YI-LING LIU profiles the “Green Turtles,” Chinese-born students who move overseas to study environmental sciences, and their dilemma of whether or not to return home.

greenturtles online
Yong Zhao, Yale Entrepreneurship fellow and the confounder Junzi Kitchen, a fast-casual Chinese restaurant in downtown New Haven.

It is August 23rd, 2006 and Yong Zhao is up in the air. He is seated in a classic commercial jet, on a 13-hour, 30-minute direct flight from Beijing to New York City. As the plane cruises above the Atlantic, at the midway point of PEK and JFK, Zhao floats between two behemoth nations straddling opposite ends of the globe, two time zones, two lives. The engine of the Boeing 777 hums quietly.

Zhao is full of uncertainty. He will be going to New Haven, Connecticut, to do his Master’s Degree at the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies. He will be away for two years, if not longer. He does not know when, and even whether or not he will return. After his studies, will he stay in the United States? Or will he go home and return to China?

This is the dilemma of the prospective “haigui,” an old dilemma that not only Zhao but also hundreds of thousands of other Chinese students who have studied in the United States have grappled with for more than a century, and continue to grapple with today. “Haigui,” is a term that refers to Chinese citizens who return to their homeland after studying abroad. The term puns on the word “gui” — a homonym of the words “turtle” and “to return.” They are, in other words, sea turtles.

The first batch of haigui, who arrived in the U.S. in the late 19th century as China was beginning to modernize, came to reap the benefits of an American education, and return to contribute to the modernization of China. Among them was my great-grandfather, who left Shanghai in the 1920s to get his PhD at the Cornell Agricultural Science Program, and returned to lobby for agricultural reform back home.

The second wave, who arrived on foreign shores after Deng Xiaoping announced the Reform and Opening-up Policy in the 1980s, which would allow Chinese scholars to study abroad for the first time since the chaotic aftermath of the Communist revolution, were similarly wide-eyed and idealistic. As a freshman at Wellesley, my mother struggled through advanced chemistry, despite her complete mediocrity in the subject, because she wanted to be the next Chinese Madame Curie and “save the country with science.”

China’s economic boom in the last decade has brought to shore a third wave: an exodus of 274,000 Chinese students in the last year alone, representing the largest group of internationals studying in America. They are the New Turtles, the Chinese millennials, the post-90s Youth — and Zhao is one of them.

Unlike their predecessors, Zhao and the New Turtles land in JFK International airport on a commercial jet, arrive with more money in their pockets, more prior exposure to American culture, and an abundance of potential job prospects waiting for them when they return home. They’ve been criticized and stereotyped as pragmatic, cushioned and materialistic. Serving the motherland is not on the top of their agenda.

“There are only two paths for Chinese students,” Lei Zhao, another student at the Yale School of Forestry, will tell his classmate Yong Zhao, a couple years later. “Wall Street or Silicon Valley.”

Why then, is Zhao coming all the way to the United States to study the carbon composition of the Connecticut river? Environmental work, a friend told me once, is unglorifying and arduous — not a particularly sexy cause in China. If most Chinese students are looking for a surefire path to prestige and financial success, who are these handful of students trickling through the Yale School Forestry each year? What drives them? What will compel them to stay or lure them back home?

Zhao has two years to figure it out.

The Green Turtles of Yale University

Pale afternoon sunlight streams through the windows of Kroon Hall, the home of the Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies (FES). I’m sitting on a sofa in the third floor BYOC (Bring Your Own Cup) Café with Yinong Sun, one of fourteen Chinese graduate students at Yale that I have interviewed, nine of which are affiliated with Yale FES. Originally from Liaoning Province, Sun completed her undergraduate studies in atmospheric physics at the prestigious Peking University, and is now in her third year at FES to receive a masters in environmental management. She has a slight frame, and dons a pair of delicate, rimless glasses.  

The first five seconds of each interview is always a linguistic juggling act — our initial greetings are usually in English (“Hi, are you Yinong? Thanks so much for speaking with me”) followed by an abrupt switch to Mandarin Chinese, as I ask the interviewee which language they prefer to use. Like the others, Sun picks Mandarin, and I apologize in advance for my own Mandarin, mongrelized after years of studying in an international school in Hong Kong, where I grew up.

“I’ll probably stay here for a couple of years and get some work experience.” Sun responds when I ask her about her plans after graduation. “But in the long term, I see myself going back to China.”

Almost all the Chinese graduates at Yale that I have spoken to, envisage a similar professional trajectory: hang around for a bit, soak in American professional culture, and then head home. Their future plans fit neatly in a broader statistical trend: increasing numbers of Chinese students, more than 272,000 last year (a 46 percent increase from 2011), are deciding to return after studying abroad.

The trend makes sense. Returning to China has obvious perks. Returnees do not need to secure a H1-B Visa or deal with racial and cultural barriers on their way up the corporate ladder — the so-called “bamboo ceiling.” Back home, thanks to China’s thriving market, jobs are a-plenty. Both international and domestic firms, from Alibaba to J.P. Morgan, adore haigui for their bicultural and bilingual flexibility, and offer fat paychecks and cushy lifestyles in return. Many haigui have rich family networks to draw on.

There are nonetheless turtles who defy the norm. Sun is from a middle-class family in Anshan, does not have connections back home, and is not trying to work at J.P Morgan. She wants to work in clean energy consulting, and when she returns, must rely on her own finances.

Lei Zhao’s own professional trajectory also appears to contradict his claim that Chinese students must choose between “Wall Street or Silicon Valley.” After leaving Yale, he did indeed work at a New York City hedge fund for a year, but his stint in finance was short-lived. He left the city for the quiet laboratories and oak-lined streets of Princeton University, where he now conducts research on urban heat islands as a post-doc at the Woodrow Wilson School.

When I talk to Lei on the phone, he spends an hour patiently explaining to me his research. Climate modeling, anthropogenic heat. The jargon goes over my head, but his enthusiasm is infectious.

If the majority of Chinese students are allegedly hyper-pragmatic and unpatriotic, why then, I asked, did Lei ditch the glory and high-paying salary of his job on Wall Street to clock hours instead in a university lab?

Lei pauses on the other end of the line. “I guess patriotism is a bit too strong of a word,” he said. “But I feel like I need to go back and do something.”

Over and over again, in all of my conversations, I hear variations of this same impulse — something quieter, subtler and more understated than conventional patriotism — this desire to “go back and do something.” Yong Zhao describes it as an itch to “change something;” Jiani Yang, another second year at Yale FES and classmate of Sun, calls it a “sense of duty but not quite.”   

As students of the School of Forestry, they recognize that they are a self-selecting group. “We are probably more chuncui than the other students,” said Zhemin Xuan, a doctoral fellow at Yale FES and current President of the Chinese Students Association at Yale. In English, the phrase translates as “fresh-faced,” or more directly as “pure and candid.”

When I ask the students why they do what they do, their responses ring with this sense of “simple and candid” idealism, and I am struck by the concise candor of their answers.

“My reason is simple,” Xuan said. “I want the skies to be blue and the grass to be green.”

His response seems something like a Disney character, or my nine year old sister would say. Simplicity of purpose, however, does not suggest naiveté or lack of experience. Over the last eight years, Xuan has worked with the U.S. National Science Foundation, The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency and a whole smorgasborg of impressive organizations. Before Yale, Xuan spent six years in stormwater management academy established by the Florida Department of Transportation in Orlando. His research can be found in 38 different publications.

After Yale, he wants to bring his knowledge to China and strengthen the quality of academia on water management back home. Thanks to social media, there is a rising sense of environmental consciousness in China, Xuan notes, but not the rigorous academic research needed to support it. He raises as an example, “Under the Dome,” the recent Chinese documentary film about air pollution made by journalist Chai Jing. It was viewed over 150 million times within three days of its release, and has been compared to Al Gore’s An Inconvenient Truth.

“She obviously has huge influence given her background in media, but her data analysis wasn’t very professional and some people criticized her for that,” said Xuan. “That is why academics like me need to go back. To go back, and help tell the truth more effectively.”

There is more at stake for Xuan, however, than just the truth. In all of his decisions, Xuan, along with his wife — his high school sweetheart and now also a post-doc at the FES — are thinking about how his work will affect the future of their newborn daughter, 7-month old Alice.On one hand, we want to go home and make the country the best possible place for our family and child to live in,” said Xuan. “And yet on the other hand, we are aware of all the difficulties that she must face — the lack of good healthcare and education, the water she must drink, the air she must breathe.” Chai Jing herself created “Under the Dome” after her unborn daughter developed a tumor in the womb, one that doctors blamed on Beijing’s toxic smog.

But Xuan is sure that he will return. He actually decided to work in Orlando because it was close to Disneyworld, and his long-term dream is to one day build a green technology theme park in his native city Shanghai, one that could rival Walt’s solar-paneled roofs and nitrogen-treated streams. “I want to infuse an eco-consciousness into the psyche of the next generation,” Xuan said.

He gestures towards the interior of Kroon Hall, pointing out the 100-kilowatt rooftop array of solar panels and the red oak walls, harvested straight from the Yale Myers Forest. “We need to immerse young children in this kind of stuff,” he says with a tone of wistful admiration.

By stepping foot into Kroon Hall, I get a sense that I have stumbled upon a group of young people who have remained somehow untainted by the pragmatism, rampant commercialism and profit-driven mindset that allegedly governs youth in Chinese society today. They are lured home by a sense of purpose more visceral and less explicit than their predecessors, but no less pressing.

“Everytime I go home and step off the plane into Beijing International Airport, I cough,”  Zhao told me. “I feel the particles of smog in my lungs, and feel this heightened sense of urgency.”

Swimming Home

It is hard not to feel the lure of China in the spanking new and glossy building on No. 38, East Ring Road, Chaoyang District, Beijing, where the offices National Resource Defense Council (NRDC) are located.

The NRDC is a non-profit international environmental advocacy group. Aily Zhang, a Chinese-American Yale College graduate from San Francisco, and her colleague Jonathan Luan, a haigui who grew up in Hangzhou and did his Master’s Degree at George Washington University, currently work at their offices in Beijing.

Like other progressive, environmentally-minded Beijingers, Zhang and Luan bike in the city’s congested lanes, go on hikes in places other than the Great Wall, are part of WeChat Groups like “The Beijing Energy Network,” and are obsessed with new monitoring systems for air quality.(“Picture a typical Greenpeace person,” said Luan, “but with a Chinese twist.”)

“Here, you feel like you are in the center of things,” says Aily, her face centered on the screen of my laptop. It is a sunny noon in Beijing — and both Aily and Jonathan take time out of their lunch break for a Skype call. “This is a country where a new coal power plant is built every week, where the desertification of Xinjiang can affect the climate in California.”

Aily had the option of working in the Bay Area after graduation, but she chose Beijing instead. In San Francisco, Aily explained, she would be working with issues that are important “but so abstract that you can’t see it,” whereas in Beijing, where she is writing a report on coal industries in China for the NRDC’s Coal Consumption Cap Project, “ I can see the literal smog produced by these industries right outside my office window.”

Actually enacting change in the “center of things”, and addressing these pressing and urgent environmental problems in China however, is a grueling process, and many haigui swim back home only to find themselves disillusioned by all the obstacles they face.

At international NGOs such as the NRDC, professionals are “used to formalism, red tape,” said Aily. Faced with these obstacles, it is “easy to feel like there is nothing that you can personally do to tackle the huge task of dealing with environmental degradation in China,” said Aily. “It is easy to feel small.”  Not to mention, because international NGOs are also closely monitored by the government, “we face the constant threat of being deported,” Aily added.

Working in the Chinese government itself is a whole other challenge. One must navigate through an entire ecosystem of bureaucratic networks, petty jealousies and vested interests.

The alumni and graduates that I speak to draw on a whole array of crazy metaphors to describe to me what it means to reform the system and enact change. “It’s like trying to dig a well with a tiny screw,” Yinong Sun said. Yong Zhao likened it to “pouring a gallon of milk into an ocean.”

Firstly, unlike in U.S. organizations, which are significantly “flatter,” “you have to call your boss “laoshi” (teacher), no matter where you come from,” Aily explained. “You have to respect the hierarchy.” In state-owned institutions, Zhao adds, the supervisor is king. He tells me a story of a friend of his, a recent graduate who worked for the China Nuclear Group. She submitted a report, her supervisor did not like it, and threw the report, literally, in her face.

The most frustrating obstacle that all the students raise, is the problem of guanxi. In Chinese culture, a person’s “guanxi” — their personal connections and networks —is paramount to professional success. Who you know, in other words, matters much more than what you know.

“Say you are working at the Environmental Protection Agency, and want to get promoted,” said Zhao. “You have to be a player. At banquets, you have to figure out beforehand, where the most powerful person sits, and then where the second most powerful person sits, and then adjust yourself accordingly.”

“But say, after you get all this right, your big boss loses power, or your big boss gets thrown in jail.” Zhao continued. “What happens now? You go down with him.”

Player? Banquets? Big Bosses thrown in jail? Zhao’s language points to a world I associate with God-fatheresque television dramas, not a government agency involved in deciding how many animal conservation NGOs are permitted in a local district. “It is literally like the House of Cards,” another Chinese student, who preferred to remain anonymous, explained to me.

This sense of disenchantment among haigui has spawned the emergence of its inversion — the guihai, or “returnees to the sea.” Guihai are sea turtles who, disillusioned with their natural habitat, leave China once again for a life abroad.

And then there are the overseas Chinese students, who having heard about the murky waters back home, spare themselves the disappointment. There are those who simply decide not to come back at all.   

Staying on Foreign Shores

Flash forward nine years after arriving in New Haven, Zhao, now in his early thirties, is still in the United States, with a Master’s Degree from the Yale School of Forestry, and a PhD in Environmental Science under his belt. Now, he is a Yale Entrepreneurship fellow and the confounder of a new startup, the fast-casual Chinese restaurant Junzi Kitchen, which opened up a month ago on Broadway, one of downtown New Haven’s busiest retail strips.

After Zhao gives me a short tour of the new store —plywood walls, shelves stocked with hip gourmet-food magazines, and a state of the art freezer in the back of the shop stocked with cuts of locally-grown pork from Wallingford, CT —we move to the basement downstairs, away from the lunchtime din. The basement still has the haphazard feel of a business just starting to get on its feet, with half-opened boxes of soy sauce bottles and star anise scattered on the shelves. I make myself comfortable on a chair, and Zhao sits down on a cardboard box.

“When I first started my PhD at Yale FES, I thought that I would go back to China, and work in public service as a government official,” said Zhao. Zhao and I speak in English. He speaks in a quick and confident staccato.

But after surveying the situation back home, Zhao decided he wanted to be an entrepreneur, and to take a road less, and arguably rarely ever taken — to stay in the United States and become a Chinese entrepreneur in America.

“Being a Chinese entrepreneur back home, bringing an American concept back home, creating a Chinese Google or a Chinese Twitter or a Chinese this-and-that is pretty common.” said Zhao.

In order to create change, and create something of true value, Zhao believes that one needs to step out of China, where one could easily get sucked into the demands of “soul-sucking guanxi,and exert influence from afar. He returns again to his bizarre but apt milk-and-ocean metaphor: “if the original pool is polluted, it is hard to get anything done without polluting yourself. Instead of pouring a gallon of milk into the ocean, how do we create an entirely different ocean of our own?”

Zhao’s solution to this problem, is the “chun-bing” — a Chinese-style burrito served with braised meats, vegetables, garnish and sauce.

As an undergraduate student of conservation biology at Peking University, Zhao earned the nickname “Mr. Chun-Bing” from the wraps that he ate all the time. He found himself yearning for the food from home, and decided to put his doctoral research on hold, and open a restaurant.  In August 2013, Zhao, along with his wife Wanting Zhang FES’11, the operations director and Ming Bai, ART’ 13, the designer — all three of whom grew up in northeast China before pursuing graduate degrees at Yale — came together to create Junzi Kitchen.

However, Zhao is quick to note that Junzi is more than just a restaurant. It is a “value-driven commercial brand.” A Chinese term that once denoted “prince,” “junzi” was retooled by Confucius to refer to a gentleman, a paragon of virtue.

Although the term “value-driven commercial brand” sounds lofty and self-promoting, straight out of a Business School textbook, Zhao hopes to cook the junzi values — community, leadership and balance — into the very bings themselves.

To help address an American problem with food waste, Junzi connects with local farms and buys their undervalued cuts: beef shank, fatty cuts, pork heart, chicken thigh — foods not valued as much in American cuisine. “Traditional Chinese food is based on a harmony with the agricultural ecosystem,” said Zhao. “Something that we can bring to the industrial farm-intensive, fossil-fuel reliant American agricultural system.”

In their menus, instead of listing calorie counts, Junzi emphasizes the Chinese dietary system’s division between “fan” and “cai,” — “fan” being the energy-filled starchy part and  “cai” being the nutrition-intensive part — keeps meals automatically and intuitively balanced.

They have also started working with the New Haven Farm on a bicycle compost program. Every week, someone comes to pick up leftover beans and potato skins, and shuttles it up to the farm. Used to collecting exact figures for his graduate research, Yong is detail-oriented and meticulously records Junzi’s weekly wastage (3% of their 8 gallons of beans this week). Junzi is also the first restaurant to work on this initiative, and are helping write a guideline for the Farm to use for future partnerships.

The restaurant has only been open for five months, but Zhao has big aspirations. He names Patagonia and Tesla as companies he admires and seeks to emulate. He wants to expand Junzi’s products beyond food, to furniture and clothing. One day, he hopes to open 1000 stores or more. He wants to first build a household brand in America. Eventually, when China is ready, he wants to open up shop there.

“China is lost right now, and the Chinese people do not know how they want to lead their lives and how they want to behave,” Zhao said. He is not the first to point out the nation’s wayward moral compass. Online Weibo blogs, daily conversations on the street, Chinese academics and foreign correspondents alike have long lamented the nation’s so called “spiritual void.”

But Zhao does more than just to wax poetic on the selfish, apathetic millennials of the new Middle Kingdom. “I will start small. I want to recreate junzi values here, on a university campus in a developed country, where people are full of talent, ideas and inspiration,” explained Zhao. “And then one day, export these revitalized junzi values back to China.

As we walk out of the basement back into the store, Zhao hands me a tofu bing to try replete with vegetable garnishes and a savory soy sauce. I hold the bing in two hands and take a bite: the taste of my grandmother’s kitchen fused with the Yuppie, Whole Foods-esque goodness that my palette has grown to love over three years studying in an East Coast liberal arts college.

“For people like your great-grandfather, or your grandmother, or even for haigui ten years ago, it was easy to equip yourself with mission and sacrifice yourself for it.” Zhao said. “But now, it’s hard to feel important. It’s hard to find a purpose.”

Zhao, leader of Green Turtledom, nevertheless seems to have found a promising one. And of all places, he found it in a Chinese fast-food restaurant.

Turtles Adrift

A week later and I’m at another Chinese restaurant. Dining  together appears to be the go-to activity for Chinese students, far away from home and weary of the American collegiate dining experience. So when Jiani Yang invites me to join her and her team for lunch at New Haven favorite Chao Chao, I accept her invitation eagerly.

Yang and I are seated around a circular table with the rest of her team: Lan Jin, a Chinese Public Health PhD candidate, Ajit Rajiva, a Master’s student in Environmental Science at the School of Forestry and Abhinav Rawat, a student from New Delhi doing his MBA at the School of Management.

They are the brains behind Nuoton, a new startup developing an air pollution app targeted to Chinese and Indian markets.

Rawat, the CEO of the company, first approached Yang and asked her to collaborate with him a year ago after a conference on Chinese Overseas Investments.  “The conference made me realize that my work had much larger global repercussions, that I could not limit my work to the scope of U.S. China relations,” explained Yang. “I needed to look at other countries, like India.”

According to the WHO, China and India together account for 37% of the total population of the world. Both economies are witnessing the emergence of a fast-growing middle class, which translates into a huge potential market, but also severe issues of air pollution.  “Last Sunday, air pollution levels in Shenyang,  a central province in China, were 50 times to the WHO standard,” Jin explained to me. “It’s not any better in India,” said Ajit, “And we have the annual pollution disaster otherwise known as Diwali.”

We are interrupted mid conversation, as the food is served on the table: wonton soup, bowls of fluffy rice, green beans and a whole steamed fish, with Sichuan peppers. As we dig in, Abhinav patiently explains to me how Nuoton fits into the equation.

“Government sustainability efforts rely on a top-down command and control model, which is ineffective,” Abhinav explained. “What we need to do, is enact change on a micro, community, local level. So Nuoton hopes to bypass government inefficiency altogether, by harnessing the power of the consumer.”

Through sensor and mobile data technologies, the app will provide high-quality information to the public, and allow them to make informed decisions on how to reduce their exposure to pollution. Users who download the app will receive advice from experts in the field, for example, on what mode of transport or commute they should use that day.

While Xi Jinping and Modi negotiate over commas, square brackets and single words in a repeatedly revised text, at the bleak and windy site of the Paris Climate Change Conference, two pairs of young, fresh representatives from each of the superpowers are putting there heads together in New Haven, collaborating over a plate of steamed Sichuanese fish.

“Eat!” Jiani commands, as she helps load beans onto my plate. They are keen to feed me, despite the fact that as the fifth luncher —  an undergraduate English major from Hong Kong — I offset their perfect symmetry. In some ways though, I straddle somewhat their two identities: while Hong Kong is ultimately a part of China, it nevertheless shares with India the British colonial experience.

“So where is home for everybody?” I ask, as they pass around what’s left of the beans. I explain that I am curious about the idea of the overseas student in America, and the question of return.

“I’d say Mainland China, because it’s good to have this feeling that you are from a place, that you know who you are,” said Jin. “But at the same time, it can tie you down, make you feel small and limited.”

“It’s actually hard to say that anyone is Indian,” added Ajit. “Take any Indian person, and there will be one place in the country that that person is a minority. If you go back far enough in history, my great great grandmother is Chinese. Something to do with the Indo-Sino War, I think.” He flourishes his chopsticks. “So in my opinion, the whole concept of a nation state is kind of moot.”

My great-grandfather had a singular focus and mission: 1) Acquire Knowledge from America 2) Go Home 3) Rebuild Nation. For the Green Turtles, young idealistic haiguis today, when home is nebulous, geographical boundaries are porous, and the concept of a “nation” is as Abhit says, all but “moot,” this sense of mission is no longer tied to a discrete nation or shoreline to call home.

“When I’m here, I don’t really miss China. And when I’m in Beijing, I don’t hanker for New Haven, I’m not one to get attached to places.” said Zhao. “In 5 years we’re probably going to still be hanging around here or in New York. 10 years? Flying around probably. 20 years? I have no clue.”

The Green Turtles, in that sense, are not much different from millennials worldwide. They are at the end of the day, twenty-somethings — energetic but uncertain, idealistic but in constant flux.

Like their materialistic peers, they are tied not to nation states, not to lofty ideals, but invested in tangible things: the particles of air they breathe, that their children breathe, the taste of steamed fish, Palm trees, blades of grass, blue skies, API indexes, an authentic and sustainably sourced Chinese-style burrito.


Yi-Ling Liu is a junior at Yale University and co-Editor-in-Chief of the magazine. Contact her at yi-ling.liu@yale.edu.