Presenting: Hong Zhao – A Personal Evolution From Chinese Immigrant With Little English Skills

Like so many other good ideas for my Celebrate Toronto article series that starts with the Beach, the name of this interview candidate came from Michael Prue’s office who described Hong Zhao as a true Toronto immigrant success story. 18 years ago Hong came to Toronto and barely knew a few words in English. Today she is a graduate of a master’s degree in computer science, has started a successful IT consulting business and publishes the popular Beaches Community Living Guide, a treasured community resource.

As an immigrant, Hong has been able to tap into the opportunity that Canada has to offer, both from a professional, educational and recreational point of view.
Along the way Hong has developed a real love for Canada – a wonderful destination for this avid nature lover, for Toronto – the city that welcomed her from day one, and for the Beach – the neighbourhood by the lake that has become her home.

Here is a special story; a real testimonial; a story of hope, determination, hard work and success – one person’s life story that illustrates first-hand what makes our country and our city special.

1. Please tell us about your background growing up in China.

I was born and raised in China; my home city is called TianJin, one of China’s three Municipalities under the direct jurisdiction of the Central Government. It is situated on the west coast of the Pacific Ocean, 100 kilometers south east of Beijing, the capital of China.

The area I grow up in was once the concession of nine western countries between 1860 and 1940. So many buildings including my own family’s home were built in a European architectural style.

My entire formal school years took place during the ten years of cultural revolution in China. For that reason I did not attend high school, but joined the work force when I was 16. However, I come from a family who believed in education; my mom was a high school physics teacher for 35 years, and my father was a professional chemical engineer. I somehow made up two years of high school education while working full time. I was one of a few lucky people who passed our national three day exam in a very hot July, and as a result I qualified for university education.

2. What about your education and work experience in your home country?

To fast forward, my major at university was in mathematics, and my favorite topics were theory and topology. I immensely enjoyed reading books by German philosophers. I don’t remember their names now but their writings were translated into Chinese. At the university, English was my least favorite subject.

I was very fortunate to land a position teaching mathematics at the University of Foreign Trade in Tianjin. For six years I taught calculus, linear algebra and statistics, and I spent one year studying at Beijing University. I was an associate professor in 1989 when I left my teaching position to come to Canada. I really enjoyed interacting with my students and sharing my knowledge with them.

Those were the years when I had a lots free time to explore many of my personal interests. Whenever I could, I would go to different regions in China, visit small towns and experience the local traditions and nature. I like painting and Chinese choreography, and I also used my father’s darkroom equipment to develop black and white film. I have always enjoyed physical activities such as volleyball, paddling, tennis and skating.

3. What motivated you to come to Canada?

After teaching mathematics for six years, a subject that is so complete that no new topics can be added to it, I was ready for a change, to do something new. It was also a time during which many young people, not only in China but from all around the world, saw North America (the US and Canada) as the place for opportunities and adventures, and I was one of them.

However, I did not know how long I would stay in Canada when I first came. I did not even have a chance to think about it because from the very moment I got out of the airplane, I realized that this is a very exciting and refreshing place, full of things to learn and discover. And it had a lot of green – a wonderful place for a nature lover like me!

4. What were your first couple of years like when you arrived in Canada? How did you deal with the cultural adjustment? What about your English skills when you first arrived here?

I knew very few words in English when I first came to Canada. I enrolled in a full time English Program at York University for six months. However, I realized very quickly that more than just the language I needed to learn the culture – it was so different from what I knew.

To give you a simple example: during the first few weeks in Canada I made some new Canadian friends who took me to the grocery store and explained to me the different products on the shelves. Without their help I would not have known what the various grocery products would have been for.

However, I was also very lucky that Sam, the owner of the Shoppers Drug Mart at the York University campus, gave me a part-time cashier position. I had this wonderful opportunity, not only to learn the language through real-life conversations, but I also learned a great deal about living in Canada and Canadian culture. I felt the people around me welcomed me warmly, and their friendly acceptance of who I am and their patience in teaching me about living in Canada was how I started to become a Canadian..

5. Shortly after your arrival in Canada you enrolled in some educational programs. Please tell us about those.

Many people asked me if I want to be a teacher again. My answer at the time was no. I hardly spoke any English then. For many years, I had been interested in studying computer science. Computer technology was very new and exciting, and at same time, it uses all the logic of mathematics. Under the guidance of the chairman of York University’s Faculty of Graduate Studies, I studied one year in computer theory at York University to qualify me for my graduate studies.

I had multiple challenges during the few years following my acceptance at the School of Graduate Studies, but I have to say that it was also one of the best times in my life. I took in so much from my professors, from my colleagues, and I also shared my knowledge with the students as a teaching assistant. I almost pursued a career in teaching again. I rediscovered my identity that now fit in with the new life I was building, and I made some life-time friends throughout this time.

In 1994, I graduated with a Masters degree in Computer Science from York University. When I was in line waiting for my name to be called at the graduation ceremony, my heart was not at all calm. I was excited because I knew I was not just about to graduate with a Canadian degree, but I had established a new life in Canada. This was now my new home.

6. After graduation you worked in Waterloo. Please tell us about that time and why you came back to Toronto.

After graduation, I first worked at a small technology firm in Toronto; then I moved to Waterloo to work for a computer software design company. Throughout these eight years, I had the opportunity to work in all areas of software design and development.

However, as more and more new software programs were being released constantly, it became harder and harder for software users to understand what to use and why to use it. Designing more software became less and less interesting to me, and helping people understand and choose the right technology became my goal. When I decided to switch from the back end, from creating more programs, to the front end of using the technology, I also moved back to Toronto, where most my personal friends were. Toronto has been my home ever since.

7. What happened after your return to Toronto? You also started a new business in the IT industry. Please tell us about that.

I knew my goal was to help business users understand and choose the right technology that would benefit their business. I also knew that I wanted to work creatively in design and communications. To prepare myself, I registered in a business program called Internet Business and Technology at the University of Toronto. Soon after my completion, I started my Internet strategy consulting business, http://www.4Dimension.Ca.

This business is built on three principles in Internet communication: an effective visual appearance to attract the right audience; effective communications harnessing information and content; and effective use of technology to increase productivity.

8. How did your connection with the Beach come about? What do you think is unique about this neighbourhood?

About five years ago, like many new residents, I moved to the Beaches, a place just west of Woodbine on Queen. Before I moved here, my best memory, and a picture still frozen in my mind, was an image of the Boardwalk in the winter. The lake, the crisp air and the cold wind, the frozen ice-coated rocks along the shore created a rare winter beauty.

I have learned so much about this community since I moved in. I enjoy working down the street, visiting the small and unique shops. I was discovering new places every day, and I became familiar with the names of store owners, local landmarks, and local historians. I can feel that people are proud when they talk about their neighbourhood like no other place I have ever lived in.

Of course, the landscape, the lake, the most pleasant boardwalk in the city, but also the parks and open spaces between shops, the steep winding streets, and the southward views of the lake from a distance make this a truly unique place.

9. You are also the publisher of the Beaches Living Guide. How did this project come about, what is its philosophy and how has it evolved since its inception?

The Guide was initially created as an easy-to-use and informative resource where people can find as much information as they need about local businesses, services, and community information. It was also designed to help both newcomers and visitors learn about who we are and why people like this place so much. Most importantly, it was to help local businesses reach local residents who have busy lives and don’t always have time to browse through stores searching for specific items. People like to do business locally if it is easy for them. With Beaches Living both in print and online, people can locate the information they need conveniently if even they are not at home.

There are not only many unique businesses and services in this community, but also many unique professionals living in the neighbourhood. These people also would like to do business within their own community if they can easily find what they need.

Our readers also very much appreciated the local history, landmarks and interests, and community events. The Guide reaches over 40,000 homes with readers in Riverdale, Leslieville, the Beaches, along the Danforth, the Bluffs and Cliffside. Now the guide is read and used by many people from other parts of the GTA and from out of town. Many people who know the Beaches but live in other cities. Even people from outside Canada use our website to find information they need.

10. What can you tell us about your experience as an entrepreneur in Toronto?

As a start-up business, using my own ideas, my entrepreneurial career has both been very challenging and also very rewarding.

Unlike working for someone else, there is a very strong sense of responsibility and commitment to our customers, our community and our readers, as well as to everyone who works with us. Our customers are mostly local small business owners. They endure very busy hours during the day, working extremely hard to give the best to their own customers, and then take care of the administrative side of their business at night. I sometimes talk with them through email at 1:00 or 2:00 AM. This experience has given me so much appreciation for small business owners. Their spirit continues to inspire and motivate me to do more and better for them. They have become my circle of business friends, and I have become one of them. My business is to help them to be more successful.

Another reward for me is the opportunity to meet and work with many successful entrepreneurs and great people I never otherwise would have met. I have always been interested in reading business books and stories, also biographies of successful business people. Now I can directly associate them with my own experience in business.

Personally I work many long hours and often at odd times of the day. This means that I am frequently not able to pursue some of my personal interests. In spite of this, I love what I do; it is very satisfying to have the opportunity and freedom to do what I enjoy the most, and make a difference for others. I am able to utilize my skills and knowledge, and I also enjoy the interaction with other people.

11. You are a world traveller, please tell us about some of the places you have visited.

I still consider my first international traveling experience to be my journey from China to Canada, which has become my home. My first trip to Europe was to France; together with people from England, the United States and Austria we canoed alone the Dordogne River in southern France, and we had unforgettable experiences in Paris and Belgium. We had the opportunity to see many world-renowned original works of classic art, and we tasted traditional European culture. Even more remarkable was when I realized that I could go anywhere in the world as I wanted to.

Since my first trip to France, I have been to many places in Italy, and I made a point not to miss any sculptures by Michelangelo in Florence. I went hiking in the Dolomite mountains in Italy, I visited Munich and Berlin in Germany, Vienna and Innsbruck in Austria, as well Geneva in Switzerland where my sister and her family live now. I usually plan my trips so I can cover culture, nature, adventure and specific personal interests such as woodcarving, sculpting, and architecture.

12. You are a very multi-faceted individual. Please tell us about your love for nature that you have nourished particularly since you came to Canada. What are some of your favourite nature places and activities? What other sports activities do you enjoy?

Nature is in my blood. I grew up in a family with parents who always introduced us to many new things. I am grateful for the valuable experiences they gave me. Now I enjoy many outdoor activities and challenges such as whitewater canoeing, paddling on Georgian Bay and along the French River, all spectacular landscapes.

One of my favorite rivers is the Dumorin River in Qubec. Together with some friends, we flew in to the top of the river and paddled down to the Ottawa River which we crossed to finish the trip. I was also very lucky to have the experience of a lifetime paddling the Nahanni River in the North West Territories with five of my closest friends. I have also organized hiking and backpacking trips to Killarney Provincial Park, the Adirondacks in New York State, and the Canadian Rockies out west. Skiing and cycling have always been part of my favorite activities for the last 18 years. In the city, tennis is what I like to do the most.

13. As a true renaissance woman, you also have an interest in visual arts and sculpture, particularly wood carving. Please tell us about this special talent of yours.

Since I was about 10 years old I have enjoyed making things based on my own ideas, just like my father. When I had free time, I would do some painting, but I was more serious about Chinese chorography when I was younger. Visiting art galleries and museums has always been one of my favourite activities wherever I go, including traveling in China. That has also been the reason for most of my trips to various cities in Europe where I have a chance to see some extraordinary art pieces, architecture and sculptures.

Around 1997 I was ready to pick up something new that would interest to me. My love for nature made me want to do something with wood, and I started a wood carving course. First it was whittling an animal, then I found myself carving a human face and other abstract three-dimensional objects with chisels and a mallet. This hobby eventually turned into a passion. The challenge of working with different wood grains and the beauty of the wood are immensely rewarding.

I have since made special trips to visit many small towns in the Dolomites in Italy as well as to Oberammergau in southern Germany, the birth places of woodcarving. Several of my vacations to Europe were to study at a professional woodcarving school at Elbigenalp in the western part of Austria. I know I am very passionate about my woodcarving and sculpting when I talk about it.

14. What is in store for Hong Zhao in the coming year and beyond?

I am committed to this community, to the businesses in the Beaches and to my business of making the Beaches Living Guide a household resource guide for our neighbourhood. I want to stay connected to the community, to the residents and our local businesses. And I am craving for time to do my wood sculpting!!

Hong, thank you so much for your time and for sharing the first installment of your life story with us. I know there are so many exciting chapters yet to be written. You have truly made the best of your decision to come to Canada, and I know that your story will inspire many.

Nicole Thomas

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