China Huskies

From Yueyang to Seattle: A Husky’s self-discovery through art

What’s the single thing you liked best about the UW? For Hongzhe (Benji) Liang, ’15, the answer is easy: Room 10, the small computer lab in the School of Art used by photomedia students. For Liang, room 10 is where he learned to take pictures, made his first video, discovered a community of artists and met some of his best friends.

From the series "A Funeral Before Another Funeral" by Hongzhe Liang.

From the series “A Funeral Before Another Funeral” by Hongzhe Liang.

Liang hadn’t expected to study in the U.S., but his parents wanted him to attend an American university. Immediately after finishing his high school exams, Liang’s father arranged for him to move from his hometown of Yueyang to Beijing and participate in an immersive two-month English language-learning program provided through New Oriental. After completing it, Liang remained in Beijing, worked on his visa and college applications, and continued to practice English on his own. Since he had received good grades in math, he decided to focus on American schools that had strong math programs. UW was one, so he applied and was accepted.

Upon arriving in Seattle, Liang participated in the UW FIUTS (the Foundation for International Understanding Through Students) homestay program. He developed a meaningful relationship with the Seattle host family with whom he lived for a week before classes began. But once he moved onto campus, he had a different experience: “I came to the UW by myself—I didn’t work with an agency like other Chinese students did, and I didn’t know anyone from China who was going to attend school here.” He had a difficult time connecting with other students and often felt bored during his freshman year.

After trying to get involved with a few clubs, but not feeling that he fit with any of them, Liang decided to take a photography course. His father had given him a DSLR camera as a gift for getting accepted to college. Liang hoped the class would teach him how to use his new camera.

That class, he says, changed everything for him.

He studied photography basics and was introduced to other equipment—printers, computers and software programs. He learned about technique, lighting and how to use a darkroom. And he met people who shared his newfound interest. Encouraged by his fellow students, Liang decided to enroll in a second photography course after the first ended. And then another. “I just kept learning more and making friends,” he says.

Liang loved photography and struggled with how to continue taking classes offered through the School of Art’s photomedia program while majoring in math, as his parents expected him. For a time he tried to double-major in math and photomedia but eventually came to a realization: he wanted to devote himself to studying and making art.

“This was the first major decision about my life that I’d ever really made for myself,” he recalls. He was nervous to tell his father and even hid it from him for a while. He remembers, “My dad was upset when he finally found out, but my decision felt like the right path for me, and I couldn’t let it go.” As Liang pursued his studies, he updated his dad about everything: his excitement with the new material he was learning, examples of his photos and video projects, invitations he accepted to display his work in art shows and on websites, scholarships he received and awards for which he was nominated (such as the School of Art’s Louis and Katherine March Scholarship and the Parnassus Graduate with Excellence Award). Eventually, his father began to accept—and support—his son’s decision.

At the UW, Liang also gained another valuable skillset: job skills. A graduating friend was leaving a part-time job as a student videographer for the UW’s Simpson Center for the Humanities and suggested that Liang apply for it. He had never applied for a job before, so he wrote his first resume and cover letter. His classmates helped him practice for the interview.

Being at the Simpson Center helped Liang understand the difference between creating art projects and work projects: “Most of the art I make is for myself—I can explore what I want to explore—but there were many different factors that shaped the stories we told through video projects at the Simpson Center, and it was good for me to gain experience collaborating with supervisors as well as scholars outside of my program.” He adds that working taught him the value of time management and being responsible for his own money—skills from which he will greatly benefit now that he has graduated.

From the series "A Funeral Before Another Funeral" by Hongzhe Liang.

From the series “A Funeral Before Another Funeral” by Hongzhe Liang.

More than anything, though, Liang credits the photomedia program with helping him develop the critical thinking skills necessary for personal and artistic growth. “It is a conceptually heavy program,” he says. “The more time I spent in it, the more I began to question things—both art and life. I felt myself shift—I started thinking more and asking questions before acting or simply accepting answers.”

Liang did not make art when he lived in China, and his first trip home was three years after he’d been in Seattle. “I wanted to reflect on the culture and place in which I grew up, but I realized that I didn’t know it in the same way as I thought I did,” he recalls. He describes the experience as “reverse culture shock”—a feeling that has stuck with him and is something he often thinks about when creating art projects, no matter the medium (he now works with videography and installations as well as photography). “It’s been an interesting process for me,” he says, “The more work I make, the more I go back in time—to revisit, ask why, rethink and question.”

Liang plans to go to graduate school for art but wants to make sure he finds the right fit—for himself. He hopes to stay in Seattle and develop deeper relationships in the local art community while he researches artist residencies and graduate programs.

Above all, he is grateful for the personal growth he underwent and friends he made at the UW. “It’s important to discover how to make the opportunity to study in the U.S. your own—how to be honest with yourself and shape it into a meaningful experience for you,” he says.

Visit Liang’s website to see more of his work.