MBA: Migrating Back to Asia?

Asian American MBAs going back to their roots for job opportunities

by michell ho

My dad has always said that an MBA is the ticket to a job in the finance industry. This may have been true one year ago, but in today’s economic crisis, even MBAs from prestigious universities are worrying about finding a job. With last year’s collapse of the Lehman Brothers, thousands of financial jobs went down the drain. According to, by 2010, in New York City 46,000 financial jobs and hundreds of others that depend on Wall Street could be gone.

Because of the uncertain future in the financial job market, many Asian Americans and U.S.-educated Asians are now considering searching for jobs overseas. So where are they headed now? Back to Asia.

To the U.S. economy, this is pretty bad news. But to Asia, it is a potential benefit. In recent MBA career fairs for students across the nation, recruiters from companies in Asia have actually been looking for Asian and Asian American graduates and MBAs educated in U.S. universities to join their firms; it’s clear that companies in Asia are interested in recruiting talent from this subset of the population. Meanwhile, as the competition for jobs in the finance market becomes ever more intense, it is an appealing option to Asian Americans with U.S. degrees to work overseas because they can add that extra impressive line to their resumes and cover letters.

You may ask, “Why the outflux of educated Asian Americans to Asia?” A recent study by Duke University revealed that Asians educated in the U.S. believe there is a rising demand for their skills back in their home countries. At the same time, there is also a trend of Asian countries wanting Asian Americans as well as their own citizens – after obtaining a U.S. education – to work in Asia. Therefore, both sides share a mutual desire that Asian Americans and U.S.-educated Asians look to Asia for more job opportunities.

Because of this, China, India, and other Asian countries are seeing a huge increase in highly educated MBA returnees. In 2008 alone, China saw an increase of 55 percent in the number of returnees. As a result, many professional firms are speculating that Asian Americans and U.S.-educated Asians have solid paths in the financial world despite the ongoing economic crisis.

However, there is another angle from which we can analyze these facts. With the outflow of talented Asian MBAs from the U.S. today, are we witnessing a modern version of the sojourner mentality of our Asian American predecessors?

“Sojourner mentality” within the context of Asian American history refers to immigrants’ belief that their emigration abroad was only temporary – that they would return to their respective homelands in Asia one day. This mentality was, to a certain extent, a psychological motivation for the immigrants to endure their struggles in the United States, as they hoped to return home one day to reunite with their families.

Now it appears as if the sojourner mentality is returning right in front of our eyes, though not quite in exactly the same form.

While the trend of Asian MBAs emigrating to Asia does seem to encompass a sort of “sojourner mentality,” there is a difference in the manifestation of that mentality between U.S.-educated Asians from Asia and Asian Americans.

Asian international students educated in the United States are likely to bear a “sojourner mentality” more similar to that of the original immigrants because many explicitly choose to go to school here for a U.S. degree and then leave to find careers back in Asia. However, since many Asian American MBAs were born in America, they are not really “sojourners” yearning to go back “home,” especially those who grew up in the States and went to school here (that is, excluding those who immigrated here at a later age or chose to study abroad).

Yet in a broader sense, these Asian Americans can still be thought of as “sojourners” – on a level that may span several generations in time. Ironically, it seems that history has gone a full circle, beginning with the first Asian immigrants who settled in the U.S. in hopes of climbing up the economic ladder and now ending with highly educated Asian American MBAs moving back to Asia for the same reason which brought their predecessors here.

But despite this difference from international Asian students, the key point is that Asian Americans who grew up in the U.S are also choosing to go back to Asia. With the concept of sojourner mentality in mind, we can further understand the reasons behind this fact.

The “sojourner mentality” reinforces a common theme between the past and present – the strength of Asian Americans’ sense of their respective communities and the connection they often feel with their ethnic background. In the past, this mentality helped form strong networks of ethnic enclaves among America’s Asian immigrants. In present times, it is one factor motivating Asian American MBAs to move to Asia. Thus, perhaps this is another reason Asian Americans feel that Asia is a viable option in their job search; after all, we are all connected with Asian blood. And as we see, recruiters from Asia realize this mentality and are thus targeting Asian American MBAs for recruitment.

In any case, some factors definitely make the distinction between Asian American MBAs/U.S.- educated Asian MBAs and non-Asian MBAs within the job market in Asia.

1.  Mother tongue

Yes, it is true that English has become the international language of our times, but knowing the native language of that certain Asian country can only help the MBA job candidate. More importantly, not only do they beat the locals by having a degree from an American institution, Asian Americans can also communicate fluently in both English and Asian languages. This is very appealing to employers in general, especially considering the extent to which financial industries are becoming globalized today.

2. Cultural Understanding

Imagine venturing into a foreign land, surrounded by high skyscrapers and people gabbling in an alien language around you. What do you do to fit it, or at the very least, not offend anyone? An advantage Asian Americans have is that they have already been exposed to the culture and are thus more ready to adapt and adjust to the environment in Asia. They are familiar with cultural nuances, from how to greet someone to knowing what can or cannot be talked about. At the very least, Asian Americans already have enough cultural insight to not make a fool out of themselves – for example, not to place one’s chopsticks vertically into a bowl of rice, because this resembles incense sticks used at Asian temples to respect the deceased ones (ultimate table manner failure!).

It is not that non-Asians won’t succeed in the Asian market, but it is definitely easier for Asian Americans because oftentimes they have already been exposed to the cultural lifestyles and aspects of their own respective Asian countries, thus, giving them that edge in today’s job market. Thus, it’s no surprise that so many are returning to their root countries to search for jobs.

As more and more Asian American MBAs realize their potential career paths in Asia, this could be a sign that Asian Americans are now recognizing the advantage of understanding of their heritage with regard to the world of finance. East and South Asia, areas experiencing some of the fastest economic growth in the world, offer very attractive financial and cultural options for recent Asian American graduates looking to expand their job searches. Last but definitely not least, the fact that many Asian Americans are returning to Asia shows that they are choosing to get a little closer back in touch with their roots. Perhaps along their job search they will learn something new about their ancestors, experience new emotional attachments with their cultures, and discover new aspects of their Asian identities that will offer them a better understanding of themselves and their cultural heritages.