Jie “Sophie” Zhang and Shia Kent
International Family Feels at Home in Homewood
By Jeff Hansen
Jie “Sophie” Zhang and her husband, Shia Kent, moved to Homewood’s Mayfair neighborhood one year ago, when they finally left what they call “the UAB bubble.”
They had entered the bubble as graduate students at the University of Alabama at Birmingham in 2005. Like many of their classmates, they lived in the Southside neighborhood, just a short walk from their classes at the Ryals School for Public Health. After dating and marriage, they bought a home on 14th Street South near Dreamland Bar-B-Que.
However, the arc of their lives was destined to head Over the Mountain, for the usual reason — a new baby. When daughter Inara Kent was born, Sophie and Shia started to look at the suburbs.
“We wanted some diversity, and we liked the walkability of Homewood,” Shia said. “But our main thing was to move for the schools.”
Homewood gets something in return. When international UAB families like Sophie and Shia settle Over the Mountain, they bring a diversity of culture, language, customs and experiences that adds spice to life in the suburbs.
One obvious difference is unusual names, such as Jie Zhang. Jie means “pure,” and while that name may sound exotic to American ears, it’s “super common in China,” Shia said. “Jie Zhang in China is like John Smith in America.”
With such a commonplace Chinese name, Sophie sought an uncommon name for their daughter. The couple picked Inara from a musician’s name on Pandora Internet Radio.
The Chinese often adopt Western nicknames as they interact with English-speaking, non-Chinese people. Sophie’s father, for example, is Tingpu “Tim” Zhang. When she was a student at Sichuan University in Chengdu, China, she adopted the nickname “Sophie.” She chose it, she said, because Sophism is the art of argument.
Inara, like many other babies and toddlers, also got a nickname — though hers is Chinese. She’s known as Doudou (pronounced “dough dough”), which means “Little Bean.”
After Doudou was born, both of Sophie’s parents came for long visits to help with childcare. Sophie’s mother, Jiyu Wu, came for eight months right after the birth, and she visited another six months when Sophie, Shia and Doudou moved to Homewood.
Though grandmother Wu spoke no English, she could walk to the nearby Piggly Wiggly or CVS Pharmacy on U.S. 31 to do her shopping.
Grandmother Wu would also take Doudou to Overton Park on Mayfair Drive, which residents call the “hidden park.” A copse of trees gives cool shade in the heat of summer, making it an ideal place for toddlers to play.
When Doudou, now a 3-year-old, inquisitive girl with brown bangs, is ready for school, she will use the pedestrian tunnel that runs underneath U.S. 31 to walk to Shades Cahaba Elementary school without crossing a single street.
One Homewood highlight for Doudou is the two girls next door.
“We have great neighbors,” Sophie said. “They have 9- and 11-year-old daughters. Doudou loves the girls, and they love her.”
Sophie, now an assistant professor of public health at UAB, grew up in Kunming, the capital city of Yunnan Province. Kunming, with about 3.6 million urban residents, is deep in southwestern China where the tropics begin, yet the climate is mild because the city sits 6,200 feet above sea level. Sophie’s native language is Mandarin, and she began learning English in junior high school.
One of Sophie’s grandmothers belonged to the Bai ethnic group, one of China’s 56 different ethnic groups. Family lore tells how a Catholic priest helped the grandmother escape an arranged marriage in Dali and flee 170 miles to Kunming, where she was educated to be a nurse for a Catholic school.
“She always had a Bible,” said Sophie, who was still in elementary school when her Bai grandmother died. “But I don’t really know the nature of my grandmother’s religion. I don’t know how much the religion meant to her.”
Having parents who live in a different country can mean hard holiday travel. Sophie and Doudou just returned from a four-week visit with Sophie’s parents in Kunming. When the original flight to China was canceled, they flew from Atlanta through Los Angeles with an overnight layover and then to Beijing. It took 36 hours, and their luggage took another two days to arrive.
While in China, Sophie used her computer to continue her research in pharmicoepidemiology. She uses large databases to probe how frequently certain drugs are prescribed among a large population of patients and what effects those drugs have on human health.
Shia, now a postdoctoral fellow, is also an epidemiologist — which in simple terms means he studies disease distributions in human population. His focus is on hypertension and blood pressure treatment.
Shia grew up in San Jose, Calif., and spent 18 months in manufacturing quality control for a biotechnology company after college. After some travel in Thailand, Cambodia, Vietnam and Laos and a temporary biotechnology job back in the Bay Area, he spent a year teaching English in a rural western district of Hunan Province, China.
Because of his link to northern California, Shia and Sophie held their wedding in the Santa Cruz Mountains just southwest of Silicon Valley with a reception in the historic Scopazzi’s Restaurant.
But the pull of science is always close at hand for academic researchers.
The next day, the newlyweds went to San Francisco so Sophie could attend the annual meeting of the American College of Rheumatology.