CBS News Correspondent Weijia Jiang Reflects On Growing Up In West Virginia, Being An 'Other'
Weijia Jiang was born in China but immigrated to Buckhannon in Upshur County when she was a child. Today, she is the White House Correspondent for CBS News in Washington, D.C.
She is currently writing a book titled “Other” about her life growing up in West Virginia and her professional life since then.
Eric Douglas spoke with her by Zoom from the White House Press Room.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity.
Douglas: Let's talk about how you came to West Virginia. I know you were born in China, but moved here when you were two. How did that all come about?
Jiang: I was born in China and then my dad was applying to graduate schools in the U.S. And he got a scholarship at WVU. So he brought our family there, and we never left, because I think he just fell in love with the landscape and the beauty of West Virginia. So we settled down there, and that's where I grew up and graduated from high school.
Douglas: Your beginnings in journalism started pretty early. In middle school I believe.
Jiang: We had a video production class in middle school, and I was really interested in it. I think my middle school teacher saw potential, so she helped me nurture that passion and turn it into something more. And then, at the time, a company called Channel One News out of Los Angeles, produced newscasts for middle school and high schoolers. And it was distributed throughout the country.
Every year, they had an annual competition that you could apply for, to be a student producer of the show, and I won, to be an anchor and a reporter. And so they flew me out to LA for two weeks. And it was really a life changing experience. Because after I saw what journalism was about in practice, I knew that it was something I wanted to pursue, even at age 13.
Douglas: Your undergraduate degree isn't in journalism. You didn't pursue that when you got out of high school.
Jiang: Right, I went to William and Mary, it's a liberal arts school in Virginia, I applied to several different schools and ended up getting a full scholarship there. And so it was just a no brainer. And even though they didn't have a journalism or communications program, I was just really interested in a liberal arts education, which I think is really helpful if you're really going to be a journalist.
For me, the top quality of a journalist is someone who's really curious and curious about learning. So even though I didn't formally study journalism, I think everything that I learned, especially with my major being philosophy, I use that every day when I write and tell stories.
Douglas: Tell me about life growing up in Upshur County for you.
Jiang: Well, it was a mixed bag. I mean, Upshur County is so beautiful. And I think there's a foundation there of an appreciation of art. Our main street was filled with antique shops that had art as a showcase. There is a college there as well. So, it was diverse in that sense because it drew people from everywhere to go to school there. But Upshur County is pretty rural. When you're a kid, anything that makes you different, and makes you stand out, can be a challenge and I think that's why, as a kid, you strive to just sort of fit in whatever way you can. And that was hard for me because I stuck out like a sore thumb.
I think it took awhile for people to understand our differences. And, ultimately, I think I overcame a lot of challenges just by throwing myself into extracurricular activities, and really excelling at school. So I felt like if I could just show myself and do things like win a national competition in journalism, or win a Golden Horseshoe, it showed that I was invested in the community, and I think, ultimately gained acceptance and had a lot of fun growing up there.
I wouldn't trade it for anything, even if it was hard sometimes, because I felt like I was able to be a real kid, I played outside every day, I got dirty, literally playing in the mud, riding four-wheelers. I think that that sort of upbringing really allows you to develop that part of you as a kid. It's important just to learn what it's like to have fun outdoors. And West Virginia has so much to offer when it comes to that, that I really enjoyed growing up there.
Douglas: The new book, “Other,” is scheduled to come out next spring. As I understand it, the idea is the times in your life or your career that you have felt like an other. Were there times growing up in Upshur County that you felt like an other, like an outsider?
Jiang: I think the entire time, because even though you learn how to adapt, and you become part of different friend groups and the community in some ways, just being so different from everyone else, I always felt that. And I mean, I'm not going to sugarcoat it. There were definitely times in my life throughout my childhood and growing up in West Virginia, where the other kids made sure that I felt different, and told me to go back to where I came from, and asked me if I could see because my eyes were so small. And I think that stems from a lack of education about different cultures. And also kids can be bullies. And unfortunately, that's true no matter where you are in the world.
Douglas: I'm assuming that “Other” is not just about West Virginia, though. It's your career as a woman, as an Asian American. Is that an accurate statement?
Jiang: I think that's accurate, because no matter whether I was in West Virginia, I felt like I wasn't American enough because I wrongly associated being American with being white since everyone around me was white. And they were telling me to go back to my home country. And then in China, you know, I'm the foreign relative who married a white guy and then, in a newsroom, I often replaced somebody who looked like me. So there were times where I was the only person of color in a newsroom, and even covering the White House. There were times where I felt isolated, because there weren't many Asian American reporters who covered President Trump on a daily basis, and I was the only Chinese American reporter who did that regularly. And so that paired with what was happening with the pandemic, and the rhetoric surrounding the virus just sort of brought to light.
The fact that even though I left West Virginia, even though I'm no longer a child, a lot of the same issues that I faced are still here, whether I'm an adult or a child. So I think that's where the title came from. And now that I'm watching members of the Asian American community under attack from coast to coast. I think a lot of people also feel like they are an other in their own country, because they're being singled out and blamed for something that is not their fault. And so even though they are Americans, they're being judged and attacked because of the way they look. And so I think that's where the otherness factor comes into play, and, unfortunately, has led to where we are right now.
Douglas: I want to talk about some of the violence against Asian Americans. Where do you think that's coming from?
Jiang: It's definitely coming from misinformation and a lack of education. I think that the rhetoric around the virus, calling it the China Virus, or the Wuhan Flu, immediately links the virus to a place. And while it did come from there, it's spread across the world. And the virus does not discriminate. It attacks everybody, no matter what color or gender or where you come from. And so I think people, wrongly, immediately associate the virus with China and Chinese people. But the problem is it's Asian Americans from all backgrounds that are getting attacked. And it's just because they look vaguely Asian, that people are saying terrible things about how they are to blame for the pandemic.
So I really think it's a lack of education. A lot of these people are Asian Americans who have never even been to China. And so to somehow place blame on that, for a virus that has made its way around the globe, is irrational. I think people are angry that their lives have been turned upside down. And I get that. I've talked to so many people about that. But we can't place the blame. Instead, I think in order to be productive and move forward, you have to understand the science behind the virus, and how it spreads and what you can do to protect you and your family.
Douglas: I remember this time last year several stories came out that nobody was going to Chinese restaurants out of some bizarrely misplaced fear. There's a basic reaction or a gut reaction to some things, you don't understand it. So you react in fear.
Jiang: Right. A lot of these restaurants had to shut down and to be clear, restaurants all over the place, no matter what kind of food they served, have had to shut down because of the pandemic. But I do think that there's an extra layer attached to Chinese restaurants and Asian restaurants for the same reason, which is a lack of understanding and really a discrimination against an entire community, just because the way they look.
Douglas: You gained some national and international attention because of some of the interactions you had with President Trump in the White House. What was that experience like for you, when when the president of the United States is saying some things to you that were covertly racist, if not overtly racist?
Jiang: As a journalist, you have to always have your purpose, and the reason why you are doing what you do, in your mind at all times. And so I'm constantly thinking about the fact that we're in a deadly pandemic, and people need answers, they need the truth about what the administration is doing. So that's what I really focused on and tried to allow that to drive me and not allow the distractions to get in the way.
Because a lot of times, I think, when President Trump wanted to change the narrative and change the headline, he would self-create a distraction, whether it's on Twitter, or whether it was in person. This story is the most important story I'll probably ever cover in my life, because it is a matter of life and death. And the information that you're bringing to people helps them make decisions that can frankly, save a life. So feeling the weight of the coverage, I really just try to get into that, and not take anything personally, whether it is a questionable statement or not.
Douglas: It was a distraction, trying to take you off of the job you were trying to do.
Jiang: Or take away from the real story, which was a response to the pandemic, that was not enough, that was not good enough at the time, because there was not enough testing. At the time, there weren't vaccines. You know, the President was sending mixed messages about mitigation factors about whether to wear masks. So he was really in the hot seat every day getting grilled by not only me, but all of my colleagues about why the response was still leading to so many cases and so many deaths. And so I think in order to distract from that, it wasn't just with me, but he created opportunities to change the narrative.
Douglas: What's the situation like in the briefing room now?
Jiang: I think a lot hasn't changed. I mean, if you watch the briefings, you'll see me and my colleagues asking tough questions, and pressing the press secretary about what they're doing to make sure people have what they need to get out of this pandemic. I don't know if people tune in to the White House briefings every day, like they used to because the president used to hold them and now President Biden does not do that. But if they did, I think they would see a lot of the same things, which is just journalists doing the job that we've been doing for decades and decades, trying to find answers and hold those in power accountable.
Douglas: What was what prompted you to actually write the book to focus on that aspect of your life?
Jiang: Well, exactly what we've been talking about this call, which is that I realized it wasn't just to me. In this moment, a lot of Americans are feeling like an other in their own country. And so I thought my personal story could help people gain understanding about that otherness and about the misconceptions people have. I just wanted to share my story with the hope that it sparks conversation and helps other people who are going through something similar during this really historic time in our country.
I just want to say one more thing. Anytime I talk about, or talk to anyone from West Virginia is that I think, in some ways West Virginians feel like the other in this country sometimes because they are misunderstood, too. And there are stereotypes linked to West Virginia, and there is misinformation linked to West Virginia. And so even though it is a small state, it is incredibly mighty with people who have the biggest heart who really helped foster my growth and gave me the chances to reach my potential in middle school and in high school. And so I think being something other than is not just about race, it's about socio-economic dynamics, it's about opportunities. It's about funding in states that are sorely lacking in some areas. I mean, my parents still don't have broadband. And so I think the more we can do to try to understand each other, just as humans and as fellow Americans, the closer we can get to finding unity, and really celebrating everything that this country is.
Douglas: I actually had that same thought about West Virginians as other when I first saw the title of your book. In some ways, you're an other twice. You're another here. But when you identify this from being from West Virginia, you probably also get that eyebrow raised or some wisecrack about West Virginia.
Jiang: Exactly. I think people assume that when I'm talking about that, they automatically mean it's because I'm a Chinese American and I look different. That's true, but it's also because I'm a West Virginian. And it's not only internationally, but some people in the U.S. don't realize that I'm not talking about the state of Virginia. I'm talking about West Virginia. And it is unfair to judge any state and the people that come from there when you might not have ever been there or understood the communities. So I think that you're right. I have these two perspectives that hopefully someone can take something away from my story when I share it.
The book is due out from Simon and Schuster in the spring of 2022. This story is part of a series of interviews with authors from, or writing about, Appalachia.