Exploring the margins:

A new wave of Chinese in the Middle East.

Remember the time in mainland China when everyone from the pre-school toddler to the aged matriarch wanted to come to the United States to live the American dream?  While America is still a magnet for the college student and the recent graduate looking for work, other countries have become a draw by virtue of their economic and social appeals.  Some of the most popular places have surprisingly been nations of the Middle East.

But who in their right minds, as a traditional Chinese person, would go to the Islamic Middle East?

Mr. Jacky Ng, a student at Hong Kong University, is studying for his masters at King Abdullah University of Science and Technology (KAUST) at Thuwal, which lies just north of Mecca, a holy center of Islamic pilgrimages at the core of Saudi Arabia.

“Saudi Arabia is a place full of opportunities,” said Ng.  “It has a lot of development projects [for which] engineers and technicians are highly in need.”

Part of a new wave of Middle Eastern investment in education, KAUST is a unique graduate university that has been a leader in energy, biotechnology, and computing research.  All classes are taught in English, and it attracts some of the best talents from around the world.

“The school provides very generous amount of scholoarship covering tuition fees, books, laptops, and living stipends,” said Ng.  “[It] also provides strong support in research funding.”

The emergence of top notch research universities in Saudi Arabia and elsewhere in the Middle East has caused an influx of talent into the area, spearheaded by the top students in China.  Many of Ng’s friends, such as graduate students Desmond Lee and Eric Shiu, are already deep into their graduate research careers in KAUST.

Although KAUST provides economic and intellectual advantages for students from China, it can be a challenge to live in a part of the world so wholly different from Asia.  Those who enroll in KAUST have between three and four years of life in the hot desert area of Saudi Arabia to look forward to, but this does not concern Ng as much.

“It’s [a way] to enrich personal experiences,” said Ng.  “Living in another country and experiencing another culture can promote personal growth.”

What a completely different culture it is too.  For example, people of Saudi Arabia are required to pray five times a day while facing the holy Kaaba in Mecca.  This ritual, called the salat, follows a specific set of rules referenced in the Quran, such as a sequence of bowings (rakas) repeated up to four times during each salat.

Another example involves the wearing of the hijab, a black veil, by women of Islamic faith in order to prevent unwanted advances, a practice that made Chinese women in the Middle East stand out among the crowd.

One of the rare women who walks around the streets of Dubai without a hijab is Ms. Yao Wen, a recent graduate of the Xian University of Technology who now works in Dubai, a city facing the Persian Gulf to the West that serves as the commercial center of the United Arab Emirates.

“I miss staying with family, connecting with old friends, and the comfortable life,” said Wen.  “But there are more and more people going to the Middle East, because we have a lot of competition and pressure in China, so working [in Dubai] provides more opportunities.”

When Wen graduated with a degree in power electronic engineering in 2007, her first job was working for the China State Construction Engineering Corporation as quantity surveyor.  She signed a contract that ended up shipping her to work in Dubai for 2-3 years.

“I just wanted to go abroad,” said Wen.  “[So I can] see some different cultures, … and earn more than three or four times I would make if I stayed in Beijing.”

Dubai is undergoing a construction craze that includes the underwater hotel Hydropolis, the conspicuous resort called Palm Islands, the three billion square feet theme park Dubailand, the so-called seven star fish-scale-shaped hotel Burj Al Arab, and of course, the world’s tallest building the Burj Dubai.  The craze has spurred companies like China State Construction, which has over 300 employees in Dubai.

Dubai is not short on culture either.  It hosts the Dubai International Film Festival, UAE league football, an annual shopping festival good for buying luxury goods, as well as numerous clubs and bars.  Still Wen finds it hard to adapt to life in the Middle East.

“The [hardest] thing is not having good public transport; it’s not easy to go anywhere,” said Wen.  “But our company arranges everything for us, including food– Chinese chef in mess hall, and accommodation.”

Despite the economic advantages, living in Dubai can be frustrating, and Wen would not recommend it to all of her friends.

“We rarely have conversation with local people, because may be they have too much money and [don’t need] to work anymore, and we have a language barrier,” said Wen.  “When they see some Asians and Europeans, they will stare at [them] without pretending.”

And of course, there’s Ramadan, the month every year when eating and drinking are prohibited in the Islamic world.

Thus the short term advantages of economic welfare and cultural adventure may be overwhelmed by the Chinese sense of “belonging to home” in the long run.  Recently, Wen attended the wedding of two of her friends who met in Dubai.  Her friends intend to eventual go back to China because it is hard to raise a child in the Middle East, and the weather is so hot.

“For the Chinese, they always think [about] going back,” said Wen.  “They come for the money, and Chinese culture is ‘luo ye gui gen.’”

Wen’s proverb, literally translated as falling leaf–return to the root, means “in one’s old age, one wants to return home.”  For the adventurous Chinese population seeking fortune and enlightenment in the margins of the Middle East, the road back home will be savored after such rewards and challenges.

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