BEMIDJI -- Despite the cruel hand 2020 has dealt him so far, Xiaoming “Sean” Huang isn’t willing to waste what he considers his once in a lifetime chance to learn in America. It would be understandable to be bitter. But he isn’t.
“When I got here, I treated all of the things like they were miracles. I don’t want to waste my time,” Huang said. “When a chance is given to you and you’re holding it in your hand, you don’t want to waste it, right?”
After jumping through countless bureaucratic hoops to come to the U.S., things kept falling through for the interior design professor from Nanning, China.
His dream to visit America for his sabbatical year didn’t look like it was going to happen -- until Bemidji State University offered him a spot as a NorthStar visiting scholar. He jumped at the chance to experience an American university. He absorbed material like a sponge, savoring every moment. All at once, COVID-19 took it away from him.
Now, he is lonely. Unable to access the design studio, unable to return to China.
But, he isn’t letting it get the best of him. In an attempt to show off what he learned here while making himself -- and hopefully others -- feel better, Huang released a virtual art gallery online, titled Until We Meet Again. It is a love letter to BSU, America and the people he’s met here.
Trying to get here
Huang is a NorthStar visiting scholar studying in the Department of Technology, Art and Design at BSU. He worked as an instructor of interior design at his home institution, Nanning Vocational and Technical College. As a designer and educator, Huang has seven years of experience teaching principles of interior design, drawing and perspective, 3D design software, interior design color and lighting and more. He earned a bachelor’s degree in environmental art design and holds a master’s degree in design with an emphasis in Southwestern ethnical architectural and landscape design.
He began the process of journeying to the U.S. in 2018. He found an institution willing to accept him and had been in conversations with faculty there for months. But a short time before the acceptance deadline, he was informed the professor with whom he had been working was leaving and he could no longer come.
Huang was devastated. He thought he missed his sole opportunity to come to America, but he wasn’t willing to give up yet. He frantically asked everyone he knew about other possible connections. Someone suggested BSU.
“I finally got a reply, and it was BSU,” he said. “I felt so excited.”
He was on the train to work when he received an email from Patrick Liu, director of the international program center at BSU. Soon enough, things came together and Huang was on his way to Bemidji State as a NorthStar Visiting Scholar for the 2019-2020 academic year.
The NorthStar Visiting Scholars Academy is a program for short-term visitors, including visiting faculty, scholars and student ambassadors. NorthStar scholars are immersed in the culture and daily life of BSU. For visiting faculty, the program is usually a semester or year in length. While in Bemidji, North Star scholars audit courses, participate in campus activities, visit historical sites, parks, businesses, schools and other places of interest.
Each visiting scholar is assigned a professor at BSU in their discipline as a mentor. Huang’s mentor was Mitch Blessing, an assistant professor in the Technology, Art and Design department -- which turned out to be a literal blessing for Huang.
The first semester at BSU was packed with joy.
Huang tried new things like kayaking and fishing. He made new friends from around the world. He moved into the Glas Scholars house on campus.
Blessing taught Huang about printmaking -- a new medium he fell in love with and dove into wholeheartedly.
As a part of the NorthStar Scholar program, Huang and 14 other scholars from around the world participated in trips around the state -- kayaking in Itasca State Park, shopping at the Mall of America and exploring the North Shore of Lake Superior. One place left a mark on Huang -- the Split Rock Lighthouse, which he saw as a sort of metaphor for his experience in America.
This experience culminated a reduction print of Split Rock Lighthouse, titled, ‘Do You Remember?’ which is now on display in his virtual gallery, to give as a gift to the other visiting scholars.
“This image captured a shared beautiful memory,” he explained.
During the rest of the fall semester, Huang used his newfound free time to learn new things, like cooking.
“I try to do something that I won’t do in China, in my own country, because I don’t have much time. For example, after a long day of work, I feel so tired, I don’t even want to cook, I don’t even want to talk to other people, I just take a nap on the metro. I live far away from my school,” he explained. “After I came here, I started to cook again. And people liked the food that I cooked. I feel so happy with that, we can enjoy it together.”
Everything seems fresh and different in the U.S., Huang explained, so he’s trying to record it all. Huang can often be seen with a GoPro or recording things with his iPhone -- making videos to show his family and students when he returns to China. A sensitive soul, Huang sees meaning in the smallest things.
“I just like to recall things, things that make me feel happy,” he said. “Times change, how time flies, we need something to recall it after a long time.
“This is my first time having been abroad, everything to me is so fresh. So I’m trying to record it, not only for me but for my family.”
Huang spent his winter break exploring New York and Washington D.C. and contrasted the culture there with the atmosphere of Bemidji in his photographs.
“Here is such a quiet and beautiful town, I like here, people are very kind, but in New York is totally different. They also have something I’m interested in there, the culture, so I used my iPhone to record and take the photography,” he said.
Things were going so well for Huang, and then, COVID-19 happened. It began first in his home country of China, and then made its way here.
“This pandemic after I returned back from New York and things happened, it happened in China first, but real quick it happened in the U.S. too, both things I really don’t want to see. I hope that things will get back real quick,” he said.
One of the hardest things for Huang was receiving an email from BSU, informing him he needed to leave the Glas Scholar house, so it could be used for isolation housing if needed.
“I understand that decision,” he said. “But for me, there’s good memories there, so I try to make a video to recall the whole process, that I had to move out of the house. Some of the physical emotion comes out for me.”
Huang recorded the whole process in a video he later uploaded to YouTube. He is now living in Cedar Hall.
“The reason why I liked to live at that house was because I have a lot of good memories with the other visiting scholars, we usually find any chance we can to eat together,” he said. “We can know different cultures, and learn something from different majors, we can give other people some ideas, and that’s a pretty cool thing.”
After moving, he was lonely -- without a car, without the new friends he made -- many returned to their home countries -- and without access to the studio. And he can’t even leave -- he was meant to go back to China in August but wasn’t even able to buy a plane ticket for earlier than October.
He was also supposed to teach a BSU class this summer, it was moved online and then canceled for lack of registration, he said.
For someone experiencing something they had dreamed about so long, the abrupt changes brought on by COVID-19 could seem earth-shattering. They only briefly gave him pause.
He’s chosen to channel these feelings into his work, and soak up the rest of his time in the states feeling the wind in his hair on long bike rides and spending time learning new skills on YouTube. YouTube is blocked by the Chinese government, he explained, so while he has the opportunity to, he watches it excessively.
“Not only did I do the things that I’ve never done before but for me it makes me want to keep on learning, keep on learning how to cook, how to teach, how to edit video on software,” he explained.
Until we meet again
During Huang’s time at BSU, the Talley Gallery in the School of Technology Art and Design has loomed large. He walked past it daily, and hoped before he returned to his country, he’d be able to have his own work displayed there. Due to the pandemic, this no longer seemed possible.
Then, an idea came to him -- he’d rebuild the Talley Gallery virtually.
Huang put all of his varying design skills to the test in this project. He built a digital 3D model of the gallery displaying his work created while in the U.S.
He customized the gallery to his own needs -- along one wall is a river-like timeline, in which he pinpointed his most significant memories -- like meeting Blessing for the first time and visiting Minneapolis.
The showcase includes photography from his winter break trip to New York City and Washington D.C., mere weeks before the pandemic gripped the country. In his images, he captured closeness which he fears we have now lost.
Also in the gallery, are his printmaking pieces of Minnesota, and self-portraits from his time in quarantine.
Entitled, Until We Meet Again, this message is for BSU, the Glas House, America, and the friends he’s made here. His gallery is both a memory book for himself and a mirror for the people of Bemidji to see how this community has affected him.
The gallery has been live online since the end of May, and the response he’s received so far has touched him.
He received a message from someone from New York who said, “‘Thank you for showing me the photography and letting me feel better, not alone,’” he said. “I feel happy for that, even though we don’t know each other, we can show each other powerful things.”
It will be a bittersweet return to China for Huang. He is expecting to experience reverse culture shock and knows that politically, things are changing quickly in his home country. But, he said he is excited to put what he learned to use and prepare for his next adventure. Until we meet again.
For those wanting to explore Huang’s virtual gallery, a link can be found on the BSU website.