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Public Affairs Television
"Becoming American" Interview with Shirley Young
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, my mother tells me that all the women and children of the seven consuls had no place to go because all the husbands were taken. They had no salaries left. So, they all moved into our house. We had a bungalow, just a nice family home with three bedrooms. And we had 40 people there as a result of this. So, that's how I grew up. And it went from this very nice, suburban place with beautiful gardens and flowers.
The first thing that went was, there was no more gasoline. So, we had no more cars. So, we went to horse carts. And then pretty soon, the water supply was cut, so that we went to wells. And then there was no more electricity, of course. And so, we went to candles and kerosene. And we just went back, back, back. And then the garden became a farm. We had chickens and ducks and pigs and all that. And so, I grew up on a farm. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: Your own house. But--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: But it became a farm.
BILL MOYERS: But suddenly from abundance to deprivation, from self-sufficiency to--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, we became self-sufficient in a rural sense. (LAUGHS) I mean, we used to make our own soy sauce. We had to grind take the husks off our own rice. We did all that. We made our own shoes, and we did everything.
BILL MOYERS: What did you learn from that experience? Somebody said to me that they thought Shirley Young learned to prevail through hardship and then gained the ability to react to change. This is somebody studying your life here. What did you learn from that experience?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: One of the greatest things was that it wasn't unhappy. And that's a fact of my mother. And my mother's a great woman. She's 97 today, very hale and hearty.
But here she was, she was originally a Shanghai beauty. And then she became the wife of a diplomat. And then all of a sudden, she became the head of basically, a commune, okay. (LAUGHS) And you can imagine, there were two families in each bedroom. And there was only one kitchen. And everybody had their own help, their own cook or amas [nannies] to take care of you.
You can imagine, with everything being scarce, what kind of battles are going on-- "Oh, he stole my oil and she used my rice, and that belongs to me," and all this kinda stuff. And she maintained calm.
And the thing that I learned was that whatever the circumstance, you can be happy. Because actually, we had a very happy childhood. And somehow, my mother kept us all together. And I don't remember suffering, hardship-- Oh yes, the food was bad. And I had a plot of vegetables I was planting. And it used to really kill me, because the soil was so poor.
So that's why I love rich soil now. (CHUCKLES) And once the plants came up, all the bugs would eat big holes into the vegetable leaves. So, I mean, I would get upset. And we had bad food, I'd always complain. But it was not unhappy. We were happy together. And I had lots of friends all of a sudden, 'cause we were ten kids all of a sudden instead of just three girls.
So, I guess it taught me that whatever the circumstances are, the human factor still depends upon your relationships. When I talk to my daughters-in-law, who are anxious to give their children, my grandchildren, a beautiful room and all this kind of thing, and I say, "It's not that important. It's lovely, of course. But it's not the most important. It really isn't." Because we were two families in one room, . (LAUGHS) And we had to put up a cot every night. But nonetheless, we were very happy.
BILL MOYERS: How did you manage to come to America?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, at the end of the war, my mother-- we then discovered that my father was dead, because frankly, all through the war, we weren't sure. We weren't sure whether it was just propaganda because we heard nothing. And periodically, there would be these announcements that all the prisoners were going to be let out by the Japanese, et cetera.
But it turned out, obviously, they had died. So then, my mother had to make a decision. And she had help from an old China hand named Bill McDonald. And also, the MacArthur people were helpful. And of course, the Chinese government also gave some help. And so, as a result, we came on the Liberty ship. We came in the Liberty ship.
It had been a luxury liner, a Presidential- liner. And I think it was geared for maybe only 1,000 people. But there were 3,000 of us on this ship. But that was so luxurious. At the end of the war, we'd been without electricity.
We all took a bath, because you had to boil the water. Five of us would take a bath in a basin with this much water. So, my mother was first. My oldest sister was second. My younger sister was third because she was small.
Then I was fourth. And by the time it got to me, the water was really gray, okay. (LAUGHTER) 'cause there's only this much water. We were in a basin this big, . But all of a sudden, we got onto this ship. And there were electric lights and there was food and there was-- I mean, it was like going to heaven. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: But the Liberty ships were the old commercial liners that had been conscripted by the government to transport troops to the war?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: It was for troop transport but now, they were bringing the refugees. I mean, there were western Caucasian nuns. And people who had been in Santo Tomas in prison, American citizens. And so, this ship was full of that kind of people. And we got in as well.
BILL MOYERS: Where did you land in this country?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: We landed in San Pedro, California.
BILL MOYERS: What was your first impression of America?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I thought we'd reached heaven. (LAUGHS) Because there were these gray ladies. And we had all kinds of good things to eat.
BILL MOYERS: Gray ladies were the women--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: They were volunteers. They were so nice to us and gave us toys to play. It was just amazing.
BILL MOYERS: What did you come most appreciate about America since then?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, I think that started my appreciation of what I think is really what America's great strength is. America's really a generous and a warm-hearted nation. And it really accepts all kinds of people and treats them so well. And I experience that not only that very first time that we arrived, but subsequently.
I mean, through various friends, I went to good private schools, and then I went to Abbot Academy, which is now parts of Phillips Academy, a great school.
BILL MOYERS: You were President of your class there?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Right, right. [President of the] Classólike all 20 of us or something like that. But then I went to Wellesley College on scholarship. And all through, I got all kinds of stipends and awards and scholarships. In a way, [I was wondering] why would they have done that for me? You could say, I wasn't a citizen. I was a foreigner.
And I came into this school, these schools and I was treated so well. And therefore, I always have felt I owe a great deal to this country.
BILL MOYERS: How did you choose advertising and--
SHIRLEY YOUNG: I didn't.
BILL MOYERS: You didn't?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: No, absolutely not. I grew up as this idealistic young woman out of Wellesley College.
I mean, anything commercial is selling your soul, okay? (LAUGHS) No. Absolutely. But I got out of college at a time when women weren't supposed to have careers. Now, interestingly, in Asia, we've had women presidents of countries. We've had Madame Chang-- we've had lots of women leaders. So, in China, the male/female thing is not so-- Education and perhaps class, you could say, and if you come from the right background, you have an education, you have capability. Whether you're a man or woman, you can advance. So, I'd always had this idea from the time I was young. I wanted to do things.
I wanted to be a diplomat or whatever, serve my country, . And so it never occurred to me that I would just kind of finish college and then just kind of retire, okay, and raise children, raise a family, and all that. I had no conflict. I mean, this was the time when the feminine mystique came and all the conflicts that my classmates had about, "If I'm not home to make the brownies for my kids, will I be a bad person?" so if I shouldn't be away from home. They had all this psychological pressure on them. But I didn't have any of that. I just assumed I've gotta go out and do work.
The only problem is that when I got ready to go to work-- nobody was particularly interested in me. I wrote 100 letters. And I must tell you, I was, embarrassingly stupid, okay, naive. I wrote these letters and then I do this interview and they say, "Oh yes, young lady, you have a lovely record, you did very well.
Great school you went to. And so, what do you want to do?" I said, "Well, I'd like to make a contribution to the world. I'd like to make the world (LAUGHTER) a better place." And I'd like to be part of what makes the world go around. Well, understandably, I didn't get any offers. Then they say, "Well, maybe you should join our typing pool. You could become a secretary." And I'd say, "No, no. I think I'd be bad at that."
So, I didn't get any job offers. I went to a hundred interviews. I wrote to everybody, but no, I didn't get any job offers. So finally, a Wellesley classmate of my sister's, who had once seen me at school had said, "Oh, when your sister graduates, if she's interested, I'd be interested in her, so send her my way."
And she worked for something called market research. Never heard of market research. So, out of desperation, I went to go see her. And she said, "Well, you can go through a training program." So I went. But I thought, "Well. I'll do this for awhile just to get some income." But I really wasn't very serious about it. But it turned out it was very interesting because it was about understanding the way people think.
And actually, when we started, it was more about what people do. How many people blow their nose so many times, and how many tissues do they use at a time, (LAUGHS) and several things like that. But we started to look more about the way people think. Did they like it? Did they not like it? What would they wish it was more so or less so, whatever it is. So, it wasn't too bad.
I was there for about a year and a half. And so, I got put into a department. You supervised field interviewers, kind of a dead-end job. It was lots of nice ladies who had these jobs and managed these field interviewers.
That was the first time I took piece of initiative. I had been studying paper products. And there were several products in the business. One of them was a company in New York. So, I wrote to the company.
And I said, "I've been studying your industry and your products for the last several years through market research and understanding your brand. And I'd very much be interested joining your market research department." And the Vice President wrote back and he said, "Interestingly, we're just thinking of starting a market research department. So, why don't you come and see us?" And that's how I got my first job on my own. (LAUGHS)
BILL MOYERS: But you went over to do some of the pioneering work at Grey Advertising in the '60s. What was that all about?
SHIRLEY YOUNG: Well, first of all, how did I get to Grey, that's the first question. I said I was basically rolled up at the carpet and delivered to Grey, because this paper company decided to choose a new agency, and decided, "We don't need all this overhead in our company here.
We should give it all to the agency," (CHUCKLES) and that they should take these people. They said, "They're gonna have to hire people. Why don't they hire people who know our business?" So, we had a very innovative person, an executive there, and-- so, I got given to Grey Advertising. (LAUGHTER) So, that's how I got there. And I thought well, I don't know whether I'm gonna like this. But anyway, I started there.
And while I was there, my boss and the deputy head were some very well-known people who were just in the process of getting started. There was a team of us. So, it was Al Lichenbaum (PH) and Russ Haley (PH), all great names in research. And I was part of that team as a young researcher.
And got into not just looking at behavior, but motivations, desires, et cetera. And it was a time when the advertising industry was changing from kind of the old school time, gave your business to your roommate at prep school or college and that kind of business, to where people had real problems in selling in the marketplace, and they'd be looking for a company that could really help them. And through research, we would be able to discover what really needed to be done, and how they should change their products and things like that.
So, that was how Grey Advertising advanced itself. And so, research became one of the big points of difference of the agency.
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