They are called repats in Nigeria, homecomers in South Africa and sea turtles in China: emigrants who return to the lands of their birth.

Last month Yi Gang, a former Indiana University professor and one of China’s most prominent returnees, was appointed head of the body that manages the country’s foreign exchange reserves.

China wants to lure home more sea turtles (so called because sea turtle is a homonym for the Chinese for returnees).

The government has launched the “Thousand Person Plan”, aimed at expatriates under 55 with doctorates from foreign universities. If they come home to work in state companies, educational institutions or business parks, they can top up their salaries with a handsome tax-free government bonus.

Returning expatriates can be a huge prize. They have often worked in the advanced economies of the US and Europe, have acquired significant skills and have established contacts and networks.

However, enticing them back is difficult. Many emigrants go abroad vowing to return one day, if only because it makes the wrench of leaving easier. But once they put down roots in their new countries and especially once they have children, going home often seems as big an adjustment as leaving.

When they do come back, they often find the place unrecognisable. “A faintly familiar foreign country” is how Caroline Southey, my former Financial Times colleague, described the South Africa she returned to in 1997 after 17 years away.

Catherine Sun, who after working in Washington and Hong Kong, now runs the China practice of Foley & Lardner, the US law firm, says much the same. “When I first went to Washington DC I was overwhelmed. But when I came back to China I was even more overwhelmed. China has changed a lot, from infrastructure to people’s thinking to the government’s approach to managing the country.”

What made her return? Work opportunities, family, patriotism? “It is rather more complex than just three factors,” she says. There were ageing parents, a longing for “country, culture, friends and food” and the feeling that “America had never been the same” since the attacks of September 11 2001.

Ms Sun said that once she readjusted, she found China “more diverse, tolerant, transparent and materially more abundant compared to what I remembered.”

Readjustment can be painful, particularly for those, like Ms Southey, who have spent long periods abroad. “Your 20s and 30s are very formative years and I notice that people belong to circles that were forged in that time that are impossible to get into.”

What is it like for children, born in a country that was not their parents’ birthplace, to be taken to the one that was? “Bloody awful,” Ms Southey says. Her own children are now well settled, but, she says, “the question ‘where do I actually belong?’ remains with you forever”.

The compensation is the excitement of contributing something. After a period as editor of the Financial Mail, Ms Southey is now a director of community banking at Standard Bank, looking at providing banking services to the informal sector. “I’m just having the time of my life,” she says.

That sense of creating something new and important persuades some people to go back even to deeply troubled countries. Dele Olojede, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who returned to Nigeria to start a newspaper after 20 years away, accepted that it required a certain recklessness. “It is especially daunting to attempt what we are trying to pull off in a country whose electricity grid has totally collapsed, whose ruling elites are almost uniformly corrupt and heedless, whose citizens have often appeared to accept that it is their cursed fate to live in such wretchedness,” he wrote in the FT’s recent special report on Nigeria. Why return then? “What is a man to do? We have a country that can do much better than it is.”

Can government initiatives such as the Chinese Thousand Person Plan persuade expatriates to come home? A study by the University of Sussex’s Centre for Migration Research expressed doubts. Looking at Ghanaians who had returned to start businesses, the centre found that few of the returnees had even heard of the government support available.

“It can be argued that, by definition, migrants are individualists who are disembedded from government structures and ‘official’ policies. Their suspicion of government may have been one of the factors that drove them to leave in the first place, and such an attitude is unlikely to change upon return,” the study said.

Perhaps the best that governments can do is end the strife, corruption and authoritarianism that drive emigrants out to begin with.

Write to michael.skapinker@ft.com
More columns at www.ft.com/michaelskapinker

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