Jason Chen – IE Advertising Representative – Parents from two different worlds share one to call home.
Jason Chen, 25, has lived in Washington his entire life, but his ties to Taiwan are a huge part of his identity.
Growing up in an affluent Bellevue neighborhood, Chen enrolled in one of the best school districts in the nation. This privilege came from the humble beginnings of his Taiwanese immigrant parents.
Jack and Shutsen Chen met as students at the University of Washington. Both hailed from Taiwan but grew up under different circumstances.
Chang-Huei “Jack” Chen, originally from Taiwan’s capital of Taipei, went to high school in Japan then moved to Seattle as an international student at 18 years-old – a privilege for sons of well-to-do families. “[My father] had financial privilege that probably shaped his experience,” Chen said.
Even though Jack knew how to speak English before he arrived in Seattle, Chen said there were times he thinks his father felt like an outsider. “He could communicate but at the same time it was obvious, from his accent to the way he dressed, that he was an immigrant,” Chen said. “I think he did feel like an outcast to an extent.”
While pursuing an accounting degree at the UW, Chen’s father experienced discrimination. “When he went to The Ave [in the University District] to get a haircut, he experienced name calling and impatient people because of the way he looked,” Chen said.
Transitioning to a new culture was more difficult for Chen’s mother, Shutsen, who left Taiwan at 16 years-old. Shutsen came from a working-class family from Taichung, Taiwan. Today the city is the third-largest metropolis in the country. She moved to Washington state by herself in 1978. “It was harder for her to adjust,” Chen said. “She was lonely.”
But Chen said she was always determined. “She’s extremely strong-willed,” he said. “One of the hardest workers I know.”
Shutsen moved to the rural Pierce County town of Orting and lived with an aunt who had already settled there.
“My parents decided I should come here without my consent,” Shutsen said. “I didn’t know I had a voice so I said ‘ok’ and I stayed with my aunt and her husband.”
Days before she left for America, her friends planned a going-away party. They played the guitar and sang songs, not knowing when she would return. She felt her friends in Taiwan were irreplaceable and found it difficult to make new ones in Orting.
“My mom would visit me every year, but I wanted to go home,” she said.
“I really wanted to have a friend to talk to. I did not feel like I was rejected but I did not feel like I fit in.”
Learning English was another barrier. Shutsen learned the basics at an Orting high school but struggled with reading. It took her three to five hours to finish assignments that her classmates completed in an hour. In addition, she had to help maintain her uncle’s farm in Orting. Shutsen’s uncle worked as an engineer but grew cucumbers part-time.
“I had to get up at 5 o’clock in the morning and work until 9 o’clock at night,” Shutsen said. “It wasn’t what I was expecting. It was tough.”
The time invested on the farm caused a strain on the family. Shutsen’s aunt was so unhappy that she moved to Japan with her daughter. Shutsen had to care for the 6-year-old son her aunt left behind. “I took over her role,” she said. “I cooked and cleaned for a year. Then I went to college.”
Shutsen’s immediate family in Taiwan eventually moved to Puyallup in the 1980s, where her parents operated a motel business. “My dad worked extremely hard,” she said. “He did 90 percent of the work himself.”
Although Shutsen’s experience was a difficult adjustment, she was ultimately glad her parents sent her to America. “I think it’s a better life here,” she said. “Better opportunity and better life for my kids also.”
Jason Chen followed in his parents’ footsteps and graduated from UW in 2009. He credits his parents for the values they instilled in him such as an emphasis on education and not focusing on material wealth.
He currently works at the Examiner as an advertising representative. In the fall he will enroll into a master’s degree program for Public Administration in Washington, D.C. and hopes to one day start a non-profit organization of his own.
Chen is proud of his Taiwanese roots but identifies with his American culture. “I associate myself way more with America, but I’m still Taiwanese,” he said. “I think that’s important to note because I’m not just American – I’m Taiwanese American.”
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