A Bill Moyers Special - Becoming American: The Chinese Experience

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Identity and Multiple Influences

"I think my identity quietly percolated up."

by Maya Lin

Maya Lin sat down with Bill Moyers to discuss her cultural inheritance and its influence on her work.

I had a really hard time with my identity. I think I wanted to fit in, I wanted to be American, and for the first 20 years of my life — I remember when I was at Yale I was recruited by the Asian American Society, ASA, and I was so uncomfortable. I was foreign in that group.

If you think about it I was the only Chinese American growing up so I looked out at everyone and everyone is white. So, what would make me more uncomfortable was hanging out with a group of Chinese Americans. And I knew that this was bad, like what is wrong with you, you're Chinese American? And — and I remember just politely declining becoming part of ASA at the time. And it's taken me my next 20 years to really understand.

And what is ironic is my work is inspired as much by an eastern sensibility coming from my father and probably my mother. It's there but I've only recently become really aware of how in a strange way it percolated up — I think identity quietly percolated up. My father — everything we lived with at home he made: most of the pots we ate off of, a lot of the furniture. He was a master craftsman and the joinery and the detailing was very clean — it was modern.

It was the 50's modernism, but it was also — in it's simplicity, in the shapes, in the colors - he was brought up in China so that whole aesthetic. I went to his childhood home in Fujian and it was very Japanese based. I was sort of stunned because I've always felt my aesthetic is almost at times closer to the Japanese sensibility than the Chinese sensibility. At a certain point the temple architecture in China — and I think is more of the Baroque period — is very flourished, and I prefer this very minimal, simple look.

And I just felt like why is that? My mouth, my jaw was open as I walked through my father's house, the childhood home that he was brought up in, because it was laid out like a very traditional vernacular Japanese house. I found out it was also a Chinese style house — it was a mix. Apparently my grandmother, his mother, loved Japanese architecture. So, you could say that what he brought with him and was making for us is how I began to see the world.