The Rise of the American-Asian 'Repat'
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
President Trump is accelerating a trend that began before his election: Americans making Asia great again.
By Parag Khanna
Parag Khanna is author of The Future Is Asian: Commerce, Conflict and Culture in the 21st Century, out on Feb. 5 from Simon & Schuster. This column is adapted from the book.
Of all the backpackers one sees in the Hong Kong International Airport, Americans are the easiest to spot: Backpacks often worn in front, traveling in packs of three and the unmistakable higher-decibel pitch, twang or “like.” I should know: I spent years as one of them, a New Yorker not known for his soft voice.
I’m not a backpacker anymore, but I’m still in Asia, which makes me a “repat.” I was born in India, spent my childhood in the UAE and emigrated to America, settling in Queens and later Westchester. My family became U.S. citizens in 1993. Even after graduating from Georgetown and working in New York and in think tanks and the Pentagon, I had no inkling — and didn’t until well into my 30s — that I would live again outside the U.S.
Yet for the past six years, I’ve been living in Singapore, the tiny city-state featured in Kevin Kwan’s hit novel and movie Crazy Rich Asians. This is the only home my kids know. Despite occasional sabbaticals in Europe or the U.S., it’s hard to conceive of us permanently returning “home.” For most of my life, I’ve been classified as an “Asian-American.” Now I feel like an American-Asian.
I’m far from alone. In just the past four years, our mostly Chinese populated neighborhood has witnessed a steady influx of white expats from North America and Europe. Most Asian-American to American-Asian stories are exactly like mine. They work in tech, media or finance; some are married to Asians; and the millennials gravitate toward the startup scene, shuttling between Singapore and emerging hubs like Jakarta or Manila. Here is what they all have in common: They will probably never leave Asia. They may not know it yet, but they belong to the swelling ranks of permanent expats — aka “perma-pats.”
All across Asia, I see hyphenated Americans becoming repats. Chinese, Indians, Pakistanis, Vietnamese, Uzbeks, Burmese and other well-settled Americans now see opportunity where once there was only repression and depravity. They’re taking their American skills back to their homelands to build factories, upgrade real estate, start schools, launch tech incubators and be close to extended family.
America has been the far-off promised land for several centuries, and given the choice, much of humanity would still teleport to America if it could. But we’re not talking about Latinos, Africans or Arabs. It is Asia — primarily the Japan-India-Australia triangle, of which China sits at the center — that has spent the past 40 years modernizing at a breakneck pace to surpass both America and Europe in economic size. And it is Asians whose attitudes toward their homelands has evolved from an inferiority to a superiority complex.
Meanwhile, America also has changed in ways few would have predicted 40 years ago as the U.S. steadied itself after Vietnam, or even since the post–Cold War triumphalism of the unipolar 1990s, a time when globalization was still synonymous with Americanization. Since then, there have been more than enough books published examining what has “gone wrong” in the American political economy and foreign policy, and an equal number about Asia’s astounding economic modernization.
Both factors have contributed to China and India cumulatively luring back more than 1 million “sea turtles” within a decade of their graduation from U.S. universities. Whether working for shiny new government-sponsored research labs, cutting-edge AI startups or private equity funds, China and India’s commercial hubs, from Hangzhou (home of Alibaba) to Bangalore (home of Infosys), are teeming with American-educated Asians. Many returned before and after becoming American citizens. Even making millions on Wall Street isn’t enough to keep Asians in New York when they see friends becoming billionaires in Shanghai; a nest egg’s worth of Facebook shares is easily liquidated to fund a new tech incubator and become a local hero in Lahore.
A previous generation of Asians concentrated in ethnic ghettos wherever they went; today, Asians just want to fit in everywhere.
As Vivek Wadhwa notes in The Immigrant Exodus, the combination of Bush-era immigration restrictions, limited H1-B visas and, most of all, rising competition from Asian powers — whose talent represents a disproportionate share of Silicon Valley startup founders and C-level executives — has lured back many of the best and brightest. Between 2011 and 2016, the percentage of Chinese students returning to China after completing their degree in the U.S. jumped by more than 20 percent to more than half the total number. At the same time, as American universities began cutting budgets and raising tuition, the number of visas issued to foreign students began a precipitous decline in 2015, with many Asians choosing to study in Canada, Britain, Australia and other countries instead.
All of this was before Donald Trump was elected. In just the first year of Trump’s presidency, Indian student applications fell by 30 percent. As for Chinese students, the FBI has ongoing cases nationwide of students doubling as amateur spies for Beijing, and the Trump administration has banned Chinese academics from coming to the U.S. for master’s degrees in high-tech fields. As a result, many Chinese parents in Hong Kong are pulling their kids out of American schools on the assumption their children won’t be allowed to study in America anyway. So there will be fewer and fewer Asian students who might ever become Asian-Americans at all.
The main reason Americans haven’t noticed the exodus is that those returning home from America have been quickly replaced by twice as many coming in. Overall, by 2010, Asians surpassed Latinos as the largest source of new migrants. Today, there are 21 million U.S. residents who claim Asian heritage, the largest groups being Chinese (4.8 million), Indian (4 million), Filipino (4 million), Vietnamese (2 million) and Korean (1.8 million). Most, like my family, have become proud Asian-Americans, and most of their children think of themselves simply as American, with no ethnic prefix hyphenation needed, and will only ever have American passports. Chinese and Koreans continue to take Western and Christianized names such as Thomas, John and Andrew for boys and Vivian, Lucy and Amy for girls. A previous generation of Asians concentrated in ethnic ghettos wherever they went; today, Asians just want to fit in everywhere.
But with Trump’s nativist populism taking America in worrying new directions and Asia nowhere near its full economic potential, can we be so sure that Asians will continue to pour into America in such large volumes? Asians are opportunists, not anchors. When the Chinese government cracks down on corruption and the RMB weakens, for example, those with cash parked offshore leap ahead of other nationalities in buying U.S. property through the EB-5 program, contributing up to $30 billion per year to the economy and gaining residency in the process. Some Indians denied the H1-B visa are also splurging on the EB-5 “golden visa.” Given that it’s a real estate scheme, Trump seems unlikely to ax it. Then there are the tens of thousands of “anchor babies” born each year to foreign mothers engaged in birth tourism (though Trump plans to end this through executive order). These examples give the impression that Asia is little more than authoritarian growth story, and Asians still harbor dreams of freedom in American suburbia. But as numerous as these opportunists are, their aim is to hedge any adverse trend in China by parking money in the U.S. or Canada. As the Chinese proverb states, a crafty rabbit always has three burrows.
A decade from now, America’s highest SAT scorers will probably still be Asian. Lawsuits will likely still clog the courts over whether overachieving Asians are being discriminated against in college admissions, and Indian kids will still be winning the Scripps National Spelling Bee. But which societies they contribute more to as they grow older is very much an open question, as ever more Asian-Americans choose to venture to the lands of their roots in search of academic experience and professional adventure. Even the White kids are doing it.
The Asia bug bites as early as kindergarten, with Chinese immersion programs growing in popularity in major American cities — and even as alternatives to overcrowded and low-quality public schools. New York’s posh Avenues School promises Chinese fluency before graduation. In Colorado, Mandarin has displaced Spanish as the most popular second language to study. Bilingual Chinese schools are America’s way of adapting its youth to an Asian world.
For the majority of Americans not deeply exposed to Asia before college, the pragmatic pull of Asia takes hold during freshman year as romantic aspirations to study Italian give way to larger and more lucrative Asian linguistic opportunities. Asian Studies departments are raising money nationwide. Asian thought also holds growing allure as an entry point into an Asian future. Harvard’s most popular class after economics and computer science is Classical Chinese Ethical and Political Theory.
For the West’s educated, professional and mobile class, no region is better placed than Asia to capitalize on Brexit, Trump and Western elites’ revulsion with their own politics.
Once seduced by this rigorous exposure to Arab, South Asian or East Asian affairs, undergraduates then entertain the ritual of studying abroad, with the number of students doing so doubling in the past decade. Europe still receives half of American study-abroad students each year, but Asia has now overtaken Latin America for second place. China is the world’s third most popular destination for study abroad. India, Japan and Korea have also been growing steadily as major study-abroad destinations. Nearly 15,000 Americans head to China each year, and the rest of Asia pulls in a nearly equal number. Anglophone programs in the Philippines and Australia are witnessing up to 10 percent growth per year in American participation.
Asian countries not only welcome American students with open arms but also American university campuses. Particularly since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when Asian students began to experience difficulty in getting their student visas approved to matriculate in the U.S., American colleges raced to expand their international presence, especially in stable Arab monarchies such as Qatar, where Georgetown, Northwestern and Cornell have thriving outposts. Students at NYU Abu Dhabi pay absolutely nothing at all for a top-tier undergraduate education spanning campuses including New York and Shanghai as well. In the first seven years of its existence, 10 NYU Abu Dhabi students have been awarded seven Rhodes scholarships.
Because many such Asia-based programs offer subsidized tuition and accommodation, state-of-the-art facilities and other perks, top-tier American high school graduates are choosing at the outset to get their “American” education in Asia. Suddenly, instead of just one year abroad, their entire undergraduate education is spent overseas. Think about what this means. Each year, thousands more young American, Canadian, European, African, Russian and Arab students are not imbibing a standard Western narrative and the presumptions of superiority that come with it. Asian ideas become part of their intellectual foundation instead.
And their sojourn abroad doesn’t end at graduation. Because of a major grant from the Singapore government, even full-tuition-paying students are getting a Yale education at about half the cost of the American original. But most students also have a further subsidy of about $50,000 known as a “bond,” which is paid off by remaining in Singapore for two or three years after graduation and working for any Singapore registered entity, whether a government agency or Western multinational corporation.
The emergence of top-tier Western centers of learning in Asia itself may also have significant consequences for the number — and caliber — of Asian youth who travel to the U.S. for college. Singapore’s top graduates, known as government scholars, are accustomed to spreading themselves across Stanford, Harvard, Oxford and Cambridge, but now have the option of NYU, Yale or MIT’s new Singapore campus in their own backyard. Additionally, leading Chinese, Japanese and Korean universities have launched all-English curricula with a mix of faculty including repatriated Asian Ph.D.s and Western academics seeking well-paid opportunities. So Asians increasingly have the luxury of getting their top-tier English-language education delivered in their home country.
As America either scares away or fails to absorb the volume of Asian talent it actually needs in tech and other sectors, Asian countries are hoovering up smart American and other foreign talents as quickly as they can. Chinese commentators have long complained that China sends its best students abroad to study but does not get other countries’ best minds in return. Now that is changing.
A degree in Asia is, therefore, the beginning of an indeterminate, perhaps lifelong, relocation to Asia. Americans abroad naturally want to monetize their new Asian networks — and Asian companies are more than willing to give them a chance. Harvard Business School’s most recent curricular innovation, known as “global immersion,” requires students to tackle challenges for partner companies and then embed themselves at their headquarters, most of which are in Asia. France’s INSEAD, which has long had a campus in Singapore, is being copied by other Western business schools such as the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, which opened a Wharton China Center in 2015. Between 2000 and 2010, the number of foreigners working in China tripled to 220,000. In 2017, the country reformed its visa regulations to allow Chinese companies to more easily hire from abroad. With nearly 500,000 foreign students now coming to China each year, local companies have a large pool from which to poach. Not only are Asia’s best and brightest more likely to remain in Asia for their entire educational journey, so too are Americans. If you want to do business with them, you’ll have to do it on their turf.
And those backpackers at Hong Kong’s airport? They’ve grown up, and they’re trading in North Face backpacks for messenger bags by Fossil or Kenneth Cole. No longer students on holiday or gap year, they’re young professionals renting studios in Hong Kong’s hip Wan Chai neighborhood and working for Google or Amazon, Alibaba or Tencent, hustling to make a sales pitch to some fast-growing Korean multinational or Indonesian import-export business.
Since the financial crisis, the number of American expats has ticked up substantially. According to State Department estimates, in 1999, the number of American citizens living abroad was only 4 million; by 2013, it was 6.8 million; and by 2017 reached 9 million. Among Asian countries, the Philippines, Israel and South Korea have the largest number of American citizens, most of whom are Filipino, Jewish or Korean. China and India come next, and both are also the fastest-growing destinations for Americans heading abroad.
Asia is winning the global war for talent. Only the Western world is going through demographic deflation — with subreplacement fertility and high-dependency ratios requiring millions of new migrants, from semiskilled workers to tech all-stars (despite what populist politics in the U.S. and U.K. say). Asia, by contrast, already has billions of people. It doesn’t want lots of Westerners — only a fair number of those with money or talent (or both) to supplement its hardworking, homegrown labor force and its growing ranks of talented repats. That process is well underway.
For the West’s educated, professional and mobile class, no region is better placed than Asia to capitalize on Brexit, Trump and Western elites’ revulsion with their own politics. Asia has never looked so enticing for American millennials, 80 percent of whom believe that Asia is the most important foreign region for their future. American engineers and English teachers are in high demand across the region, young American actors and stuntmen try their luck in Hong Kong’s thriving film industry, and Americans are approached on the street to adorn commercial ads targeting Asian customers. American basketball and soccer players are earning solid seasonal paydays, staffing teams from China to Thailand.
Asian governments know that in the short run, it makes sense to import brains to stimulate innovation, and almost every Asian country is doing the opposite of the West: opening their arms to attract talent from far and wide.
- Parag KhannaContact Parag Khanna