Of the many expectations Zijun “Vector” Zhang had about studying abroad when his father broached the idea about four years ago in the family’s home in southern China, at least one has been dispelled.
“It’s generally believed in China that subjects I would study in American schools would be easier than the ones I would study in China,” Vector said last week while relaxing after a day of classes at the Academy of Holy Angels in Richfield. “So I thought, ‘OK, easier subjects, plus my parents won’t be around, hanging over me, I could do that.’ ”
The surprise for Vector (he adopted his American name from a video game) was that classes here aren’t easier. “Especially math and science” he said.
Still, Vector, who speaks English fluently, has settled in nicely in America, and in Minnesota. Though he misses his family in the Fujian province capital city of Fuzhou (population about 6 million) — including an only sibling, a sister, and also misses his grandmother’s cooking — he says American steaks and ribs are excellent stand-ins. Also among newfound favorites are playing piano in the school jazz band, acting in Holy Angels theater productions, including “Arsenic and Old Lace,” participating in math club and Knowledge Bowl …
And squeezing the trigger of a shotgun.
This last interest is notable, given that no one in his family has every owned a gun or even fired one. In China, only military and police officials possess firearms.
Vector nonetheless was intrigued in his sophomore year when he heard via email about the Holy Angels/Richfield High School trap shooting team.
“I told my host father [in the Twin Cities] I was interested in joining,” Vector said. “He said OK, and I took the [DNR] online firearms safety course.”
Notification to his parents in China about his proposed participation in shooting gained a mixed response.
“I would need a gun, and when I called my parents to ask if it was OK, my dad was OK with it,” Vector said. “But my mom said no. And when they told my grandma, she just shook her head.”
Vector’s interest in shooting isn’t unique.
Trap shooting is by far the fastest growing — and safest — high school sport in Minnesota, and elsewhere. As many as 20,000 students will shoot competitively this spring in 18 states, with another 10 states expected to join the prep trap shooting ranks within a year.
And while Minnesota State High School Clay Target League (mnclaytarget.com) competitive shooting doesn’t begin until April 2, a March 1 deadline looms for teams to sign up for the spring season, which will culminate in June with state championships.
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Vector enjoys trap shooting so much that when he posed for his Holy Angels senior picture, he slung his Browning BT-99 12 gauge over one shoulder.
The gun is specially configured for trap shooting and breaks open to receive one cartridge at a time.
Admittedly a poor shot when he first took aim at clay targets, Vector today is a first-rate marksman who during league competition last fall broke 50 straight twice, helping the Richfield/Holy Angels squad win its conference.
And last June in Alexandria, Minn., at the state prep championships, he broke 88x100, slightly lower than he did the year before, when he recorded a 92x100.
“Last year at Alexandria, after I shot, a couple of guys from the U.S. Army came up to me and asked if I would someday like to shoot trap for Army,” Vector said. “I told them I was a citizen of China, not the U.S., and they said: ‘Don’t worry. We can work that out.’ ”
Vector credits his coaches, all of whom are adult volunteers, for his marksmanship.
“The coaches help with my stance and how to aim,” he said. “After that, it just takes practice.”
Bob Brotzel, head coach of the Richfield/Holy Angels team, said Vector is a “quick, intelligent learner.”
“He’s focused and self-driven,” Brotzel said. “He’s always willing to help others learn to shoot trap, and is a captain of our team.”
The mental aspect of shooting is critical, Vector said.
“I think the mental part is more important than the physical part,” he said. “How you focus and react — that’s your brain working. Where the target comes out, where it’s going, how fast it’s traveling. Even if your body is ready, if your mind isn’t ready, you won’t hit it.”
About 40 boys and girls shoot on the Holy Angels/Richfield team. Practices aren’t mandatory, though some team members target 50 practice clays a week at the West End Trap Club in Eagan, the schools’ home range. Another 50 targets are thrown competitively each week.
Schools are arranged by size in conferences, regardless of location in the state. Scores are recorded on the league website.
“In trap shooting you shoot whether it’s rain, shine or snow,” Vector said. “As long as it’s not lightning, the weather doesn’t matter.”
Vector calls his family in China every evening. If nothing big is happening in his life, the conversations, which are in Chinese, are fairly short, perhaps 5 to 8 minutes.
A few weeks back, the calls ran longer, because he was applying to U.S. colleges and wanted to discuss options with his parents. His preferences include the University of Minnesota and various Ivy League schools, among other universities. He hopes to study medicine or business management.
“One reason Chinese students come to high schools in America is to make the college application process here easier,” Vector said. “My counselor at school helped me a lot. Also it helps to be familiar with the American teaching system. Here they teach you how to develop ideas of your own, so when open-ended questions come up, you know how to figure them out.”
Peter and Michele Borne are Vector’s host parents in the Twin Cities. Vector, they say, loves to be involved, and to try new things.
“He’s a unique individual,” Peter Borne said. “He will be successful at whatever he does. He wants to do well and make his family in China proud of him. We tell him we’re already proud of him. We’ll always consider him part of our family.”
Among activities Vector has yet to try in America is hunting, a sport that won’t be available to him when he returns to China. He’s game to give it a go, he said, if the opportunity arises.
“I’ve never done it,” he said. “But I would love to try it.”