It was nine o’clock in the morning when I had the good fortune to sit down with Jim Zhang, an investment advisor for private wealth management of one of Canada’s biggest banks.
“Our bank has over 80,000 employees, but we have only about 100 private bankers,” says Zhang, one of the top private bankers, a surprising achievement considering he couldn’t speak English when he arrived in Canada two decades ago. “The private banking team serves the top clients of the bank.”
Zhang and his wife immigrated from China to Calgary, Alberta, in 2001, hoping for new opportunities in the West. But Zhang clearly remembers the early hardships he experienced adjusting to a new life.
“I had a good job in China at that time as a sale director of a main website,” he says. “However, when I came abroad at the beginning, I had nothing.”
Zhang still remembers the frustration and misjudgment of how challenging it would be to get his financial grounding in Canada.
“I saw that all the electrical appliances in the kitchen are the same brand, which is completely different from China. I realized that my experience in China probably couldn’t work here, so I had to learn a lot of things from scratch,” he says.
“On the one hand, my English was not good enough to get an MBA, so I thought of some other options,” Zhang says. “I remember that I read in a book: ‘The financial industry is limitless.’ I was touched by those words, so I decided to work in the financial field.”
Despite his poor English and lack of education in finance, Zhang had a bold heart which gave him great faith in himself.
“Many new immigrants cannot endure the gap between being somebody in China but then being nobody abroad,” Zhang says. “But at that time, it’s useless to complain or be dispirited. You have to believe that you can make it and look for new opportunities. When finding you are incapable of doing something, then go learn it. When you have the ability to live independently here, all you’ve lost will come back to you.”
Zhang decided he’d first get a certification in insurance, which truly tested his patience. While studying the insurance books in English, he had to constantly look up one word after another. Courses that took native-English speakers three months took him nine months, but his greatest ally helped him tremendously.
“My wife was pregnant at that time, but she chose to work so I could study,” Zhang says. “She believed in my ability, and I’m really grateful for her support.”
Zhang and his wife immigrated to Canada at the same time as two other couples they were friends with, but those couples soon divorced due to the unbearable stress from living in a new environment. Zhang believes he and his wife stayed together because they truly support each other, something he deeply cherishes.
Once Zhang obtained the insurance certificate, his English improved, his confidence grew, and he believed that working in finance was, in fact, possible. One after another, he called and visited banks, and three years after immigrating, he landed his first job as a consultant in a bank.
“For new immigrants to have a breakthrough in language, one of the most important points is to not be afraid of making mistakes. When I started to work in the bank, I don’t want to mention how embarrassed I was,” Zhang says with a laugh. “I remember one customer who needed a loan. He told me that he had a four-plex property. But I didn’t know what plex meant, so I had to ask him what he meant.”
Although Zhang’s English quickly improved the longer he worked in the bank, he realized that adjusting to Western society wasn’t as simple as just understanding English. One time, Zhang asked a customer where he had immigrated from, which offended the customer, who accused Zhang of discrimination. Zhang’s manager suggested next time he simply ask what other languages a client speaks other than English.
“There are certain social skills and etiquette in every culture,” Zhang says. “It reflects a person’s self-restraint and quality. It even decides whether people want to be friends with you, and whether they want to cooperate with you. Some new immigrants think that they can’t integrate into mainstream society here, but it’s probably because they do not make an effort on these kinds of details.”
As Zhang experienced more and more success at work, his wife suddenly fell ill. In China, she had once had a concussion, and the change in environment was aggravating her previous injury, causing unbearable headaches, insomnia, and vomiting.
Tortured by her sickness, she told her husband, “I want to practice Falun Gong.” This shocked Zhang. Back in China, the couple had heard about Falun Gong, an ancient qigong meditation practice that was hugely popular in the ’90s, but in 1999, the communist regime launched a massive persecution against its practitioners. They knew that it was a self-cultivation practice and could be quite beneficial to both physical and mental health. Since they were now in Canada, away from the threat of persecution, Zhang was equally intrigued to try it.
Zhang and his wife loved the gentle exercises and the teachings of the practice. Soon enough, Falun Gong began to transform their lives, and all his wife’s symptoms disappeared.
“After practicing Falun Gong, the principles naturally blended into my life,” Zhang says. The main book of the practice, Zhuan Falun, “says that we should be good people in accordance with the standard of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance, which makes it easier for me to let go of things.”
While Falun Gong had several immediate positive impacts in Zhang’s life, he was surprised how much it would influence and help him as a consultant.
In 2011, a vice president of the bank’s Calgary branch told Zhang that he would have more opportunities in Toronto because he speaks Chinese. Always willing to take on new challenges, Zhang moved with his wife and three children to Toronto to be a private banker in the Toronto branch.
Zhang’s confidence was at an all-time high as he believed his unique skill set and experience — seven years in the financial field, fluency in Chinese and English, and understanding of Chinese culture — would position him for great success within Toronto’s wealthy Chinese community. But upon his arrival, he was given some discouraging advice.
“They told me not to touch the Chinese market because there were already salespeople who could speak Chinese doing it,” he says. This was particularly unexpected and depressing because Zhang thought the very reason he moved was to excel in this market.
“Facing such an unfavourable situation, I thought: I’m a person who cultivates truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance,” he says. “If everything is smooth, how can I improve in cultivation? So I decided not to complain and took it as a test. It will never be wrong to insist on being a compassionate and forbearing person.”
With his optimistic attitude, Zhang launched into action, visiting potential customers every day all over the city. Finally, he closed his first client, who then introduced Zhang to his friends, and his business took off. In 2015, Zhang’s new business growth ranked first in Canada at his bank.
“On the surface, my work seems to have no direct connection with my cultivation practice, Falun Gong, but actually, they have a close connection,” he says. “Private bankers need to coordinate professionals in multiple fields, from customers to accounting firms, to lawyers, to other departments in the bank. You can do everything smoothly only after you win their trust and respect. Following Falun Gong’s principles of truthfulness, compassion, and forbearance is the best way to deal with interpersonal relationships because all people will recognize those good people who meet with this standard.”
Zhang remembers one interaction that truly encouraged him, both personally and professionally. A new immigrant from China wanted to buy a $10-million mansion and applied for a loan.
“After examining his information, I found he didn’t qualify for the loan,” says Zhang. Since bank employees have such demanding goals, sometimes they’ll fabricate evidence to reach their targets. But Zhang decided to take the honourable path.
“I told him the truth, and I thought things would end there,” he says. “However, he told me that I’m very honest and reliable, so he decided to be my client and handed me other business.”
Zhang emphasizes that the effects of poor character in banking can have dire consequences.
“It is completely undoable,” he says. “Banks have their own audit system and can easily find the problem. These workers will be fired and the clients are likely to have bad credit unknowingly.”
Zhang recommends that new immigrants who apply for loans must not cheat and must carefully read the documents before signing them.
After the struggles and successes Zhang has experienced after immigrating, he sees life as being similar to one of his favourite pastimes, long-distance running.
“Sprinting is a competition for speed, while long-distance running is about endurance,” he says. “When the body is exhausted, whoever can grit their teeth to the end will win.”
With that confidence and positive outlook, Zhang sees only a bright future ahead.
“The financial industry is limitless,” he says. “I can always walk on my road of cultivation in life like this.”
Text by David Lee Photography by Evan Ning