Jack Widener ( 溫佳克 )

Asian American/Taiwan

Jack: My ethnic background is kind of interesting. My dad is from rural Iowa. My mom is full-blooded, indigenous Taiwanese. Before mainland Chinese or Japanese went to Taiwan, her tribe was already there. 

 

After being in the air force for 16 years, my dad needed a break. His pastor sent him to Taiwan, and there, he met my mom at an orphanage. He then went back to America but felt called to go back to Taiwan. The second time he went back, he and my mom built a romantic relationship using sticky notes. He didn't know Chinese, and my mom didn't know English at the time. My mom still doesn't really speak English, so my dad speaks Mandarin.

 

I grew up in Taiwan for most of my life but moved to Iowa in fourth grade. I was taken out of the Chinese public school system in Taiwan and was dropped into American public school. That's where I first learned English. After three years, I moved back to Taiwan. 

 

Eliza: Feel free to give your own spin on this question. How old were you when you first realized that you were different? 

 

Jack: On two different occasions, I realized I'm not fully Asian and not fully American. 

 

First was when I was in third grade in Taiwan. I was playing on a soccer team for my school and our team made two finals. When all the teams in our district came together to play, other teams said, "They have two Americans on their team." But my brother and I grew up with our teammates in the same village. We ate food with their families. So, to me, I didn't see any difference between my teammates and myself, but everyone else treated us differently because of our color. 

 

People treated me more nicely because they treat foreigners very differently in Taiwan, especially Europeans and Americans, in a positive and somewhat idolizing way. I feel like I experienced some of that when I was younger. 

 

The second time I realized I was different was in Iowa. So we're talking country, a farming community with the weirdness of a town square- everybody knows everybody. In sports, my brother and I stood out. When people would meet my mom at sports games, they'd go, "Who's that?" When I said she was my mother, they would throw racist jokes around. I experienced racism and bullying during those three years.

 

I actually beat up my bully the last day of school just before leaving.

Eliza: Wow, Jack, I wouldn’t have pinned you down as that sort of person.

 

Jack: I wouldn’t either. Haha. But it was good.

 

They just looked down on Asians. Because I was part Asian, they treated me differently. 

 

Eliza: Could you elaborate a little bit on the discrimination you say you faced?

 

Jack: For example, YouTube and Facebook were new, so memes were being made that made fun of other countries, especially China. I think people just put me in that box. Or they would ask, "Are you from Thailand?" But it's Taiwan. My teacher had to pull down a map in front of everyone and ask me to locate Taiwan on it. I remember everyone giving me weird looks. It was like they didn't care, but they were also curious. 

 

Eliza: How old were you again? 

 

Jack: I was in fourth grade. 

 

Eliza: That's an impressionable age.

 

Jack: But then, because my sports was good and I was fast, people were like, "Okay, he's cool." 

 

Eliza: So you kind of needed to prove that you were cool because your Asian-ness wasn't cool?

 

Jack: Yes. I remember actually turning away from the Asian part of myself. I shut it down because I had no one to speak Mandarin to besides my mom. I actually lost my Mandarin, and that's when my parents took my brother, sister and me back to Taiwan. Also, my mom experienced far more racism than my brother and I did. 

 

Eliza: Could you elaborate on what your mom faced?

 

Jack: I don't know entirely what she experienced, but I do know that she struggled a lot transitioning to Iowa. She didn't have a car. The food was different. I don't think there was any direct, intentional racism, but it was... almost in the system. The system favors the Caucasian majority.

 

Eliza: You said that foreigners get treated really well in Taiwan. On a daily basis, what does that look like for you?

 

Jack: If I ever go to a mall, I know I'll get looks. I get a lot of attention when people hear me speak Mandarin. When a waiter tries to speak English to me to be nice, and I say, "wo ke yi shuo zhong wen (I can speak Mandarin)," they go, "Whoa, no way!" A lot of times people want to take pictures of me. At markets, people buy me food for free or invite me to places.

 

Eliza: Dang.

 

Jack: So yeah. And I try not to take advantage of that. I know people are curious, so I just tell them about me. If I tell them that I'm half aboriginal, that's even more distinct. My background is not common.

 

Eliza: Do your siblings get similar reactions? 

 

Jack: My sister did because she had blond hair. People would approach my mom at the market and ask, "Hey, what hair dye did you use?" You will see students wanting to dye their hair a lighter color like brown or light brown, getting colored eye contacts, or wanting to dress more "American." They want their skin to look whiter.

 

I think the reason for White privilege overseas is, in Taiwan, when we think America, we think Kobe, we think big actors like Brad Pitt… all the great things in America, from LA to New York to Chicago. I feel like people overseas attach that perspective onto anybody they see who's American. Like they're a celebrity almost. They almost idolize them. That's why people think America's better. When they see us-when they see me-they don't just see me. They see the America that's being communicated through entertainment and the media. I know I have some White privilege. But for me, realizing it and understanding it helps. 

 

Eliza: Do you feel guilt or shame?

 

Jack: Yeah, I definitely do feel guilt and shame sometimes. I'm a male, and I look White. I know there's privilege there already. Sometimes I wonder if, when people see me, do they think of Trump? Because that's what's attached to it. So, I have to learn how to advocate for students who don't share that equality, who are minorities in the system. I think the best thing I can do right now is volunteering, ensuring support, and engaging in interpersonal relationships.

 

It's a balance. But it's also a blessing because I can go back and forth. At my international school, I can hang out with my missionary kids or American friends but also play League of Legends with my Asian friends. I can share interests both ways.

 

Eliza: You mentioned not fully identifying with either group. Does that make you feel a disconnect from either the American or Asian side of you?

 

Jack: I had to have a lot of mentors help me with that. I have also seen other people react in a way I've promised myself I'm not going to. For example, I'm not going to go out of my way to prove that I'm either Asian or not Asian. 

 

Eliza: How would you describe the culture within your home?

 

Jack: I would say... it's more Asian-culture influenced. When we eat, we eat together as a family. I'm not saying that people from individualistic cultures don't do that. There's no TV involved. We take our shoes off at the door. We have our tuo xies (slippers) that we use in the house. We have variety of food-from Asian to American food. I speak Mandarin to my mom, English to my dad, and Chinglish (Chinese and English combined) to my siblings. Even though, right now, we're living in an individualistic culture in Iowa, it still feels like Asian dominated culture in the house. 

 

When I feel the most Asian is when I talk to people about Taiwan or when I call my mom because I speak Mandarin. I also follow this page called subtle asian traits on Facebook. In the midst of this broken world, there's just a few things that hold us together, and that Facebook page is one of them. I love being able to get all the jokes that Asian students make at Asbury. 

 

Eliza: So, the opposite, can you think about a time when you felt the most disconnected from being Asian?

 

Jack: I think if I'm in an atmosphere where it's all White, the majority culture, that's when I feel most disconnected because I realize that I'm the only person in the room who's half Asian, but the thing is, no one knows.

 

Eliza: Right, so you can hide it if you choose to.

 

Jack: Yeah, to make it look like I am White. I can hide it. And I'm not trying to project it to everyone like, "Hey guys, look at me. I'm half Asian." I'm not trying to do that. But if I'm in a room and everyone is White, yeah, that's when I feel the most "not Asian." 

 

This goes back to my physical appearance. I don't feel like I have experienced discrimination on Asbury's campus because I can partly connect with the culture here. I speak English. But I have friends who do feel like they have, unintentionally or indirectly. So I personally don't, but I know I carry the weight with other people.

 

Eliza: Sweet, thank you. That's all.

 

Jack: Cool.

 

© 2020 by Eliza Tan