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Interview with Gladys L. Shamblin

Shamblin, Gladys L.
McAuley, Joy
Date of Interview: 
Relationships with People and Places, Cultural Identification
Gladys Shamblin talks about how she`s grown to appreciate her mother`s Japanese culture and how she is teaching her own children to appreciate their heritage.
Charlotte Narrative and Conversation Collection
Collection Description: 
Joy McAuley interviews Charlotteans to collect stories for a class project at UNC Charlotte.
Interview Audio: 
JM (Joy McAuley): This is Gladys Shamblin. She is Japanese-American. She has lived in the Charlotte area for 13 years, and she is going to talk about growing up Japanese-American in West Virginia.
GS (Gladys L. Shamblin): Um, when I grew up in West Virginia, um, it was like it was backwards compared to the Charlotte area. It was just, uh, the people were just so different there - a lot of coal miners and, uh, there's a lot of people on welfare. It was just a different place to live. \\Uh. \\
JM: \\ Where were you in West Virginia? \\
GS: We were growing up in Madison, West Virginia, and prior to that Kentucky. We lived in Kentucky, uh briefly. My father was from Kentucky, and we call him "the Kentucky Redneck", and [laugh] my mother was Japanese and when she came to the United States, she couldn't speak any English or anything. And, uh, so she spoke broken English, and as we were being raised we learned to interpret everything she said. And no matter what anyone, uh, mom would say, no matter what she would say to someone, we would understand exactly what she meant, exactly what she was saying, and they couldn't believe it. It was like speaking a different language. But, um, as we grew up, our mother taught us a lot about respect and how important it is to be good and kind to other people, be courteous, uh, be thankful for all the little things that people do for you. I didn't realize she had implanted that in my head all these years until I grew up and people wondered why I was being so [laugh] nice. Um, they thought I had a hidden agenda but it's, it was just the way I was raised. Um. And then growing up in West Virginia and being part Japanese and the only family in that area that was Japanese, it was kind of difficult. Um, especially when there was just a handful of Native Americans, then there were some African Americans, just a handful of them, and then there was us. So we were the minority, and we were very different than other families. Um. When they would start to cover like the WWII stories at school and in history class, we would, uh, kind of shrink under our seats because, you know, everybody would start yelling "Jap." And, uh, we, until then we didn't feel like we were different, and then we realized after that, well, we looked Japanese although we were 100 percent American. People, people would look at us and know we were different, so they would treat us different. Um. But we would go home and my mother would always reassure us that uh, it's OK to be different. It's what is in your heart that matters. So as we grew up, I, I thought it was a curse, when I was younger, being Japanese. Uh, went around with, not so much a chip on my shoulder, just, uh, an inferiority complex and didn't realize until I got older that I was very much proud to be Japanese. And uh, got to visit Japan a couple of times, and realized that's the best thing God could have given me was to be different because I'm able to help other people go through the same situation. Um--.
JM: What kind of stories did your, your mother used to tell you?
GS: Oh, Mom used to tell us stories, when she was 11 years old, um, when World War II did hit, she looked up, which her home was not far from Hiroshima--.
JM: Wow.
GS: And, uh, she looked up and could see the bombs and everything. And she remembers being scared and thinking that she was going to die, and she said it was just one of the hardest times of her life. That, but, uh, they made it through that, and um, she really never showed any bitterness or anything towards American people, but, uh, she was always just grateful for her life.
JM: Huh.
GS: Uh. And then Mom raised five children, I have, had three brothers and a sister. And she raised us with speaking broken English, and she eventually did learn English fairly well. She took English as a second language just after my father died. Um, but she was, she never worked outside the home. She raised us, she said that was her job. Um--.
JM: How did your parents meet?
GS: They met, my, my mother was going to Tokyo University in Tokyo and working part-time at a china factory, and my father had gone there to buy some china for his mother, and, uh, he met my mother and just fell head over heels in love. And she thought he was a crazy [laugh] American. And, um, he just kept being nice to her, [pause] and she, her family couldn't believe she would leave them and move to the United States to be with this man, [laughing] but she did. And, uh, they, they were pretty happy. I mean she went from being fairly wealthy, though, to being poor--.
JM: Hum.
GS: And that was difficult. But when she started having children, she said that, that's her life. Her children were her life. So, um, [pause] as we got older we really appreciated that, and, uh, [pause] when Mom got sick, she had cancer, it was our turn to take care of her. So for about six months, we, my sister and I both, we just kept, we just stayed beside her bed and we took care of her and it was wonderful, it was like us giving back to Mom.
JM: Hum. Did she ever go back to Japan?
GS: She went back twice. She went back right after my father died. He died of a massive heart attack when he was 48, and, uh, she went back that time and stayed a couple months. She was able to see her mother and um, get to know her family again because it had been 22 years. So, uh, that was wonderful, and then she went one other time, which was her last time, uh, and stayed about a month, and she came back. My first trip to Japan, although it was a sad trip, it was a watershed in my life. It was uh, after she died of cancer, my sister and I had her cremated and we took her ashes back to be with her family.
JM: Hum.
GS: So that was my first trip to Japan. My second trip was um, to take my daughter when she turned 16, which was a wonderful trip, and helped her understand her grandmother's culture. And then we plan to take my son next year when he turns 16 just so we can, uh, show him Japan. And we feel like travel is one of the best things you can give your children. Money, clothes and all that can go away but travel is in your memories and that when I'm dead and gone I want them to remember that [laugh].
JM: You mentioned that your mom talked a lot about her older brother. What were some of the stories she told about him?
GS: Well, Mom came from a traditional Japanese family um, where the number one son does take over after the parents get to be a certain age. And then when he gets to be a certain age, his son takes over. So it's gone that way for the past 200 years. And, um, right now my uncle is [pause] almost 90, and his son is taking care of him. He's a Buddhist priest. My mother's father was a Buddhist priest. So that's the kind of story she'd tell us. She would tell us about how the people in the community always took care of their family because they were so well respected, and they lived in a beautiful place, and people would bring them gifts because they just appreciated their presence in the community. And um, [laugh] we, when Mom would tell us these stories, we would laugh. We would think, "Oh yeah, right, you were rich." And then when I did go over to Japan, I did see what she was talking about and really felt guilty that we didn't believe her, totally believe her, that, that she had all this, but um, according to Japanese standards, uh, they are just very wealthy. And then they come here and they look at my house [laughing] and they, no really, land over there is so very expensive so they are very wealthy, and then they come here, and I live in a very basic house, and they think I'm rich, so uh, that's kind of comical [laughing] which we're not, we're very middle class [laugh].
JM: That was a drastic change for her--.
GS: It was.
JM: I mean, to go from there to, wow--.
GS: She was pretty much treated like a princess, pretty much, I mean they catered to her family, they adopted children--.
JM: Wow. What did your dad do in West Virginia?
GS: Actually, my father was, um, supervisor for the telephone company--.
JM: Hum.
GS: Which is, I guess, why I love being around telephones and fixing phones, and I love what I do now. I guess it's almost to honor him.
JM: Why was he in Japan?
GS: Uh, he was in the uh, Korean War.
GS: Yeah, and that's where he learned all his telephone skills. He, uh, learned a lot in the Army, and then I think I'm the only one that kind of pursued an interest in telephones and communications and such--.
JM: That is interesting that it would come back around that way. Um, was there anything else your family used to do or talked about that you wanted to include?
GS: Um, we used to camp, which was very unusual for my mother [laughing].
JM: Oh, I bet.
GS: I mean she was kind of comical. She was Miss Prissy out there, trying to camp [laughing]. We used to, uh, we used to try to act like a normal [laugh] American family, but we would have rice at the campground [laughing]. I never remembered a day in my life that I didn't have rice. We always ate rice. If you got sick, she would ball up little balls of rice and, you know, "Just eat this you'll be ok." So she thought it, rice was a cure-all. But uh--.
JM: Do you eat rice now?
GS: Yes, I have a rice cooker, and I pretty much keep rice on all the time. And my husband has learned to like it, and my children love it. And my daughter is pursuing a career in uh, political science and Asian studies--.
JM: Huh?
GS: So she can go over there and teach English in Japan. And her junior year in college, she is at Furman University, her junior year she plans to go over there and spend the whole year, studying in Japan. So I really feel like she's doing everything I wished I could have done [laugh].
JM: Um-huh. Is there anything else you want to include?
GS: No, not really but I appreciate it.