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With Reverse Migration, Children of Immigrants Chase 'American Dream' Abroad


It's a new twist to the classic American immigration story: children raised in the U.S. going back to their parents' homeland, especially some Asian-American families. The next generation is looking east for opportunity. We bring you this story with help from teams here and in Vietnam.


Laura Ling/Reporter: Chris Tran was named after Christopher Columbus, being born shortly after his parents sailed from a fallen Saigon to America in 1975. They didn't look back.

Tran: My parents were really patriotic. We had American flags, and I remember my dad loving Reagan.

Ling: And like his 15th century namesake, Tran also traveled thousands of miles across the sea to explore a new life. But surprisingly, Tran found that new life in the very country his parents fled, Vietnam.

Tran: It was assumed I would never, ever move to Vietnam. The assumption would be I would go to Vietnam for one trip and I would probably not like it because it was dirty, it's smelly, people are kind of mean here.

Ling: Tran's immigrant mother Phuong Tran, who lives in Westminster, was surprised and worried about her son's decision to move back to Vietnam. She always assumed he would stay here.

Phuong Tran: When I left Vietnam, I never thought I could come back and visit. I thought, "That's it." A lot of us were crying, thinking we can never go back to Vietnam to visit. So I never imagine my son would go to Vietnam and live there and work there.

Ling: When Tran's father died in 2004, he quit his lucrative consulting work and later went to Vietnam to connect with family and find himself. Weeks there turned into months. Now nearly eight years later, Tran's personal journey has also become a professional one.He is a successful founder of an internet advertising company in Ho Chi Minh City. Tran says a large part of his success in Vietnam is because he stands out as an American.

Tran: Here, I can be noticed because I read stuff in the U.S. faster, and then I can adapt it here and say, "Okay, in America they're doing this, and this is how it applies in Vietnam," and that's a big part of what my career has been in Vietnam. It's like creating opportunities versus copying opportunities. It's almost how I would categorize it here.

Ling: David Lee was born in Taipei, and emigrated with his family to southern California when he was six. But for the past eight years, lee has spent the majority of his time in China, growing his film production company while also raising a family here in Los Angeles. It's an extraordinary commute, but the opportunities in China were like a siren's call.

Lee: Because I grew up here, because I got into the feature film business in 1997, now the film business is taking off in China that is leaving everybody in the dust. I somehow have the perfect sort of skill sets and relationships and experiences to take advantage of that.

Ling: Since starting his company in China, lee has executive produced major feature films starring well-known American actors like Harrison Ford, Kevin Spacey, and John Cusack. And he is poised to do more.

Lee: China's going to exceed $2 billion this year, and it will be the second-largest market in the world. If I didn't go the past eight years and stayed behind, I probably would have had a decent job working for a studio. But I don't think I would have had the home run opportunities that I've aligned myself up for. So over the next couple of years, if I play my cards right, these will be the home run things that it would be difficult to have here.

Ling: Tran and Lee are part of a growing number of highly educated children of immigrants to the U.S who are establishing their work and their lives in their ancestral countries. Dr. Edward Park, director of the Asian Pacific American Studies program at Loyola Marymount University, has been noting this ethnic reverse migration for years.

Park: I think what's really interesting in the last 20 years is that immigration to the United States is no longer a one way door. Immigration has now become a revolving door, and while many, many people are coming in, many are also leaving.

Ling: Immigration experts like Edward Park believe it's significant and growing.

Park: The United States government right now estimates that there are 3-6 million Americans living and working overseas. And we think that about a third of those Americans are in fact Asian-Americans. And the reason why is because Asian economies are incredibly dynamic and strong. And they have been a huge magnet for Asian-Americans to return to Asia.

Ling: In fact, Park says, foreign governments are purposely making it more attractive for Americans of their ethnic descent to move back. Thanh Nguyen is founder and CEO of a professional networking website in Ho Chi Minh City. It's aimed specifically at professionals with business interests in Vietnam. She says Viet-Kieu, the term for Vietnamese who live overseas, are welcomed with open arms.

Nguyen: So if you are Viet-Kieu and you come here with certain advantages in terms of knowledge and experience, but you compete to a local one, then you have more advantages to get a good job, especially in the sectors had mentioned before like hospitalities, in service, I.T., finance, and maybe media.

Ling: But for both Lee and Tran, it isn't about finding a job overseas, but finding a more hospitable environment for making their mark in the world. The same adventurous and entrepreneurial spirit that brought their parents to America, has led both men to their ancestral homes where launching their own companies has been challenging and empowering.

Tran: You also look in front of you and you're like "Wow. Vietnam needs this. Or somebody does for this for a company, he has a great opportunity to build a business, do a career, do something, move forward."

And it goes back to the "why not," because these are opportunities that, A: don't exist in the motherland, back in America. And also if they did, 10,000 other Chris Trans would be chasing it.

Ling: It's made Tran somewhat of a minor celebrity in Saigon, with magazine cover photos and articles touting his talent and bachelorhood.

Tran: I was seen as a thought leader, in some way for internet advertising. Not because I was, it was one of those right-places, right-time kind of leading into an opportunity

Ling: And for Lee, the experience of establishing himself in China brings his grandmother to mind; a woman of Chinese royalty who emigrated to the U.S.

Lee: For me to go back and representing, in my opinion, the family and having a career there, I think she would be happy. You go for the money but when, I think, you're there, you realize it's much bigger than the money.

Ling: Lee admits there are real hardships to establishing a new life overseas.

Lee: I had a culture shock in terms of the people I worked with, the friends I was able to make, and it was very difficult just being an American.

Tran: When I first moved to Vietnam, I was very lonely because ex-pat culture, or meeting other people like me, it's kind of weird for me to think about it in retrospect, but I was one of those guys that would just sit in a café and read a book, and part of me would hope that I would see somebody that would give some glimmer of connection.

Ling: Luckily Tran has found ways to deal with the occasional homesickness.

Tran: I'm standing in front of the Coffee Bean & Tea Leaf, and I come here when I want a bit of the West, I guess; a bit of home, and a bit of cheesecake.

Ling: And that's part of the reality of ethnic reverse migration. What's been described as the U.S "brain-drain" to the East is less about leaving America for other countries, than about bringing America to those ancient homelands. Is this current trend in reverse migration telling us the current state of the U.S. Economy?

Park: I think the most important thing that it's telling us is that the U.S. Economy is becoming ever more-tightly stitched with the rest of the global economy; and so all the migration back and forth, all these different people, is telling us that the U.S. Economy is intensely globalized.

Tran: I'm successful here not because I'm Vietnamese-American. It's because I'm American-Vietnamese, and because I'm able to leverage all this awesome stuff about being an American here and parlay that into something valuable and something useful.

Ling: Looking at her son's success so far, Phuong Tran can't help but be proud.

Ling [to Phuong Tran]: So no wonder he stays there and no wonder he wants to live there. I mean, it seems like he's really building a life for himself.

Phuong Tran: I think so. I hope so too. I hope he's happy, that's all.

Ling: What is your hope for Chris?

Phuong Tran: I hope he has a happy family, he has a good wife, he has children, he has a happy family. That's what I want the most from Chris.

Ling: Whether he's in the U.S. or that's in Vietnam?

Phuong Tran: That's right.

Ling: Like David Lee, who is raising his family here in Southern California, Tran expects he'll eventually cross the ocean again to come home.

Tran: I want to be here for another three or four years. By that time, I hope to be thinking about a family or have a family along the way. And Vietnam is not the best place to raise a Chris Tran. I think America is a great place to raise a family. America is still the land of opportunity. People in Vietnam are, even now, still climbing fences to try to go to America.

Ling: While others are building bridges between the past and present, between East and West.

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