A few hours earlier Ping called to tell me her good news. It looks like she also got her future employment settled, even before she quits her old job and starts B-school. It’s at a well-respected investment bank with offices scattered across the globe, so in all likelihood we will both have the option to split the time between a U.S. office and an overseas office in China next summer.
Later, I dropped of my car at the dealership for the third time in a month to get a noisy strut replaced. Without a car I pretty much could not function, so I decided to get a ride to the nearby University of Maryland, my alma mater, to spend a few hours at the library.
It must have been months since I last visited. Fiberglass Terrapin mascots popped up everywhere on campus like giant mushrooms with an evil grin. The rolling meadow in front of the church was green as ever in the heat of the July sun. The never-ending construction work on the Stamp Union had miraculously ended, leaving the interior of the Union as confusing to an old-timer like me as a labyrinth.
I sat in the corner of the McKeldin Library, facing a window that looks out to my old dorm, Dorchester Hall, where I lived for the first year after I came here. At that time it was fashionable if not entirely lucrative for Chinese students with an advanced degree from the U.S. to return to China. That thought crossed my mind a million times too, but for whatever reason I stayed, perhaps feeling insecure about my dime-a-dozen undergraduate degrees.
When I first applied to American colleges as a high school kid, my primary motivation was to be able to sell my labor to whoever is willing to pay a price higher than what I can expect in my home country, so that I can buy good things, like a car so that I would be done with riding the bicycle everywhere. That, and the promised “land of the free.”
It’s a wonder what a decade can do to a person. I have a car now and don’t ride the bicycle anymore, but I wish I could live without the car and that I could have a bike and have the time to ride it on the weekends. The “land of the free” is, as it turned out, not free, at least not as free as I thought, if there are various degrees of “free,” and I, living in this free society, somehow managed to develop a belief that being free always comes at a cost — a cost that is often to much to bear.
It’s also a wonder what a decade can do to a country. Ten years ago if someone returned to China after having completed an American education, there were typically two explanations: either he is exceedingly patriotic and wants to serve the motherland, or he miserably failed to secure even a half-decent, minimum-wage-paying, green-card-earning job to stay in the U.S. The newspapers often touted the former (and invariably described the good things this individual has turned down: job, house, car, even a future wife candidate, all arranged by his boss — some romantic imagination at work, Chinese style), while neighborhood gossip often concluded the latter.
But ten years later, the tables have started to turn. More and more people are heading back, perhaps still partly owning to patriotism, but more and more it is because it makes economic sense to head back, for the same salary, lower cost of living, and more advancement opportunities.
It’s a lot of fun watching this trend. The earliest signs that I detected were from my classmates in the law school, as I often told my friends. There were some law students who had no prior connection with China and barely spoke any Chinese but wanted to work in China because the pay is actually higher there, with the expat stipends and the lower tax rate (and of course, the vast reserve of underpaid, well-educated and good looking — all measured by Western standards– Chinese girls, but I quickly knocked some sense into those single guys who dared think that way). The Q&A session of one of the 1L receptions that I went to, hosted by one of the premier international law firms based in NY, quickly evolved into an exclusive discussion of opportunities in China as students of all ethnic backgrounds poured questions about opportunities for foreign lawyers in China (and the answers were overwhelmingly positive, too).
Then I accompanied Ping to her Chicago GSB admitted student event where the discussion once again centered around China and the vast opportunities there. The most recent official Chicago GSB publication had a special on how foreigners can land a job in the Asia Pacific and, in particular, China (we chuckled as we read that article — who would have thought?).
The conclusive proof came this week. The law firm I interviewed at gave me an offer on the spot partly because it is prepared to expand its presence in China and its DC office was apparently in need for well-qualified, American trained, Mandarin-speaking lawyers (and to think, I don’t need any visa or work permits to visit China or even work there, ha). The investment bank where Ping will probably spend her next summer also highlighted her ability to speak Mandarin, and its managing partner has visited Beijing three times so far this year in an effort to expand their business there as well.
So these are the random thoughts as I sit in McKeldin, waiting for my car to be repaired. I sometimes complained that I was born a few decades too late (otherwise I would have found half a dozen fresh topics on law and economics for my LR note), but looking at this from a different angle, there is no better time than now to be a Chinese.