English, works 12 hours a day seven days a week, and has never been happier.
Working as an in-house caregiver, she is now the breadwinner for the family that followed her to the United States in 2002, almost five years after she fled for being a Falun Gong adherent. In 1999, Falun Gong was labeled an evil cult and banned by the Chinese authorities.
Her fight for asylum was a long one. Her first request was denied, and her second application took five years to be approved. But it only took her three days to find the job she has held for the past eight years.
“The United States has lots of opportunities if people go and search them out,” she says through a translator. “Next month I’m moving up to a new job at a convalescent facility.”
Though she struggles daily with the language barrier, Li, 53, says she finds the standard of living “refreshing” and feels respected in her new surroundings. While the transition to living in the United States was relatively painless for her, her husband and son have not adjusted as easily.
“My son’s first job here was at an American company, and though his English was pretty good, he wasn’t confident enough to speak up and eventually lost his job. After that I helped him find a job at a Chinese company, but he had to work his way up to make the same amount of money he did at the American company,” Ying Li says. “My husband is very stubborn. He would work for a few days at one job, then quit because he said the bosses were mean or unfair…I’m the breadwinner of the family.”
Ying Li is one of the almost 900,000 Chinese who have legally entered the United States since 1980. In 2006 alone, nearly 90,000 Chinese immigrants entered the United States, and While many come seeking asylum, the reasons for coming are as diverse as the immigrants themselves.
Before 1965, U.S. immigration law discriminated against Chinese and other Asians. Since then, the law has favored family reunification and those with needed skills. “Chain immigration” became the norm, with one family member establishing U.S. residency and then applying for the rest of the family to immigrate under the family reunion clause. This “dramatically changed the overall complexity of the immigration problem, not only in sheer numbers,” said Charles Lai, the Executive Director of the Museum of Chinese in the Americas. “Young and old were able to come.” Prior to 1965, Chinese immigrants were predominantly unskilled laborers from Guangdong province. According to the Department of Homeland Security’s Annual Flow Report, in 2006, family-sponsored immigrants made up more than half of the total Chinese immigrant population.
In addition to the increase in families and skilled workers among Chinese immigrants, the number of students coming to the United States has also skyrocketed in recent decades, especially beginning in the late 1970s and early 1980s.
Min Zhou, a professor of sociology and founding chair of UCLA’s Department of Asian American Studies, came to the United States to study in 1984. During this time, the Chinese government promised jobs in China to all students it sent to study in the U.S. and who received degrees from U.S. universities.
“During the Cultural Revolution, the social sciences had been abolished in the universities, and at the end of the 1970s, China was considering redeveloping these fields,” she said, noting that the majority of Chinese students at this time intended their stay in the United States to be temporary.
But, for some, the promise of a secure job was not enough.
Joyce Zhao left her job in China as an English professor in 1989 to get a Master’s in Communication in the United States.
“After I graduated in 1991, I stayed because I felt there were more challenges in the United States,” she said.
Since her decision to stay in the U.S., Zhao has been a student, legal assistant and consultant, realtor, guest lecturer and owner of a small business.
The variety in her occupations is a far cry from her days in her government-assigned job teaching in China. There, as a college graduate in the final years of the Cultural Revolution, she had little choice in where she would live, her career or even the syllabus she taught.
Today, she balances her time between assisting recent Chinese immigrants with visa troubles, working as a realtor and operating a childcare and after-school program in Monterey Park, California. She plans to expand her childcare business.
In the past few decades, political events have also driven Chinese immigration to the United States. The Tiananmen Square protests in 1989 created a very uncertain political climate, and many immigrants of this period found ways to leave China with no intent to return. In some cases, the CIA smuggled some dissidents out and the United States then granted them asylum. The reunification of Hong Kong with China in 1997 also drove many professionals to migrate westward, to Canada as well as the United States. Their primary concern was the uncertain effect China’s economic and political policies would have on their businesses.
Because of the influx of students, political dissidents, and professionals, the percentage of educated Chinese immigrants in the United States has increased. A 2000 study done by Vivian S. Louie, Assistant Professor at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, found that, in a given year, a third of mainland Chinese immigrants has a college education today, while 62% of Hong Kong immigrants and 47% of Taiwanese immigrants have completed college.
While the immigration of educated Chinese professionals has increased, the number of poorer immigrants remains high. A large market in human trafficking has emerged in China, where it can cost upwards of US $30,000 (225,000 RMB—almost 15 times the current average per capita income) for airfare and forged documents.
Poorer Chinese are commonly smuggled into the United States by boat, often spending weeks or even months in substandard living conditions. Boats are overcrowded, sanitation is poor, and food and water are tightly controlled. Life jackets and life boats are nonexistent. Life does not always improve for the immigrants once they arrive. Because the vast majority of them must repay their travel debts to smugglers or crime gangs, torture and threats are common for years after their arrival. Many become indentured servants to their smugglers or employers.
More recently, there has been a new trend in “footloose immigrants.” Cindy Fan, a professor of geography and Asian American studies at UCLA, noted that there is an increasing number of immigrants who have returned to mainland China after a relatively short stay working in the United States.
“I think this has to do with the labor market and opportunity for the middle-class worker in mainland China,” Fan said. “Many are quite torn about whether to stay in the United States or return to China.” The growing labor market in China is becoming more and more attractive to a younger generation of Chinese who want both a lucrative career and the comfort of home. Tech jobs in particular are increasingly available and well-paid, and the government is making a concerted effort to attract highly educated professionals. Recently, China’s online recruitment budget jumped almost seven percent, focusing on technology-related professions.
Yet many choose to remain in the United States. Overall, the Chinese immigrant population in the United States has become much more diverse over the last century, reflecting this very choice of the new wave of immigrants in recent years. While many immigrants come from poor rural areas of China, many others are educated, mobile, and more likely to bring their extended families.
Ying Li’s simple search for a better life remains a common story. While some never attain the classic ideal of the American dream, many are more than content with their newfound ability to support their family.
“I work 12 hours a day, seven days a week. I’m trying to make ends meet, but I can send money to my friends and family back home who need it,” Li said. “Here, I have the opportunity to enjoy life.”
Chelsea Mason is pursuing a Master’s in East Asian Studies at the University of Southern California.