Date of Award

August 2017

Degree Type


Degree Name

Doctor of Philosophy


Business Administration

First Advisor

Margaret Shaffer

Second Advisor

Hong Ren

Committee Members

Romila Singh, Xiaojing Yang, Sarah Freeman


Chinese Returnee, Cross Cultural Adjustment, Paradox, Repatriate


Since China’s open door policy enacted in 1978, massive numbers of Chinese people have gone overseas for education or professional development. Such “brain drain” triggered China’s state level policy reform to harness these talents back home, and consequently both numbers and return rate of these returnees have been increasing over the past decade. These returnees are usually called “sea turtle” (a homonym for “returnee” in Chinese). Sea turtles are generally viewed as an asset, and even the rise of the Chinese economy has been attributed partly to their repatriation (Zweig & Han, 2011). Previous research on this special group of people has shown their important role in facilitating international knowledge transfer in Chinese research institutions and universities, and in facilitating development and change in local entrepreneurship, cultural and economic aspects (Ding, 2014; Wen, 2013; Zweig & Yang, 2014). Accordingly, various and generous policies have been introduced to induce sea turtles to swim back to their home country (Wadhwa, Jain, Saxenian, Gereffi, & Wang, 2011).

However, despite the practical importance of these sea turtles, research on their after-return experience is still limited. Thus, this two-essay dissertation aims to fill in this gap by investigating sea turtles’ experiences after coming to home country. To gain a comprehensive understanding of extant literature, I first reviewed sea turtles studies on their reentry experience. My review showed that most of the studies are largely descriptive and exploratory, and the main focus is on repatriation reasons and their practical importance. Their experiences after coming back to China are usually neglected except for some general descriptions of problems (e.g. Hao & Welch, 2012; Tung, 2007). Like other types of returnees (e.g. repatriates), sea turtles’ home coming journey is never an easy task (Black, 1992; Szkudlarek, 2010). Limited extant research showed that sea turtles’ returning experiences are characterized with negative feelings, struggles, and maladjustment (Chen, Yuan, Jiang, Yu, & Huang, 2003; Gill, 2010; Hao & Welch, 2012). Zweig and Han (2011) even documented that approximately one third of sea turtles intended to re-expatriate due to maladjustment.

Because examining sea turtles’ subjective experiences is a relatively nascent stream of research, in addition to reviewing this literature, in Essay 1, I also adopted a qualitative approach to answer four basic research questions about sea turtles returning experiences: 1) How do sea turtles feel about their reentry experiences? 2) What are the influential factors? 3) How do sea turtles deal with these feelings? 4) What role does Chinese culture play during sea turtles’ reentry? Building upon in-depth interview data from twenty sea turtles, I identified the paradoxical nature of their experiences. Integrating the interview data and the paradox literature, I established a grounded theory that shows that sea turtles’ home coming journey is inherently replete with paradoxical tensions such as paradox of identity, paradox of affection, and paradox of behavior. These tensions are initially latent until rendered salient by triggers such as confusions about who they are, dramatic changes in external environment, and mixed messages on the value of their overseas experiences. Sea turtles then seek different ways to manage such paradoxes. Some choose to avoid paradoxical tensions by temporarily separating them or simply ignoring them. Others choose to confront paradoxes by accepting their persistence and unsolvable nature. In doing so, sea turtles may have the chance to transcend paradoxes and thrive in their home country.

Essay 2 extends and empirically tests one part of the grounded theory developed in Essay 1. Drawing on both paradox and identity literature, this Essay focused on the paradox of identity, and explains why sea turtles’ re-entry journey is so distressful and how certain coping responses allow sea turtles to thrive in their home country. I tested the hypothesized predictions with a sample of 91 sea turtles who returned to China from a broad range of overseas countries. I proposed and found that the effects of paradox are paradoxical: the tensions resulting from sea turtles’ paradox of identity are not necessarily detrimental. On the contrary, if coped with effectively, paradox may lead to a virtuous cycle and facilitate sea turtles’ thriving at work. Particularly, I found that those who are equipped with the ability to think paradoxically and have a low level of preference for consistency are more likely to react strategically to paradoxical tensions, resulting in less strain and even thriving at work.

By integrating a paradox lens with the sea turtle literature, this dissertation contributes to our understanding of sea turtles’ reentry experiences in two major ways: 1) Establishing a theoretical model that explains how different types of paradoxical tensions emerge during sea turtles’ reentry and the corresponding coping strategies. 2) Offering empirical support showing how sea turtles can benefit from paradox by acting strategically.

Available for download on Thursday, August 29, 2019