Thu, Jun 20, 2019 - Page 13 News List

Taiwanese, in transition

Return migration to Asia may be on the rise, but Taiwan’s transnational talent is experiencing a bumpy reentry

By Davina Tham  /  Staff reporter

After graduating from college in the US, Eric Ku, second from right, came to Taiwan with other Asian American volunteers in a Taiwanese government-sponsored program to teach English to middle school students.

Photo courtesy of Eric Ku

Although Eric Ku’s (顧國瀚) family moved to the US when he was four, his parents still expected him to observe “traditional Chinese values” and speak Mandarin at home.

“I feel very Taiwanese in a restrictive kind of way when spending time with family,” Ku says.

But this also fostered a sense of kinship with Taiwanese culture. Six years ago, he was motivated to move back when he found a job lecturing in English instruction at the University of Taipei.

At the same time, Ku’s students found his decision to return to Taiwan “puzzling.” They are enamored of migration to the US, seeing it as “an opportunity and dream that seems too far out of reach,” he says.

With Asia in the driver’s seat of global economic growth, return (and reverse) migration to the region has been surging in the past few decades. Returning migrants like Ku make up a vital and growing pool of talent in Taiwan.

Yet reentry is rarely easy for returnees, who must navigate divergent cultural expectations and variegated identities, all while trying to nurture families and careers. Their experiences make it clear that the promise and privilege of a Western education is not without complications in Taiwan.


Last Friday, Ku was among two dozen professionals of multicultural backgrounds who gathered in the stylish office of a Taipei start-up to take in new research on “parachute kids” by sociologist Kristy Shih (施羽潔), who is a professor at California State University, Long Beach.

Parachute kids — called “young exchange students” (小留學生) in Mandarin parlance — are minors aged eight to 17 who migrate from Asia to attend school in North America, Europe, Australia and New Zealand, unaccompanied by parents.

Living arrangements vary from the unsupervised to those cared for by an extended relative or paid guardian. Shih has even come across families who pool resources to send a generation of siblings and cousins overseas, accompanied by an older female relative to look after them.

Taiwanese parachute kids first set off in the 1980s, amid rapid economic growth and new affluence. Overseas education was a coveted status symbol — a way for a family to accumulate social, cultural and economic capital, and distinguish itself from other middle-class households.

“The ideal is that when the children are sent abroad, they acquire English language ability. That already gives them a leg up” in the labor market, Shih tells the Taipei Times.

Shih cites political uncertainty as another reason why parents wished to send their children out of Asia in the 1980s. Motivations often differed by gender, too — sons were sent abroad to avoid military conscription, while daughters were sent abroad to care for their brothers and at the same time receive their own education.

In 1990, a study released by the University of California, Los Angeles estimated that there were 40,000 Taiwanese parachute kids in the US. There are no complete statistics, although Shih believes that the population has shrunk from its peak in the 1990s and 2000s. (In contrast, enrollment from China has rocketed up to become a leading source of international students in American schools.)


Reasons for returning to Taiwan can be divided into three broad categories: for family, for professional development and because of an inability to secure residency in the immigration destination.

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