A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Succeeding in America

"I'd always had this idea from the time I was young that I wanted to do things."

By Shirley Young

Shirley Young was born in 1935 in Shanghai, immigrating to America as a young girl. Educated at elite American schools, she became a highly successful businesswoman and the mother of two sons. She spoke with Bill Moyers about her experience arriving in America and embarking on a professional life.

BILL MOYERS: Where did you land in this country?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: We land in San Pedro, California. I thought we'd reached heaven because we had all kinds of good things to eat and there were these gray ladies. They were kinda like volunteers, and they were so nice to us and gave us toys to play. I mean, it was just amazing.

I think that started my appreciation of what I think is America's great strength - America is really a generous and a warm-hearted nation. It really accepts all kinds of people and treats them so well. I experienced that not only that very first time that we arrived, but subsequently, 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. Then I went to Wellesley College, all on scholarship. All through, I got all kinds of stipends and awards and scholarships et cetera. And, you know, why would they have done that for me? I wasn't a citizen. I was a foreigner, and I came into this school, these schools and I was treated so well. Therefore, I always have felt I owe a great deal to this country...

SHIRLEY YOUNG: I grew up this idealistic young woman out of Wellesley College. 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 all these women leaders. So, in China, 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 that I wanted to do things.

I wanted to be a diplomat or whatever, serve my country. It never occurred to me that I would finish college and then just kind of retire and raise children, raise a family, and all that. I had no conflict. I mean, this was the time when the Feminine Mystique book 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 I shouldn't be away from home." They all had 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, naive. I wrote these letters and then I do this interview and say, "Oh yes, young lady, you have a lovely record, very-- 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 a better place." 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. 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, you know, I'd be interested in her, so send her my way."

And she worked for something called market research. I had never heard of market research, so out of desperation I went to go see her. 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, you know." 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...

But then, she left after 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.

BILL MOYERS: And you got to be number two in the department didn't you?

SHIRLEY YOUNG: Oh, no. No, no. I got to be number one.