“BGSU is very special to me. It changed my way of thinking,” says Hong “Barbara” Zhang. The former colonel in the Chinese army, champion parachutist and now representative for the powerful IMG sports, entertainment and media agency credits Bowling Green—the University and the town—with “opening up my character, giving me a way to enjoy life.”
Zhang received a master’s degree in sports administration from BGSU in 2005 after leaving a 13-year career in the army. That degree “gave me the avenue to join IMG,” she said. Now her daughter, Xin (“Cynthia”) Xu, has followed her mother’s footsteps to the School of Human Movement, Sport and Leisure Studies. She is pursuing a master’s degree in leisure and tourism—a “hot” field in China today, Cynthia explained. Even with their keen interest in sports, she said, the Chinese need more guidance in the art of relaxing.
Cynthia, who has a position in her department as a research assistant, predicts the experience of being in the United States will be as important as her academic major in expanding her knowledge of the world and its possibilities. “People in China think they know what they want, but it’s a short-sighted dream,” she said. “I want to lead a real life, and I know what that is now.”
Reconnecting with friends, faculty
Barbara and her husband, Guang Xu, were in Bowling Green in August to get Cynthia settled and reunite with Barbara’s former host family, the Cataus, who are also hosting Cynthia. “I even have the same room,” Cynthia said.
The family enjoyed the slower pace of Bowling Green, meeting with friends and Dr. Nancy Spencer, Barbara’s former advisor, and Dr. Julie Langenfeld, Cynthia’s advisor, and reconnecting with the Cataus.
“Barbara has stepped right back into our lives from the first night they were here,” said Jennine Catau, a retired University Libraries employee. “It was as if she had been gone two days instead of two years.”
A new direction
As with many Chinese, spending time in leisure activities was not usual for Zhang before coming to the United States. “The Chinese know how to work but they don’t know how to relax,” she said. “Enjoying work is important, but enjoying life is more important.”
Attending BGSU was a learning experience in many ways, she said. In addition to the academic discipline of sports administration, which she described as much more advanced in the United States than in China, “I learned the language, the way of thinking, the philosophy and the ideas” of this country.
The Chinese government has “opened the window for more people to go abroad,” she said, and there is growing interest in Western ideas. “I can bring these concepts back to China and they can help to establish sports cities, stadiums and leisure parks.” Zhang and her husband, who met in college, live in one of the new sports cities that she is helping to set up all over China, with facilities for swimming, jogging, tennis and other activities all close at hand.
Perhaps it was a restless desire for something more that prompted her to begin exploring new career paths. An elite athlete, Zhang trained parachutists for the Chinese army and continues to coach parachute teams today, including at one time a group of 42 from the United States. She was already a member of the Olympic Committee planning the 2008 Beijing Games when she decided to make a major life change.
“People asked me why I wanted to change,” she remembers. “‘You have a nice job, a nice family, a nice house,’ they said. But I like to challenge myself.
“You know, I am an athlete,” she went on. “I set a goal and I work toward it.” She began by taking night classes in English in Beijing, eventually receiving her undergraduate degree in English from Northeast University. “My husband gave me a lot of support,” Zhang said. “He took care of our daughter and he encouraged me.”
When an American friend suggested sports administration, she knew she had found the right path.
BGSU not only accepted her but offered a scholarship as well. Even though she held a high position in China, “I was in the army and I had no money,” she said. At the age of 43, she came to Bowling Green, where one Sunday she met Jennine Catau. “Immediately, I liked her,” Catau remembers. After a few more Sunday encounters, the two agreed that Zhang would come to live with the Cataus.
“She fit immediately into my family,” said Catau. The feeling between host and guest was mutual. “I loved living with her,” Zhang said of her host.
In addition, Dr. Jeffrey Grilliot, global initiatives director, who was then head of International Programs, provided support in many ways.
Her second home was Jerome Library. “I would stay all day there, using the Internet, reading, learning to do research. Mary Beth Zachary and Carol Singer treated me very warmly and always helped me.”
And after the chaotic pace of life in Beijing, Bowling Green proved to be “the best place to study. It’s very quiet here. The professors were very patient with me, and everyone helped. That is what gave me confidence to send my daughter here.”
“I’m so appreciative of BGSU. It changed my life and gave me a step into a new world,” Zhang said. “Life is still new, still challenging.”