A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Public Affairs Television "Becoming American" Interview with Maya Lin

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BILL MOYERS: How did you come to think about death so early? So much of your work deals with death, and you were so young when you were doing it.

MAYA LIN: I have no idea. I don't know. As far as the Vietnam piece was about, ironically, I had studied in Denmark. I had taken my junior term abroad. I ended up being given a section of Denmark, which included the largest cemetery. As an architect, you're out to analyze what's going on. And I start walking through the cemetery in Norrebro.

And unlike in America, cemeteries-- whether it's Pere LaChaise in Paris-- they're used more. They're habitated more. I think the one in Denmark is actually part park.

I think land is more scarce. People have been living there for many more hundreds of years. So, you use your free open space in different ways. The cemeteries became a part of the city fabric. They're a little more park-like in that sense. And then I started, just out of curiosity, checking up a few of those as I went through Europe in the summer. And I know it's very weird. The journalists had a heyday.

I wasn't fascinated with death. It was just from an architectural point of view. It was interesting. And I think funereal works are very psychologically and emotionally based. I was very interested in the psychological effects architecture has on people.

BILL MOYERS: Well, I'm beginning to understand the last line of your book, where you say, "Maybe I'm just asking you to pay closer attention to the land."

MAYA LIN: Yeah. Definitely.

BILL MOYERS: Whether the land is a cemetery or a sports coliseum--

MAYA LIN: Right.


MAYA LIN: Or in the middle of nowhere, just a little brief inclusion that you can't tell if it's man-made or natural. I love that ambiguity.

BILL MOYERS: Where did this come from, this intrigue about the land?

MAYA LIN: Growing up in southeastern Ohio. It's very hilly, very rural, beautiful. I really don't know. I think my parents were very befuddled.

They are not what you would call [environmentalists]. The first pet I was really allowed to have was a parakeet. They're not really into nature. I'll say it right off. I ended up from day one-- When I was three or four years old, I loved animals.

I wanted to be an animal behaviorist. I wanted to be a vet. I wanted everything to do with non-human species. (LAUGHTER) And even to this day, I've been very interested in science. The other side of me was art.

BILL MOYERS: Did you spend a lot of time alone in your yard?

MAYA LIN: Yeah. (LAUGHS) I loved animals. So, I would feed all the raccoons. I would feed the birds. The birds had me well-trained. The red cardinals would come to the window and chirp knowing it was dinnertime, and I'd always be feeding them.

My dad always used to tease me, like, they've really got you well trained. And this is indicative. It's sort of-- okay, you're strange. I would sit still in the yard trying to tame this one rabbit. And I got so close to this rabbit at the end that I could've touched it. I don't know why. I just was very fascinated with nature and with animals. I just have always loved them.

BILL MOYERS: But animals don't show up in your work.

MAYA LIN: Well, they do and they don't. When I was growing up we were going through a very large campaign. Rachel Carson had put out SILENT SPRING. Lake Erie was catching on fire. DDT was decimating bird populations.

At a very, very early age I understood what it means to have a species go extinct. I was horrified that one species could do this to another species. I don't know where it comes from. My parents always tease me.

Early on I thought it was unbelievably unfair. I remember saying this to my mother once. "This is so unfair that one species could do this to other species. We have more of a responsibility."

I think what my work is about appreciating and being respectful of nature, which again ties in to an inherent love for the natural environment. I will go to sites that are just so beautiful beyond compare. I know that nothing I do can ever be better than what this planet, what this land, what the natural resources, what this place is--whether I'm making art that deals with this, taking a closer look at the land, paying attention to it, appreciating it, being respectful of it or whether it's when I'm volunteering for like work for different organizations like the NRDC. I'm on the board there. I've been incredibly concerned with this since I was a kid.

BILL MOYERS: What were your parents' expectations of you?

MAYA LIN: The only thing they ever said was, "We just want you to be happy." Which I think is a very unusual wish. It's a really beautiful wish. They didn't say anything else. They would not give us any direction, that's the thing. It was always, "As long as you're happy." It wasn't like, "In order for you to be happy, you should do this, this and this."

Education was key. You had to study. But again we were never forced to study. We sort of did it on our own. I think there was always an assumption that our education was what mattered. They would do anything to get us through college. I remember, my parents were both teaching at Ohio University. I could have gone there for free. My brother could have as well.

And they really wanted us to go out. They were so excited when I got into Yale. And even though, I could have gone to Ohio University for free since my parents were both professors, they felt that everything-- all the money they made — was so that we could get the best education. My brother went to Carlton and then Columbia. When you've got parents that are working that hard for you is there an underlying expectation? See that's where I think they were unusual. There wasn't even that feeling of, "You've got to do well." They just did not pressure us that way.

I think we wanted very much to do well, but it was never a forced issue.

BILL MOYERS: Doing well is not the same as making money?

MAYA LIN: Very much not about making money. Both my parents grew up in China with a fair amount of comfort. And they lost all of it coming out here, but it wasn't like they needed it. You know?

BILL MOYERS: Tell me about your family background.

MAYA LIN: I think my mother was born in Shanghai. My father, Fujian and Beijing. He grew up in both places. And they immigrated separately to the States. They both ostensibly came out because of the communist takeover. My mother came out on a scholarship to go to Smith. She got smuggled out on a junk boat in Shanghai harbor when the harbor was being bombed in 1949. Literally she got out and her brothers were supposed to follow when they reached the right age. No one expected the communist regime to last the way it did and to shut the doors the way it did.

My mother, at the age of 18 or 17 never saw her father again. She was so close to him. To this day, I'll remember when she got the letter that he had passed away. And she just was-- and-- you know you never think about it when you're that age.

But as I look back, imagine you get sent out with I think $50 sewn in to her coat with a suitcase, never to see your family ever again. Never to see your country until 40 years later.

I don't know how they both did it. My father had a career in China. He was an academic administrator. And he came out mid-career. Decided that he would never get a comparable position in America because he was Chinese, so in his late 30's, he decided to study ceramics. He goes to University of Washington and takes up pottery and did quite well.

Little by little, he got a job teaching at Ohio University in Athens. I just remember he went from being a ceramics professor to being Director of Fine Arts to being Dean of Fine Arts. And I just could never figure out how my dad, who's a potter, was so good at balancing budgets for schools. It didn't occur to me that his minor in college in China was economics. My mother and father never told us much about their past.

My mother said, "Well, you never asked. You never seemed interested." So they weren't gonna force it on us. But I also think that as a child, you don't know to ask because if you didn't know it existed, you just know what's in front of you.

MAYA LIN: I think [my parents] were definitely wanting us to assimilate. I think they were dealing with having left a past and it was probably painful for them to talk about. And then my brother and I being the only Chinese Americans in a small mid-western community, I mean all I wanted to do was fit in. I remember there was a classmate when I got to high school who was — I think his parents were from Eastern Europe, and he wasn't allowed to speak English at home. He had to speak the mother tongue at home. And I always felt sorry for him. To this day I might regret that I don't speak Chinese, but at the same time, I think there are two different ways. I think now in the generations you learn both.

I think it was probably very painful for my parents. Without really deciding upon it, they wanted us to fit in.

BILL MOYERS: Did they have you learn to speak Chinese?

MAYA LIN: No. Again, that was very unusual I think for a Chinese American family. My father was brought up fairly strictly, you know — calligraphy lessons in the morning for an hour and a half., music lessons —upper-crust upbringing.

I think he was a bit of a rebel. He wasn't allowed to go into art in China. Why did he like pottery so much? Because his father had an amazing collection of Chinese ceramics and porcelain so he had an appreciation for it. And then he was finally able to do what he wanted to do in America.

But the side of the Chinese American experience which is arts-based, scholar-based, education-based is a different side.

BILL MOYERS: To the science and the engineering?

MAYA LIN: Exactly. And I think with it came this unusual psyche that we're not gonna force Tan or Maya to do anything they don't wanna do.

BILL MOYERS: I understand that both of your maternal grandmothers were doctors in China.

MAYA LIN: All my mother's side of the family were doctors — men or women. My grandfather was an eye surgeon. Her grandmother was a doctor.

BILL MOYERS: But your grandmothers and your grandfathers were all privileged and were successful in China?

MAYA LIN: Yes, they were. On my mother's side, they were very successful in the medical profession. On my father's side of the family more in scholarship—as statesmen.

BILL MOYERS: Why did your father leave China?

MAYA LIN: My understanding was he sort of had to. Politically I think because he was the eldest son of a family with wealth. What could have happened to him had he stayed would-- they could imprison you, execute you, take over the family holdings.

BILL MOYERS: The Communists?


MAYA LIN: [This happened to] whole upper classes, the wealthy classes. My mother's side of the family was protected because they wanted my grandfather to keep practicing. They needed doctors. He was protective. But there was redoctrination and retraining. I guess both my uncles were sent away to re-education camps.

On my father's side, because it was more political, there would have been a chance he would have been endangered if he stayed.

BILL MOYERS: And your parents didn't talk to you about all this?

MAYA LIN: No. I think the very first time I was told a little bit about my father's side of the family was when I was in Washington D.C., I had won the competition, I was battling in D.C., and my dad came in to visit and we went to a Chinese embassy party. And my dad is talking on and on and on with one of the secretaries of the embassy or whatever.

And afterwards I sort of mentioned it and said, "What were you talking about?" And he said, "Oh, I was talking about my father." And I said, "Well, what do you mean?" And so it was early October, it was around my birthday and I remember he sat me down at my birthday dinner and he started telling me about his family, a little bit about the history.

He adored his older sister-- half sister. He began to tell me how she came out to study architecture with her husband at U Penn. They didn't accept women so within a couple years she was actually teaching there. Her background is in architecture. I had studied architecture for four years in undergrad and it never comes out that there's this background on this amazing woman who had an incredible presence. She had gone back to China and had helped with the idea of progress.

There's this entire past that I need to start looking into it.

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