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February 3, 2009
China and West Africa beckon talented minds home

Though the U.S. has often been called the “land of opportunity,” the country is losing some of its top minds to other countries. In a phenomenon known as reverse brain drain, highly-skilled immigrants and foreign students in the U.S. are returning to their home countries — nations like India or China whose industries might seem attractive as U.S. unemployment rises and visa restrictions come into effect.

Others return to less developed countries, like those in Africa, where their skills and entrepreneurship contribute to the countries’ infrastructure, education and foundation.

Tune in to our online radio show on reverse brain drain.

Here, listen to extended interviews from those featured on the radio show, and read blogger experiences.


Hanson Li is the executive director of The Hina Group, an investment bank focusing on cross-border opportunities between China and the global community.

What bloggers are saying about reverse brain drain to China:

The “Baglady” blog writes from California:

My experience in [Silicon] Valley is that many people who work in high tech are foreign nationals and most of these people are either Chinese or Indian.  […] The good news for America is that there are still plenty of foreign nationals who are willing to live in this country and contribute to its economy. I am one of them, but I’m not sure how long America will stay as attractive as a golden mountain of opportunity and freedom. A lot of graduate students my age that come from China these days are going back to China after they graduate because they believe that China has more opportunities than America.

The “Wanderlust” blog writes from Shanghai:

I met Zoe Zhou in Spring 2007 through my friend Sophal. She is in her late 20s and has a warm demeanor. She was a student at Syracuse University in New York state. She tried looking for a job in the DC and New York areas, but found more opportunities in China. The recruitment process took her more than 7 months, with 5 interviews, including several panel interrogations. Now, she works as an operations analyst with the International Finance Corporation (IFC), a subsidiary of the World Bank.

The “Lavenderleaf” blog discusses a Chinese coworker’s journey:

When H. was first hired at our workplace, she seemed unfamiliar with a typical workday.  A young Chinese ESL student, she didn’t know what to do at lunch and spent her coffee breaks tidying up or standing by the front door of the building.  Gradually, she found more interesting things to do on her breaks.  H. went back for a month to visit her family in China after 2 years in Canada.  I had read in the Globe and Mail that overseas returnees — students and workers — were called ’sea turtles’ in China.  The two words sounded similar in the language.  When H. returned, I asked her if she was a ’sea turtle’.  She gasped in surprise and pointed at me, startled that I knew the phrase.  Yes, she was a sea turtle, she told me. H. eventually went home to China.  Her studies were finished and she decided not to try to get another visa and stay in Canada.


Yeniva Sisay‘s parents came to the United States from Sierra Leone. She grew up in the U.S. and returned to Sierra Leone in 2007 to open an educational center, EXCEL.

An excerpt from Yeniva’s “Memoirs of a Returnee” blog:

Sierra Leone offers you chances to see life through different lenses: as community member, contributor, victim, employer, employee, woman, young person, educated person, and the list goes on. You are forced to open your eyes and see what’s going on because life is happening all around you, all of the time. One is not inundated with the constant monotony of the West: work, TV, designer bags, bills, and alarm clocks. Here your life is intimately intertwined with others so much so that you matter and you are not just a number.

As I look back and reflect on a year, it’s hard to believe how time has power over one’s life. I have lived and learned. I have fallen but I am still standing, and, most of all, I have had a dream come true.

What other bloggers are saying about reverse brain drain to Africa:

The “Nigerian Village Square” blog talks about going back to Nigeria:

I was haunted by guilt each time I visited Nigeria. Guilt arose out of my helplessness in the face of poverty and decay; guilt re-surfaced just by seeing people suffer unnecessarily; people’s monthly salaries being withheld, people traveling on bad roads, going to bed at night in the fear of being woken by gunshots. You see some of your former colleagues who were perhaps more gifted than you were, but their chances of realizing their potentials are literally gone. You have realized yours; you are successful in your field due to a combination of certain things parts of which are environment that favors human flourishing, luck and your hard work.

Many Nigerians, I think, have faced similar situations and have been challenged to do something. Some sent money home in the hope of achieving great things. Quite a few quickly realized that the money they sent home has not achieved as much as they thought it would. A few were even tempted to come back because they believed that their homeland needed them. Indeed they came back, spent some time and did their best to change things. In the end they realized that their coming back changed nothing. Or, at least not much. […]Reversing the brain drain, I think, is only a fraction of the equation. Indeed, it should never be positively embarked upon. If anything, one should be thinking of how to staunch the drain. This is achieved by Nigeria necessarily taking the route many other developed parts of the world took: make the living conditions satisfying for people, imitate other successful societies.

The “South Africa Rocks” blog notices London ex-pats returning to South Africa:

I left high school and a few mates left for “greener pastures.” I graduated from University and a few more left to travel the world, gain more skills, find something new and try out different places. Many left with a bitter taste in their mouths and many swore never to return. However many of them didn’t plan on the recession. Many didn’t plan on the U.K. working visa taking a turn away from South Africans and many simply realised that with all of our problems, South Africa is still their home and probably always will be.

I attended a pleasant little dinner part of Friday night. I was astounded to note that out of the eight people there I was the only one out of the group who hadn’t traveled to and lived in London. Even more exciting and intriguing was that all seven of the others had been to London, earned some money, saved, gained some extra skill sets and decided to return to SA over the past year or two.

Is this the great reversal of the brain drain? Is it possible that there are many, many more South Africans who are set to return in the very near future? I think it might be. I think there are many young South Africans realising that the earning potential for them if they return to our country is greatly improved now that the recession has hit, now that their visas have come to an end and now that families are beginning to buckle down here and stick it out.

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I dont agree with Alex about naturalized citizens, because they just have the same rights as any American Citizen, but i do agree about foreiners who sort of abuse thier time in the U.S. THey should get their education then leave because if they stay in the US, they dont benifit their own country.


I’m an American who was laid off from a department where all my colleagues were naturalized citizens and quite a few H1B visa holders. I have top technical skills but my employer, a bank, had a policy to prefer foreigners. During the time I was there, I saw about 15 people lose their jobs that I knew personally, and every single one of them was American.

There are plenty of Americans who want and deserve, and can do, these jobs. The foreigners have home countries and should return to them after their educations are completed, since their use of the “training period” is actually abuse, planning to remain in the US. Therefore they should return immediately, and existing H1B visas should not be renewed.

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