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What memes can teach you about Chinese

Photo: Seaton Huang, a fourth-year student, recently worked, studied, and volunteered in China for seven months. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Northeastern student Seaton Huang won a scholarship from the Fulbright-Hays Group Projects Abroad program to work, study, and volunteer in China for seven months.

The program, which is funded by the United States Department of Education to support students and faculty who want to study a foreign language overseas, brought him to Xian, China, to study at the Shaanxi Normal University and intern at the Silk Road Chamber of International Commerce, where he translated documents for the organization and managed its social media.

“This was a really challenging but rewarding experience,” said Huang, who is majoring in Asian Studies. “It forced me into a new environment where I had no choice but to work on perfecting my Chinese.”

During his time in China, he made friends with local Chinese students who helped him to develop his language skills. His new friends sent him memes in Chinese that taught him the nuances of the Chinese language and helped him better understand pop culture, slang, and humor.

Photos by Seaton Huang

“The memes were actually indispensable because language is a dynamic changing thing,” said Huang. “If you’re just reading academic books, you’re never going to get a grasp of how language is really being used in the contemporary world.”

Huang’s scholarship funded four study trips to different regions in China. On the program’s study trip to Beijing, Huang volunteered at The Dandelion School, a boarding school for children of migrant workers. He lived at the boarding school for two weeks and taught English to the students, which, he said, would help them reach their full potential.

“Each day had its own challenges. One day, I’d be corralling 30 middle-schoolers onto public transportation to go see the Forbidden City, [a palace in Beijing], and on other days we’d be working on basic English sounds,” said Huang. “But my biggest takeaway was that no matter what, teachers need to be invested in each individual student’s growth.”

Seaton Huang. Photo by Matthew Modoono/Northeastern University

Huang said that joining the Progressive Student Alliance and the Students Against Institutional Discrimination group on Northeastern’s campus inspired him to switch his major from economics to Asian studies and explore his heritage as a Chinese American.

“After witnessing the work of incredible activists of color, I realized how important it was to learn more about my culture,” said Huang. “I approached this study abroad with a cultural lens that I learned through activism.”

Huang’s experience marked the first time he had visited his parents’ homeland as an adult. He celebrated the Chinese New Year, which he compared to a two-week-long version of Thanksgiving, with relatives, many of whom he had never met before.

“This trip was an important cultural bridge for me because I’ve never been so enveloped in Chinese culture like this before,” he said. “It strengthened me personally and gave me more sense of direction academically.”

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