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Local man introduces North America to China

Scientist, author, and artist. Can one person be all three at the same time? I was happy to discover such a person right here in Woodbury.

Dr. Haiyan Zhang, an engineer at 3M and a well known vocal performer in Twin Cities Chinese community, is also the author of a new book "Thousands of Miles Across North America," published in Chinese.

I first met Dr. Zhang and his wife during their performance at a 3M Chinese New Year party. They are both great singers. I got to know him more through my contact with his wife, Weili Shen, when I wrote about her acupuncture clinic, Acupuncture Woodbury.

During my conversations with them, I discovered that Dr. Zhang had many interesting stories and experiences. I was most fascinated by the book he wrote.

"The book consists of 20 stories and about 50 photos and sketches I had made. The stories are about my family's travels across the U.S., Canada and Mexico. Most of the stories took place when I was in graduate school, taking my family on road trips in our 1985 Plymouth Horizon," Zhang said. "The book is not a travel guide. It's about family, life lessons and the beauty of this world."

Zhang was born in Wuhan, China. He graduated from high school during the Cultural Revolution. Like almost all the high school graduates at that time, he went to work in the countryside as a farmer. For two years he did nothing but plant rice and trees. He then went to work at an iron and steel company for one year.

In 1977, when China restored its national unified college entrance exams, Zhang tested into college. He majored in physical chemistry and specialized in rare metal metallurgy. For his Masters Degree, he studied electrochemistry.

Zhang came to the U.S. in 1990 for his Ph. D. In 1995, he moved to the Twin Cities and has been working at 3M since.

"Although my entire career is about science and technology, I have always had a strong interest in literature and art." Dr. Zhang said.

Even when Zhang was a child he liked Chinese and Western literature. He managed to read many books by authors such as Victor Hugo, Charles Dickens, Leo Tolstoy, Nathaniel Hawthorne and Honoré de Balzac. It took courage to do so because those books were forbidden in China at that time.

He became interested in drawing in his youth and later developed an interest in photography. His photos of nature have been featured in the 3M Company calendar twice.

"I wanted to write something to capture what I have seen and felt in my life." Dr. Zhang told me, "However, with my busy work schedule, engineering projects, and time spent with family, I couldn't find the time to sit down to write a book. Also, I did not know the right way to express what I wanted to say."

Things started to change after his son went to college. At the same time, his wife was busy getting her clinic started.

"I suddenly found a lot more time. I wrote a short journal and matched it with photos and drawings. It was then that I realized how I would write my book," he said.

Using spare time on evenings and weekends, Zhang finished his book in less than two years. A publishing company in China decided to publish it.

As for writing another book, Dr. Zhang thinks it is a possibility.

"I have traveled to over 30 states in the U.S. and I only wrote about half of them. I might write about my experiences in the rest of the states in my next book if people enjoyed reading my first one," Zhang said.

I know so far he has received very positive comments. His book is available in various stores in China, and even a Chinese bookstore in St. Paul. I also know he doesn't write to make money, only to fulfill his interests. In fact, the price barely covers the cost of printing and shipping.

I am looking forward to hearing about Dr. Zhang's second book.