Yo-Yo Ma on Transnationalism

Last week’s “This I Believe” essay on NPR was by cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who had some interesting things to say about transnationalism: A Musician of Many Cultures. Given that I just went to a conference on international education, this seemed particularly relevant, especially since the sessions I attended focused a lot on why study abroad experiences and cultural competency skills are important for more than just foreign language majors. Some excerpts:

I believe in the infinite variety of human expression.

I grew up in three cultures: I was born in Paris, my parents were from China and I was brought up mostly in America. When I was young, this was very confusing: everyone said that their culture was best, but I knew they couldn’t all be right.

I felt that there was an expectation that I would choose to be Chinese or French or American. For many years I bounced among the three, trying on each but never being wholly comfortable. I hoped I wouldn’t have to choose, but I didn’t know what that meant and how exactly to “not choose.”

However, the process of trying on each culture taught me something. As I struggled to belong, I came to understand what made each one unique. At that point, I realized that I didn’t need to choose one culture to the exclusion of another, but instead I could choose from all three.

The values I selected would become part of who I was, but no one culture needed to win. I could honor the cultural depth and longevity of my Chinese heritage, while feeling just as passionate about the deep artistic traditions of the French and the American commitment to opportunity and the future.

So, rather than settling on any one of the cultures in which I grew up, I now choose to explore many more cultures and find elements to love in each. Every day I make an effort to go toward what I don’t understand. This wandering leads to the accidental learning that continually shapes my life.


It is extraordinary the way people, music and cultures develop. The paths and experiences that guide them are unpredictable. Shaped by our families, neighborhoods, cultures and countries, each of us ultimately goes through this process of incorporating what we learn with who we are and who we seek to become. As we struggle to find our individual voices, I believe we must look beyond the voice we’ve been assigned, and find our place among the tones and timbre of human expression.

Amusingly, I do kind of wonder how this idea intersects with the idea expressed in this piece on a proposal in England to have British teenagers pledge allegiance to the Queen in an effort to instill a sense of national pride. The overriding impression from all British subjects interviewed, teens or not, about what makes them British? They’re “not American.”

-posted by Dana


2 Responses to Yo-Yo Ma on Transnationalism

  1. Linda says:

    Dana, this entry immediately called to my mind your fellow Grinnellian’s book “Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei” by David Mura. I think you read it at one point. As I got to the end of the book, I was most struck with the recognition that, although most of us don’t have the “exotic” combination of cultural backgrounds and experiences as Yo-Yo Ma or David Mura, nevertheless we do all have a unique set of experiences that does help us find what Yo-Yo Ma refers to as “our individual voices.” I don’t remember now how I came to read Mura’s book, but read it before you ever went to Japan and I checked it out of the library before I realized Mura had gone to Grinnell. I think I was just perusing books at the public library and for some reason, it caught my attention. What did you think of it?

  2. Dana says:

    I do remember reading that book, and I thought it was good. I thought it was very interesting that he pointed out that his parents, who had been interred, went out of their way to be more American than the Anglo-American families around them, so he went to Japan with less inherent understanding of and adaptability to the culture than his Anglo wife.

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