On Yoyo Ma

Yoyo Ma is a close friend of my father’s whom I have known since I was a child. Whenever he visited San Francisco he was certain to stop by our home. He knew me before I could speak a word of Chinese and he met me repeatedly as I learned Chinese, Japanese, and finally Korean.

As a Chinese who has spent his career between the Chinese and Western cultures Yoyo Ma understood my work between cultures better than most people and we are able to communicate with a greater degree of depth than might otherwise be the case. I felt great closeness to Yoyo because we both found ourselves deeply imbedded in more than one culture. Yoyo, as a Chinese who had fully embraced the Western classical music tradition and spent his time at Harvard, and later in life, reading Aristotle and other great thinkers and me as a European who had embraced the Asian tradition and spent so many years trying to understand the classics, both of us had to find a space between the two cultures.

There is a small sushi restaurant near our house in San Francisco called “Hamako” (Hamako literally means “someone from Yokohama”). Yoyo is very fond of this restaurant and we went there almost every time he was in town. You just stroll down the hill from our house on Ashbury Street to Cole Street, where the cable car runs. Right there, facing the station where I caught the cable car to take me to my high school, is a small, clean, well-lighted establishment. The restaurant Hamako is dedicated to extremely high quality fish in a very unassuming environment. One does not go there for the fancy décor, but for the best fish and the most friendly and welcoming hosts. The owners are Mr. and Mrs. Kashiwara. Mr. Kashiwara is behind the bar preparing the sushi and his delightful wife in front greeting the guests. Their son Koji was my classmate at Lowell High School. Koji was an excellent athlete and I often met him there at Hamako’s helping out his parents. Their daughter Sumiko was our junior at Lowell High School. Yoyo was so impressed by Sumiko and her love of music that he later hired Sumiko to work in his Boston office.

Yoyo also brought along friends to those dinners, including professors from Berkeley deeply involved in Chinese studies and other musicians. Yoyo is a remarkable man who tries to extend conversations to everyone in the room, and at the same time makes everyone present feel that he or she has Yoyo’s full attention. Normally it takes such a degree of concentration to reach the level of excellence in a field that Yoyo has achieved that a certain self-centeredness sets in. The artist becomes the obvious focus of attention. But Yoyo was never like that. He takes a great interest in learning about those around him and making them, and their perceptions the center of the conversation.

I remember that we once had a long discussion about the Chinese tradition and the alternatives it offered to the Western tradition over sushi and sashimi at Hamako. Oddly, I told Yoyo about my readings in Chinese poetry and he told me he had been reading a lot of Aristotle lately, we seemed to be heading almost in opposite directions.

“What is it like to spend time in Taiwan as an American?” Yoyo asked me.

“I find the people quite accepting of me, but I fear that I am so far away from understanding even the basics of the culture.” I replied.

“I certainly know the feeling,” remarked Yoyo, “and of course as a Chinese American, I do not have the excuse to not know. That is why music has become so critical to me as a means of establishing a repor with people.”

“But music has become such a part of China today that it does not even seem foreign,” I pointed out. “It seems sometimes as if the last thing that the Chinese want is an American like me to speak Chinese. In fact, my close friend Paul Leu told me that I should try to speak in English with people so they felt comfortable with me. In fact I never do it. I want to speak only Chinese.”

“I don’t feel any need to insist on speaking Chinese,” Yoyo replied, “but then again, I am Chinese to them and they accept me readily. The question is rather what their expectations are of me. That is the pressure that I sense. And then there are the unexpected things that happened. Let me give you an example. I visited Beijing recently for a week. I had agreed to do two concerts and spend the rest of the time conducting master sessions and working individually with musicians and students. When I arrived, however, I was told that there were seven concerts scheduled and the rest of the time I would be shaking hands and meeting important people. I was shocked and of course felt this was not at all our agreement, but I was also profoundly aware of the fact that those people had all purchased tickets to hear me play and the concerts were profoundly meaningful for them. I was forced, as it were, to change my sense of what was fair. But at the same time, it was the last time I will agree to such an engagement.”

“It must be very difficult to preserve your own space, your own time when you are so well known.” I noted.

“That is perhaps the greatest challenge,” Yoyo replied. “After all, when I go to China I am in some sense a larger than life figure. I have to go out of my way to assure myself that I have time alone and time one on one with the important people. Otherwise I cannot be my best. What challenges do you encounter living in China and Japan?”

“I think the biggest problem for me,” I explained, “is that Chinese or Japanese just cannot believe that I would be that interested in their culture. They have some sense that an American like myself might have a passing fascination with some aspects of Asian culture, but they ask me when I am going back to the United States constantly. After all, why would I want to put that much effort into learning about China. If they knew that several of my role models are Chinese and that I think about what Chinese philosophers have written when making personal decisions, they would be shocked.”

“I also encounter some bias as well,” Yoyo remarked, “in the sense that there are some in the United States who think of me as a ‘Chinese’ learning about ‘Western’ music. But there is nothing alien about Mozart for me. The assumption makes no sense to me, and increasingly I find that Chinese think of Mozart and Beethoven as belonging to them as much as anyone. Listen, Jesus was born to Jews in Palestine, a culture quite different than what most of us know. But now Jesus belongs to people all over the world.”

I had a sense from our conversations of the remarkable role that Yoyo plays as a cultural ambassador, perhaps the most important representative to China from the United States, operating across a far broader spectrum than a president could. I also wanted to play some sort of role like Yoyo in the world, although not as a master of the Western tradition coming to Asia, but rather as a Westerner who has mastered something of Asia.

We continued to correspond after I went to Japan, and I met Yoyo in Japan several times when he came to perform in Tokyo. We had sushi dinners late at night after the concert and exchanged notes on experiences of our lives. Yoyo is an extremely public person, never afraid to engage people and open to all conversations. But he is at the same time quite a private person as well. He was willing to say that losing his father had been a tremendous strain, but he did not really give any sense of what exactly the strain had been and what sort of an individual his father was. After I arrived at Harvard in 1992, we also met up there whenever he played in town. After all, Yoyo had studied at Harvard as an undergraduate and was quite familiar with that environment. I remember one occasion we found a little restaurant near Harvard Square and spent the evening talking about the challenges of establishing profound dialog between East and West.

When I went to Korea to study in 1995, Yoyo came to Seoul on tour and made time in his every busy schedule to meet up. First I came to his rehearsal. What is remarkable about Yo Yo is that even as he concentrates so intensely on his cello, he is also profoundly aware of the world around him. I saw him look at me, out there in the sea of empty chairs, and smile, just to make me feel at home. But he did not let up for a moment in his intense playing.

After the concert, Yo Yo was besieged by fans seeking authographs. It was in a sense the other side of Yo Yo’s accessibility: he was seen has someone anyone could ask anything of. We were being chased, literally around the hall. And Yo Yo felt obliged to sign signatures for everyone. Finally we reached the limousine and prepared to speed away from 예술의전당 to a dinner with some close friends. But even then, late for the dinner, Yo Yo just could not keep away from the people looking for signatures. He was still signing programs for them, and posing for pictures with them. As we tried to close the door, we were accosted by yet another young boy. The boy asked for Yoyo’s signature and offered Yoyo Ma his cold, stale, MacDonald’s French fries as a sort of reward. It was a ridiculous scene. Yo Yo signed the program and took the MacDonald’s French Fries. In fact Yo Yo was so hungry, not having eaten anything since lunch and having played an intense concert and met hundreds of fans, that he ate every French fry while sitting in the limousine.

“Nothing is more important for me than to interact with those who love music and who want to be close to me,” Yo Yo explained, “and at the same time, I cannot let that world of fans dominate my life. It is above all music that gives the order to my experiences, and gives me strength to keep going forward with such enthusiasm. We should always remember the role that all these fans play in creating music. Many of them do not have the time to dedicate to becoming a professional musician, but the entire ecosystem that they build through their love of music is essential to people like myself. Without them, I could not do what I do.”

“I don’t have anything that I can offer people,” I remarked, “I do not play and in fact I do not write creatively any more either. Seems like I just spend all my days learning Korean language and writing academic articles.”

“But that also is a critical part of the total picture,” Yo Yo replied. “You are the Westerner who has actually immerged himself in Asian culture. That decision is a creative one and what you do and say is innately creative. After all, it is not a natural decision to learn Chinese, Japanese and Korean. You decided to do it as part of a larger vision. Visions are the most primary form of creativity. After all Beethoven’s symphonies started out as visions.”

We have continued to correspond over the years, and meet up on occasion at his concerts. When my son started playing cello we sent many emails to Yo Yo to tell him about how much Benjamin admires him. The course of events have kept us physically far apart, but Yo Yo and I have always remained quite close.

2 responses to “On Yoyo Ma

  1. sean August 4, 2011 at 11:08 am

    Touching. Thank you for these impressions~

  2. Val March 7, 2012 at 4:57 am

    I still remember the scene when he came to IU for a concert. After the performance,I spent a few hours waiting for YO-YO outside the auditorium with the other students. It was really late until he came out,we tried to ask YO-YO for autographs,he said he would give us 2 minutes to ask questions rather than giving out autographs. I feel a little bit pity that day,as I saw YO-YO, I forgot what I had intended to say.I want to tell him that we Ningbonese(his father is Ningbonese too) are so proud of him. I hope he could make some more great music such as silk road in the future.When you see YO-YO next time,can you please remember me to YO-YO? I’d really appreciate it!

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