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Meet Yuchi Ma

Today we’d like to introduce you to Yuchi Ma.

Yuchi, please share your story with us. How did you get to where you are today?
If my life had a story arc, the inciting incident would probably be when at age 11 turning 12, my parents sent me to study alone in San Antonio, Texas. To be honest, I didn’t want to go. I didn’t care if America was the “best country in the world” or that my math grade was simply too bad for me to survive in the Chinese education system. I wanted to attend the local middle school I was assigned to and stay with my family and friends. However, my parents made one of the biggest decisions in my life for me. They put me on a flight to America where I was to live with distant relatives I’d only met once before. Thus begins my journey as a parachute kid.

The initial transition from Beijing, China to San Antonio, Texas was very difficult. In School, it was impossible to make friends. The kids weren’t mean to me, but most of them ignored me out of convenience. After-all, at that age, what do you say to someone who barely knows your language and can’t even sing along to “don’t trust a hoe” by 3Oh!3? I really struggled with being alone during that time. I felt ashamed of not having friends because in China, I had a lot of them. I struggled with my grades too. Readings that would take normal students 1 hour to complete would take me 4 hours instead; in every 10-words sentence, there would be about 6-8 words that I never knew. Everything was a word game and with every answer, I risked embarrassment. I was terrified that people would think I was stupid. I wanted to tell them that I understood and that I was the same as them.

My parents had warned me repeatedly that there would be no way back if I got kicked out of the host family’s house or if I messed anything up, so I kept everything from them. I remember that for my first birthday away from home, I called my mom to tell her about all my new friends who celebrated with me, when in fact I had just stared at my empty phone contacts because I didn’t know anybody.

I often dreamt that another Chinese kid would transfer to the school and save me from this terrible fate. But that never happened. My school was a small k-12 private school with 36 kids per grade, and I was the only international student for most of my time there. Back home in China, my old friends grew distant as they entered into new phases of their lives while I was stuck in limbo all alone. I desperately needed change.

I wish I could pinpoint a specific event or date that was the start of that change. But my life is not scripted, and all I can say is at some point, I felt fed up with the situation. My dad says that my 12-year old self once told him it was as if I was standing on a cliff, and my only choices were to fall off the cliff or fly. I am glad I chose to fly. The transition was of course, painfully embarrassing. I made a lot of quiet observations of everyone and everything around me, trying to figure out the rules of this strange new place. There were times where I would stick to groups of people that I knew didn’t want me around. I would initiate small conversations over and over, even though they ignored me. I told myself not to care about what the others thought; it was a personal victory as long as I had tried.

About two years later, I was able to comfortably assimilate myself in school and grew to be an outgoing and optimistic person with many friends. On the outside, it looked like I had gained back the parts of me I left in China; on the inside however, I was experiencing major identity loss and cultural shame. To put it simply, the longer I stayed in the US, the more I forgot that I was Chinese. As I slowly adjusted to my new life, I secretly wished I could be white or born in the US. I would constantly compare myself to my American classmates, somehow always feeling inadequate and like an imposter. How much easier would things be if I were just American? It’s a shame to reject one’s own culture and roots– that’s what my mother taught me. It is something I hold true in my heart for better or for worse. As you can see, there was a lot of guilt and confusion in those years.

After six years in San Antonio, I graduated from middle school & high school and left to study film and tv production at USC in LA. The four years that came next were crucial to my development as a human bean. Prior to attending USC film school, I had never made a film; but I did know from a young age that I wanted to be an artist. My parents are both artists and so I was brought up with the notion that being an artist is an acceptable career and was also made aware of my possible talent. Despite not having any experience, I was sure of what I wanted, and I was ready to brace the new world of a Hollywood film school.

Four years later, I graduated from USC film school with a fuller sense of not only who I am, but also who I want to be. Although the formal education I received was largely lackluster, the highlight was being able to find a small community of friends with who I can really connect with. My friends are each unique artist and soul, and they are a big reason for who I am today. They are what made this journey worthwhile.

The physical act of making short films also shaped my experience. The more films I made, the harder I looked inside myself, and the more I thought about why I’m doing all of this. I think that really helped me understand my own obstacles. By dissecting my choices in a film, I was forced to confront the social-political impact of the images and stories I present, and the way they’re shaped by my background, education and experiences. I think like many others, the illusion and hopes I had for America began to crumble, especially after 2016. Circumstances really forced me to recognize I am not American and do not enjoy the same rights as the people around me. At the same time, My eyes were opened to all the people who were American, or who like me have lived here for a long time now, but do not enjoy equal rights. I felt more and more connected with them as time went on.

In 2020, I am greatly confused and stuck in another limbo. To be honest, it was funny to have to answer this question when all the words seem to point to me having achieved something. I really don’t feel like I have, so I am not really sure what kind of story I should have presented, or how I should end it now. I can’t find a proper endpoint that caps off this on-going story. But I do remember all those years ago when I first came to the US, dreadfully counting my ten fingers for all the years left before I could finally return to China. Now, after all ten fingers have folded, I am not so sure if the place I once called home still feels familiar. Despite feeling an irreplaceable connection to my language and culture, I feel a great sense of disconnect with today’s China and Chinese people because I simply haven’t been there for the past ten years. However, the gate of entry to America is so high and out of reach that I am not sure I have the resolve or the ability to brace another long, difficult battle. I cannot claim that I fully connect with American culture either and that becomes a problem. It is important for artists to find their own communities and to contribute to them; my future as an artist seems bleak when I don’t really feel accepted anywhere.

What I do know though is that instead of any one country, I feel connected with immigrant culture. My identity as a parachute kid shares with it so many parallels, and I too am on my own immigrant journey. I recognize my own privilege and evaluate my own position within the system. Some days it doesn’t feel like I deserve to make films, but ultimately I think the best way to use any talent and power I have is to help others. As globalization becomes more prevalent, there are more and more kids like me; it’s important to shift the world’s constructs as new trends occur. I believe that I do have a community, just one not often seen in media; and that is why it is important for me to make films that shed light on our shared experiences. Furthermore, caught in a position between two of the biggest world powers, I feel even more frustrated at their divide; I am fearful of the bias and hatred in the world at the moment. Before we rush to protect ourselves and close ourselves off, we should open our eyes and try to understand the other side of things. This understanding is something I want to spread through filmmaking. I hope I can contribute in someway to rebuilding the connections that are crumbling all around me. This is the goal that I strive for as I slowly figure out how to function as a human adult in 2020.

Overall, has it been relatively smooth? If not, what were some of the struggles along the way?
There are many things that I struggle with continuously as nothing is ever so easily solved. Overall I would say I am a pretty optimistic person, and no matter how anxious or out of control I feel in the moment, I trust that things will be okay. 2020 however, is making it harder than ever to not feel grim. This year, I’ve already run into several possibilities of being expelled from the US, as Trump’s admin repeatedly clamped down on international students. It’s difficult to express my frustrations. I have been in the US for ten years now, yet I have no actual control over whether I stay or go. What gives a person eligibility to stay in a Country? Connections and time spent are clearly nothing of value in this system. I am eager to prove myself, but I also fear getting lost in the process. I long for change but question how change can be implemented and how burdening the repercussions for it will be.

Looking inwards, I still have a lot of growing to do. I am learning how to be a functioning adult in the real world and it is a journey with many mishaps. I still struggle with insecurity both about my appearance and about my intellect, as well as my ability to do art. I have grown a lot from someone who only valued distinct style to a person that understands the importance of story. I still value distinct artistic visions very much, just with the understanding that story is what takes films to the next level.

However, I do not feel that I have enough interest or experience with traditional story-telling, and find it difficult to work on commercial projects. I still desire to express myself freely, but I recognize that in order to gather an audience, I have to come out of my shell and try to reach them. I am learning how to be a good story-teller, how to compromise and find a balance without losing my own flavor. How do I as a young female and Asian filmmaker break into the industry and prove that I deserve to be heard? Do I deserve to be heard? I ask myself constantly.

I suppose these are all trivial things compared to everything else going on in the world right now. I think the biggest obstacle I’m facing is that the world of 2020 is in tatters. I’m trying to figure out what my generation can do to help unite the world. I continue to grow as I learn more about the world; I hope I never stop searching for an answer to these everlasting challenges.

Please tell us more about your art.
Coming from a filmmaking background, my works are mostly videos related to my personal political background and experience. I focus on my identity as a parachute kid, meditating on my journey to America at a young age, and the ripple effects that I’ve felt through it all. I speak to feelings of dissonance and identity lost during assimilation, especially in relationships with my family, through my constant search for the meanings of “home.” The western values of individualism instilled in me through education clash with the collectivist survivalism of the culture that I deeply connect with through birth. Drawing inspirations primarily from my personal life, I seek to meditate on those differences and relate them to bigger cultural patterns and communities. Diving into these topics through the facade of everyday life, I find the specific rhythms and undercurrents of mundane moments poetic. This sense of poetry is the heartstring of how I perceive the world around me. Some of the other themes that are also present in my work are memory and time. I search for the things that create separations between the different versions of myself, the people that I was once close with and the feeling of home that I thought would never change. Similarly, I am also interested in the role that digital technology plays in distance and separation, adding to a facade of seeming connections.

In form, most of my films have no dialogue. I was very influenced by my own mother who is a choreographer. Watching her performances since a young age, the way she expressed herself through dance and form is how I first learnt to weave my own visual language. Without words, I use each image as a clue for the audience to piece together in order to reach a sense of answer. Many times, to watch a film of mine feels like a peek inside my own head; my works are very sincere and honest. I have always hoped that complete openness and vulnerability can exchange empathy and engagement from the audience. I supposed it to be a way of setting myself on an equal level with them. However, my works are not always an ultra realistic depiction of what happens, but rather spin real-life sentiments/themes into a self- imagined and somewhat surrealist world. This helps me hypothesize my points on a larger scale. When constructing a fictionalized world, I utilize colorful, abundant and campy visual aesthetics. It grabs the audience’s attention and also invites them into a world that is my own, therefore creating a more personable experience. My visual designs are never random and always enforce my central themes of discussion. This practice especially shows in my interactive projects employing basic HTML/CSS and video-making to code website click games. The main content is told through videos, while the designs on each page further clue the audience in to understand the art and intention. I also work with real-life paintings and digital drawings that hope to depict events of my own life with a twist. They are a combination of my poetic narrative sentiments and campy visual instincts, focusing on personal experiences and then extending further out. Of course, I also take photos but it is more a casual hobby. I get a lot of joy from seeing something framed up in just the right way, and there are a lot of memories I want to capture.

I think the power that art, especially film holds, is that through pointing the lens at an individual, it has the ability to elevate that individual to a godly level. If done well, we are able to gain a new sense of understanding and empathy never felt before. To be God, in this sense is nothing more than to be seen, heard, and given a chance to be understood. These are the basic rights that all members of human race deserve, and we create strong resonation when we all come together; film/art can serve as this powerful medium of connection. Of course, this also means that we as artists hold important moral and ethical responsibilities in doing what we do. Thus, it is always important to self-evaluate and keep learning.

Any shoutouts? Who else deserves credit in this story – who has played a meaningful role?
I am heavily influenced by my mother’s choreographies and came to understand my artistic identity through her teachings. In many ways, my choice to do art has brought my parents and I closer. We didn’t have a lot of times of us physically being together, but at least I really believed in this spiritual connection and understanding that we share. Not many people around me was interested in the same thing I was, so my parents were in an irreplaceable position. It feels ironic though when compared to my mother’s experience because art was what separated her and her parents.

Nowadays, as I develop my own artistic identity independent from them, I can kind of feel us drifting apart; this is partly because my primary artistic influence is no longer them. While I am trying to find ways to hold on, I also feel that this is normal and healthy. Because my parents are successful in their own fields, I have always found myself standing in their shadows. I really struggled to learn that my parents can’t always be right, and my friends helped me a lot with that. I think it is very essential for artists to have a community of people that understand them and have similar goals. Through the friends I met in college, I discovered new aesthetics, interests, knowledge and more. It was inspiring to meet all these different people with different backgrounds. We each brought something different to the table, and together we grew and influenced each other. As I learnt to be more comfortable with both these new friends and myself, I was able to unearth more hidden potential within. There were things that I always wanted to do but didn’t feel like anyone would understand, and now suddenly there are people who are just as excited as I am. There’s nothing that makes me happier than to make art with my friends.

Looking back, I am also very thankful to my host-family relatives, as well as to some of my high school teachers— they all helped me with so much patience and taught me to think on my own. Despite the difficulty I experienced early on, I still was able to meet genuinely good people, and they all served as my moral guidance to be a better person. In college, I also met a few really amazing Professors who introduced me to new discourses and encouraged my creativity. My coding professor Eric Fanghanel who I met last semester senior year at USC really left an impact on me. Eric inspired me to try out new ways of making art and to keep learning just as I was feeling lost. In the coming month, I will start grad school at UCLA’s design media lab, and I would never be here without him. I am thankful to all the good teachers I was able to meet in the past, as they really played an important role in my development. Teachers really should be paid more and education should be valued.

Contact Info:

Image Credit:
Most photos are screenshots from my short films. Other than that, my headshot is taken by Alex Currie, and the bts photos are taken by Emily Krisky and by Yuchi Ma; The drawings are all done by me as well.

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