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Chinese Expatriates Say Games Mark Turning Point for Native Land

August 3, 2008

DETROIT _ Growing up in a small village in central China that lacked a sewer system, Kevin Yan never imagined that his country would transform into an economic power. Like millions of other Chinese emigrants, he saw a better future for himself outside his native land.

So seeing China host the Summer Olympics creates a sense of wonder for him and many of the millions of Chinese expatriates around the world, including the roughly 45, 000 living in Michigan. The swift changes have brought intense pride in China’s progress.

Today an auto engineer for General Motors Corp., Yan, 43, eagerly awaits the Friday opening ceremonies of the games in Beijing, an event that to Chinese Americans marks a turning point for a nation many had fled during years of internal strife and economic stagnation.

“We’re proud China has this opportunity to show the world,” Yan said.

The rapid development also has reshaped their identities: As China rises, an increasing number of Chinese Americans talk about one day moving back to China because of better job opportunities _ a historic reversal in migration patterns. Many now flit back and forth between Chinese and American cultures, adopting a fluid identity that sees China and the United States as two homes whose governments are moving close together.

In Michigan, the Chinese community has become big enough that people now socialize along geographic lines, depending on the part of China they once lived in or the university they attended.

For some, the changes also bring a sense of loss over an old way of life they recall from their childhoods. In metro Detroit, Chinese immigrants tell stories of how they can’t recognize their hometown when they visit.

But most interviewed in recent weeks see the changes as largely positive ones that have brought China into the modern world and linked it with other countries, including the United States.

“It’s time for Chinese people to show the world how proud they are,” said Sung Li, 50, who remembers food shortages when she grew up in China. ” I would love for people to see how much progress China has made.”

Over this past weekend, two Chinese-American groups that represent different parts of the country _ the Jiangsu Association of Michigan and the Michigan Anhui Association _ were set to hold picnics in local parks to celebrate China’s hosting of the Olympics.

And soon, many Chinese Americans will be glued to Chinese TV stations beamed into area homes by satellite. Yang Jiang, 47, and others are taking a vacation day Friday so they can watch the opening ceremonies with family and friends. At the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor, about 60 graduate students will gather to observe the ceremonies _ a once- in- a-lifetime event that Yan and others could hardly dream of when they were younger.

The increased attention to China _ some of it critical _ also has sparked a renewed activism among Chinese expatriates.

As the Olympics approached, Li was concerned by what she saw as an increasing anti-Chinese tone in the Western media and at pro-Tibet rallies that disrupted parts of the Olympic torch relay.

And so when the Dalai Lama spoke in late April at U-M, Li joined thousands of other Chinese Americans in a large rally outside. Waving Chinese flags and signs that read “Support Beijing Olympics,” they jammed the sidewalks in a fervid display of patriotism and outrage.

“One China!” the crowd chanted at one point.

Similar rallies were held around the world and dwarfed the number of protestors who demonstrated against the Chinese government’s policy towards Tibetans and other groups.

“I know China is not perfect,” Li said. “But any country will have problems and have positive and negative sides … but the problem is you hear the critics everywhere all the time.”

The Dalai Lama has been a sharp critic of the government’s crackdown on Tibetans, and others, such as members of the Falun Gong movement, have called for a more open and democratic government.

“I’m not against the Olympics at all. I’m very happy that China has this opportunity,” said Roger Hsiao, 50, an engineer born in Taiwan who practices Falun Gong.

“But the Communist regime is using the Olympics as an excuse to arrest human-rights and democracy activists and some religious people in the name of harmony,” he said.

Li and others bristle at such criticisms, arguing that China has undergone massive changes in a short period of time.

“When I was young, during the Mao Zedong years, we can’t really talk freely,” Li recalled. “But today, you can criticize the government and leaders.”

Others share Li’s views. Mack Wu, 45, moved from China to the United States in 1988 and was supportive of the protestors in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But now, Wu said, he sympathizes more with the Chinese government than with the human-rights activists who are protesting because “China has changed so much.”

In southeastern Michigan, Chinese Americans make up a significant part of the scientific and engineering elite in local universities, research facilities and auto companies.

Youjian Chi, 24, is a graduate biology student at U-M and one of about 2,000 students and researchers who hail from China.

Just a decade ago, students like Chi were focused on finding jobs in the United States. But today, many have plans to return to China after finishing their studies.

“There are more and more opportunities there,” Chi said.

Even those born or largely raised in the United States see the value of retaining ties to China because of its economic growth.

Born in Henan province, Julia Kong, 18, moved to the United States when she was 6 and is today an incoming freshman at U-M . She has fond memories of slurping noodle soup at a local stand with her grandmother, but having grown up mainly in Michigan, she sees her future in the United States.

Still, she intends to major in business and math and hasn’t ruled out a career tied to China. Kong makes sure to converse in Chinese with her family _ her father runs Michigan New Century Chinese School, a Chinese-language school in Livonia that has grown from 100 to 400 students since 2001.

“If there’s an opportunity, I want to be able to take it,” Kong said.

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(c) 2008, Detroit Free Press.

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