When Judy Tsuei told her parents she was moving to Taipei, Taiwan, they were puzzled. “They were like, ‘Why? What the hell are you doing?'” she says. Her parents had immigrated to the U.S. from Taiwan decades prior. “Putting myself in their shoes, it must be so weird because they worked so hard to get out of the country to go to America,” she says. “And then I was like, ‘Well, I’m just going to go back to where you left.'”
Right now, the foreign-born population in the U.S. (13.7%) is reportedly the highest it has been in over a century. Asian immigrants make up more than 30% of that group, and since 2010, 41% of immigrants have been from Asia, overtaking the number of people coming from Latin America. Nearly half the people who have arrived since 2010 are also college educated, and an overwhelming majority of H-1B visas–a temporary work visa for highly skilled foreign workers–are awarded to Indian immigrants.
“For Indians who now live in America, there’s this feeling like, ‘We made it. We left India,'” says Sonia Sen, who was raised in Phoenix, and now works in India. For many of them, leaving their home country was life-altering–a ticket to social mobility. But Sen and Tsuei are examples of how the U.S.-born children of Asian immigrants are now, conversely, seeking opportunities in the countries or cities their parents hailed from.
This reverse immigration speaks to the fact that in a few decades, Asia has become almost as much the land of opportunity as the U.S. was–and continues to be–for Asian immigrants. Today, China boasts the second-largest economy in the world, after the U.S.; Japan and India follow closely. Countless tech companies have made their homes in Asian cities, while some of the biggest players in the U.S. have spent years jockeying for market share in China and India. Add to that Trump’s election and his policy moves to curtail immigration, and it’s little surprise that Asia might be more appealing to both natives and Asian Americans. “It’s really interesting to view the U.S. from outside of the U.S. now,” Tsuei says. “The consensus of people who are living outside the U.S. and hearing about the U.S.–it’s just like, ‘What happened? When did the U.S. become crazy?'”
“Asia has changed so much”
Bridget Cheng, who lives in New York, is in the final stages of interviewing for a job in her parent’s hometown, Hong Kong, where she has been trying to move for a few years. As someone who works in the hospitality industry, she sees working in Asia as a way to diversify her resume and gain valuable work experience. “My parents moved to the States for better opportunities, but since they moved, Asia has changed so much,” she says. “Things have flipped, and I want to have that international experience on my resume.”
Though Cheng has long wanted to move abroad, she didn’t want to take the plunge without advancing her career in some way. “I feel like this is an itch I need to scratch,” she says. “But I also don’t want to move just to move. I want to make sure it’s a good career move and that I’m not taking a pay cut for it.” Hong Kong is an obvious choice for her, and not just because she grew up visiting the city. “I’m familiar with it–I know the language, and I still have extended family there,” she says. “And as I get older, I have more and more friends in Hong Kong, so I have that support system. It’s also a happy medium for me: a cosmopolitan city that is still very traditional and culturally different. So it does force me to be out of my comfort zone.”
Sen started working in India last year, when the opportunity arose at her company. Her parents had always prided themselves on having escaped India, so to speak, but she wanted to come to her own conclusions. While Sen still has family in India, she knew that visiting alone wouldn’t give her the experience she was looking for or exposure to the business culture. “I had always really wanted to be able to work and live in India,” she says. “And I think I am also experiencing India for itself.” But Sen also realizes that, as an expat, the India she now knows is nothing like what her parents experienced growing up. “My parents think it’s cool that I’m learning the hard way what they had to go through,” she says. “But honestly, I think I’m getting a very, very different side of India than they did.”
Moving to Taipei didn’t hinge on Tsuei’s career goals, but even so, living abroad has allowed her to pick up a skill that she couldn’t have explored in the U.S. “I basically am a digital nomad so I can work from anywhere,” Tsuei says. “I’ve picked up Taiwanese clients, even though I didn’t ever think that I was going to be able to work in a second language. My Mandarin is moderate and I can’t really read or write it, but I can speak it well enough to have clients and work that way. I’ve also been able to, through the power of Facebook communities and LinkedIn, still be able to find clients all around the world and work with them.”
For many Asian Americans, living and working in Asia can also be inextricably linked to a desire to spend time in their parents’ hometown or get reacquainted with their mother tongue. The nature of Tsuei’s job gave her the flexibility to live abroad, but her move to Taipei was more rooted in her desire to immerse her daughter in Asian culture and expose her to the Mandarin language.
Growing up in Los Angeles, Tsuei felt worlds apart from her parents’ home country. Her parents stressed the importance of assimilating into the majority (white) culture in the U.S., though they did insist that she learn Mandarin. The first time she set foot in Asia, aside from a trip when she was a baby, was when she was 25. She decided to teach English in Shanghai, where she figured she could also brush up on her Mandarin. “I thought it would be an opportunity to connect with my roots,” she says. That move also gave her the chance to finally visit Taiwan, and years later, she wanted to do the same for her daughter.
“For the first year and a half of my daughter’s life, I tried to speak Mandarin to her,” she says, adding that it was difficult for her as someone raised in the U.S. “And I thought, I would really love for her to have that awareness instilled in her from a young age.” Tsuei now sees the value in some of the things she didn’t appreciate growing up–her parents forcing her to go to Chinese school, for example. “Asian culture and Western culture are often very much at odds with each other,” she says. “Now, I really want to blend the best of both worlds for my daughter.” Eventually, she thinks she’ll return Stateside, in large part because much of her family is there. (Tsuei also concedes that it’s difficult to navigate certain things in Taiwan, like the fact that she can’t read Mandarin and frequently can’t make sense of menus or signs as a result.) “I can see why people move to the places where you have a lot of family,” she says. “It’s not just for the support of having people watch your kid if you need; it’s for that sense of connection.”
But as Asian cities have modernized in the last few decades, the idea of living in Asia permanently–both for expats and natives–is no longer a foreign one. “[My parents] came in December, and it was kind of a funny experience,” Sen says. “I was like, well I live here, and you guys are just visiting.” Sen says her parents would point to something that happened on the street or in the news, and quip, “Well, this is why we left.” Many people, however, are choosing not to leave India or other Asian countries in the first place. During grad school, Sen was surprised at how many Indian students wanted to return to India, despite having gone abroad for school. “That was surprising, seeing how much pride people my age still had about India,” she says. “They all got tech jobs in Silicon Valley and New York, but the idea of going back to India was something they welcomed.”