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Couple lured back to China…for pretzels?

by Ming Liu /  / Updated 

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Joseph Sze stands behind a glass partition, dressed in an electric blue shirt and matching cap. He is rolling a sesame-flavored pretzel at China's first Auntie Anne's Pretzels store, located in a Beijing shopping mall.

"I'm breaking away from everything I know," he told TODAY, recounting a prior conversation he had had with himself. "To change it all up, to move to China? And to do pretzel rolling? It was a big shock."

Joe is part of a growing number of Chinese-Americans who have risked everything and left their home in America for China. Given the country's booming economy, Chinese-Americans are uprooting themselves to take advantage of China's growth opportunities.

Joe and Carlynn Sze — both Chinese-American — had only been to China once before. That was two years ago during their honeymoon. At the time, the country was completely foreign to them.

Nevertheless, the opportunities were too hard to resist.

"This is really the time for us as a married couple," Carlynn, 30, said about their decision to move. "It is the only time in our lives when we can just pick up and go."

Joe, 32, gave up a lucrative career in finance to set up American pretzel chain Auntie Anne's in China, together with his business partner Wen-szu Lin. Also Chinese-American and aged 32, Wen-szu was previously a strategy consultant. The two met at the University of Pennsylvania and from that moment on, dreamt of one day starting their own company.

The pair found that chance in China, where they already had family and friends.

"There's always a new business," Joe says about Beijing's economy. "There's always a friend of ours, or a friend of a friend of ours, coming up with a new idea."

He compares China to the United States in the 1990s with the dot-com boom.

"This is a once in a lifetime opportunity," says Joe, adding that he and Wen-szu will open up to four more Auntie Annes stores by years end.

Although there is no official figure for the number of returning Chinese-Americans, it's estimated that more than half of China's foreign direct investment — which doubled to $60 billion in a decade — came from expatriate Chinese.

Ten years ago, most Chinese-Americans ventured to China supported by their American firms as management consultants, bankers or managers. Today, more Chinese-Americans can be found in Chinese companies, or simply starting out on their own.

Carlynn, a former clinical dietician at Georgetown University Hospital in Washington, D.C., says that moving with her husband inspired her to start her own nutrition practice.

"With China's economy booming, this is the right time to take advantage of it. We wanted to be a part of the growth."

Cultural exchange
Being in China also allows Chinese-Americans to reconnect with the culture and language of their heritage.

"What better way to learn Chinese than to be in the country?" Carlynn asks.

While most Chinese-Americans grew up speaking Chinese at home, in China, they still face a language barrier. Their conversational Chinese is fine, but it's reading and writing that's challenging.

This is especially the case when doing business in China. Both Joe and Wen-szu admit they've had to relearn the language.

For local Chinese, this can be somewhat puzzling.

Carlynn, who sometimes helps out at the pretzel shop, explains, "I think some people get confused because I look Chinese. They don't understand why I can't speak it.

But when asked which country she identifies with, she says the United States. "Most of our friends here are American. I definitely consider myself American."

Reverse migration
Leaving America behind certainly wasn't easy, especially when it came to convincing their families. Both Carlynn and Joe's parents had left Asia for the United States when their children were young, hoping to provide their kids the means to achieve the American Dream.

So when Carlynn broke the news to her parents that she was moving to China with her husband, the initial reaction was shock. "They could not quite understand how both of us wanted to give up that stability," she says.

"They had trouble understanding why we wanted to come back. It took a bit of convincing."

Joe's parents, on the other hand, had a different reaction. They saw their son's move as a kind of reverse migration. With China's growth potential, it was much like their own journey, decades before, when they had left Taiwan for America.

"They thought it was a great opportunity to get more familiar with our personal heritage," Joe says. "Plus my mom's a huge Auntie Anne's fanatic. She loved it."

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