A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Public Affairs Television "Becoming American" Interview with Shirley Young

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BILL MOYERS: Let's just begin with your life to date. You divide your time between New York and Shanghai? Tell me about what life is like living in two cultures today.

SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, New York is a vibrant city. I've lived here many, many years. So, it's a wonderful place to be. But Shanghai is like New York, [except that] it's new. Everything is new. Everything is changing. Everything is, we want to do it differently, whereas in New York, everything is established and to try and find a new way of doing it takes a lot of effort. But in China, I think everything is [happening] for the first time. So, it's fascinating. Shanghai decided they needed to be green.

BILL MOYERS: To be green?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: Green. Because they'd build all these shopping centers and have these big cement plazas outside. They decided they should be green, that they needed a green lawn. A lot of people criticized it. So in the last, let's say, three years, 23 percent of the surface are green.

(LAUGHS) So, for example, outside my house, what used to be a big cement plaza, very pleasant, is now sod. And it's grass. I looked out my office one day. This happened in three weeks, just to show you the pace of things. This was right before the APEC [Asian Pacific Economic Council] meeting in Shanghai. And I looked out my window and I burst out laughing, 'cause it was a subway station and outside was a tile plaza before you go into the subway. And in those three weeks I had gone, a garden had just became a park.

And the funniest thing was that it had flower beds that spelled out A-P-E-C. (LAUGHS) And that all happened in three weeks. That was a form of welcome, I guess.

BILL MOYERS: So, you have a sense of a nation being born again?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: A new modern nation?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: My aunt, who has just celebrated her 100th birthday this past summer, was playing cards with her friends in her air-conditioned, very simple apartment. They could order downstairs to the restaurant, send food up. She said, "These are the best years of our lives." She said, "What else could we want? We're sitting here with our friends playing cards. We can order in downstairs, order something up. We're sitting in cool air-conditioned comfort."

BILL MOYERS: And she's 100 years old?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: She's 100 years old. She went through--

BILL MOYERS: She lived through the Chinese-Japanese war--

SHIRLEY YOUNG: Absolutely.

BILL MOYERS: --World War II--

SHIRLEY YOUNG: The Cultural Revolution. All her possessions were taken away. She had to live under the staircase in a little hovel place. And so, you can't imagine what people are going through. But there's kind of an "up" attitude about it, a dynamic. You can feel the energy when you come into that town.

BILL MOYERS: Do you feel Communism's hand loosening day by day?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: I come back and I read the papers. The impressions that you would get and that my friends have, is kind of those images you've seen: everybody wearing their Mao suits and obviously, a tremendous amount of repression. Well, you go there and the people who are more affluent are going away for the weekend.

Everybody's worried, thinking: I have to save money because I'm gonna buy, maybe a car or I'm looking for a job and I hope I can get promoted. I mean, these are all the white-collar people. There's a place in Shanghai which just came up in the last couple of years, kind of like Quincy Market in Boston. And on any evening at about ten o'clock, you can go there.

And if the weather's not too severe, there are these stainless-steel tables and chairs outside, and people are sitting there eating gelatos and having cappuccinos. And I mean, and these are not foreigners. These are Chinese, locals. (LAUGHS) You look at it and you say, "This is China?" (LAUGHS)

BILL MOYERS: How far out in the country do have to go to get to the old China that does resonate in our minds?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I've been to small towns. Even there, everybody's looking up. I mean, for example, there was a guy selling these kind of pancakes on the street. So, we talked to him. It was kind of a little shack. And he had a curtain. There was this bed behind it. And he said, "Well, I used to be the manager of a factory. The factory was closed. And so now, I've got a small pension, but I don't have enough money to survive." So, obviously, he had a hard time. So, he said, "I run this pancake place. And I stay here and I make the--" We said well, what are you looking at? He said, “My daughter's going off and she's studying computers. And my son is in another city." And so, everybody, irrespective of what you are, is looking forward to improvement.

BILL MOYERS: Many Chinese-Americans who have traveled to China to visit have told me they have never felt more American than when they are in China. Now, why do you suppose that's so?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: I'll tell you an interesting little anecdote. There were some Chinese children who were performing who came to Detroit. And this is not about being in China, but it's analogous. And they stayed with a family. Some families had similar-aged children, let's say ten, 11, 12. And the Chinese children were very disciplined 'cause they were performing. Every morning they got up at six o'clock. They did their studies. They did their exercises, et cetera. They had a very disciplined life. And when the parents tried to say to the American kids, "Well gee, shouldn't you be more like these?"

They said, "Oh my gosh, this is human rights." (LAUGHTER) “No way”. And the most amazing thing was the Chinese kids couldn't get over was that the American kids could come in after school, open the fridge, and take out anything they wanted and have a snack.

That was amazing to them. And as the Chinese kids were on their last day, the foster parents, or the surrogate parents, said, "Well, what wish would you like for your last evening?" They said, "We'd like to be able to watch “The Lion King” all the way through. We've only been allowed to see a half an hour at a time. We'd like to see it all the way through." So the American kids said, "That's human rights. This is terrible." (LAUGHTER)

SHIRLEY YOUNG: So, when you consider that people who grow up in America have grown up in that environment, when you go in with the degree of discipline, the degree of constraint, you understand-- you feel different, obviously, okay.

But one of the things that I really feel blessed by, is that at this stage in my life and at this stage in the world, that I happen to have the good fortune to be able to be in both places and understand obviously, how we think as westerners, but also to try and be a little bit of a bridge in terms of helping them understand what America's about and why the Chinese think the way they do.

And being able to speak the language does help a lot. Because there are times when they say, "Well, we can't tell the westerners about that. how it is here."

BILL MOYERS: Being the daughter of a diplomat must have had some influence on you then, in wanting to build these bridges?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: When I was a young girl, that's what I always thought I wanted to be. I wanted to be a diplomat. I left China when I was two years old. So, I have no memory, zero, of China.

But I always thought I'd like to be a diplomat. So, when I graduated from college, I had studied international economics thinking this would prepare me. Well, there was no China to represent. I wasn't an American citizen, so I couldn't be an American representative of any kind. And so, I finished a nice education.

Everybody said, "Oh, you have a great record, wonderful. You should join our typing pool." (LAUGHTER) So, that was the way things were in 1955 when I graduated.

BILL MOYERS: Tell me about that unique childhood.

SHIRLEY YOUNG: My first memories were of being in France, which is where my younger sister was born. And it was 1938, '39. I guess everybody was worried about war. And I remember hearing all these conversations about war. But I was in France. Apparently, French was one of my first languages that I spoke.

BILL MOYERS: Your father was posted there?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: He was posted there, yes. And then we went to the Philippines. My father was posted there. And then he actually lost his life there because he was the consulate general. When the Japanese came in, [the consulate staff members] were all arrested. And then they were all subsequently executed.

BILL MOYERS: Your father among them?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: My father and the entire consulate. There were seven of them. I remember, when Pearl Harbor came, we were all taken to a big hotel right on the bay there, Manila Bay, the Manila hotel. All the ships were afire, all being burned. I guess the Americans, before they left, felt they should burn the ships. And so, we stayed in this hotel room with all the other diplomats, Americans, et cetera.

This was from December eighth until the end of the year. It was a period where the Japanese were bombing and World War II had been declared. But the Japanese hadn't come in yet. So, they were talking about Manila being an open city or whatever. And actually, at that time, I later learned that MacArthur, who my father worked with a great deal, and was our neighbor, had offered for our family to leave with him to go to Australia.

And my father, who as the consulate general, felt he was the head of the Chinese community, said, "I can't leave. I must stay." So, he stayed and we all stayed, obviously. And he subsequently lost his life. But while we were there, I think it must have been early January, was the day that I remember we were sitting at breakfast, a late breakfast. And we had seen the Japanese soldiers come in. And they had those bandages around their legs, which to me, was very fascinating. The floors were marble. So, they walked-- click, click, click, click, .

And they came in. It was kind of frightening but fascinating. And then that morning, as we were having breakfast, they knocked on our door. And this gentleman, the Japanese soldier came in. And I guess my father was expecting him. So, he went into the bedroom, got his suitcase and he left.

And then he went to prison. I think we only saw him a few times, couple times later, after that. Then he was taken to the some prison far away. He initially actually was put into Fort Santiago, which is a Spanish-- a very, very tough prison. And they were all crowded together. And many years later, there was a Filipino who was in that prison who said he saw my father's initials on the wall. And they apparently had been measuring each other or something.

And he saw my father's initials and he was quite sure that that was the cell that he was in, with all those other people. But at any rate, they were then taken to a prison far away, which we couldn't see. And we had no idea what happened to them.

Actually, later, it turned out that by April of 1942, the Japanese had decided that they were not diplomats because they had recognized a public government in China. So, therefore they said, "You're not representing anybody." And the reason they executed them was, they wanted my father as the leader of the Chinese community to collaborate with them. And there was a lot of money that had been raised by the Chinese community, which was a wealthy community, for the war effort against the Japanese. And my father had control of that.

And it was in some Swiss bank or something, and of course, they refused to turn it over. And so, for their non-cooperation, they were ultimately executed. And actually, my sister and I went back to the Philippines in 1995, for the 40th anniversary of the end of the Second World War. And there's a big memorial in the Chinese cemetery, and a Chinese school and a kind of memorial hall. And there was this big plaque.

It was inscribed. The eyewitness report of how they were killed. And it was inscribed on this stone tablet from this farmer, I guess, who saw them walk out into the fields and then they were asked to dig their own graves. And then they were to be blindfolded. Apparently my father refused the blindfold. And then they were all shot.

BILL MOYERS: How old were you at that time?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, when the war started in 1941, I was six. And up until the time I was ten, we were there during the war.

BILL MOYERS: Your life had to change so dramatically from living the privileged life at the consulate general of China in Manila with servants and gardens--


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