What Do You Call Home?

Oct 11, 2013
Originally published on May 8, 2015 9:17 am

Part 4 of the TED Radio Hour episode Identities.

About Pico Iyer's TEDTalk

Country and culture used to serve as the cornerstones of identity, but what does "home" mean to someone who comes from many places? Writer Pico Iyer talks about the meaning of home in a world where the old boundaries of nation-states no longer apply.

About Pico Iyer

Acclaimed writer Pico Iyer began his career documenting a neglected aspect of travel — the disconnect between local tradition and imported global pop culture.

Since then, he has written a dozen books including topics such as the cultural consequences of isolation, whether writing about the exiled spiritual leaders of Tibet or the embargoed society of Cuba.

Iyer's latest focus is on how travel can help us regain our sense of stillness and focus in a world where our devices and digital networks increasing distract us?

He says "Almost everybody I know has this sense of overdosing on information ... Nearly everybody I know does something to try to remove herself to clear her head and to have enough time and space to think. ... All of us instinctively feel that something inside us is crying out for more spaciousness and stillness."

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You are in Santa Barbara right now, right?

PICO IYER: I am. That's right.

RAZ: This is the writer Pico Iyer. Which is your home now, kind of sort of.

IYER: For this week. Yes. My official home, where I never actually spend any time, but yes, it's my address on my tax forms at least.

RAZ: And for Pico, trying to figure out some of the biggest questions about identity starts with just one question - where do you come from?


IYER: It's such a simple question, but these days, of course, simple questions bring evermore complicated answers. People are always asking me where I come from. And they're expecting me to say India. And they're absolutely right in so far as 100 percent of my blood and ancestry does come from India. Except, I've never lived one day of my life there. I can't speak even one word of its more than 22,000 dialects. So I don't think I've really earned the right to call myself an Indian. And if where do you come from means where were you born and raised and educated, then I'm entirely of that funny little country known as England. Except, I left England as soon as I completed my undergraduate education. And all the time I was growing up, I was the only kid in all my classes who didn't begin to look like the classic English heroes represented in our textbooks.

And if where do you come from means where do you pay your taxes, where do you see your doctor and your dentist, then I'm very much of the United States and I have been for 48 years now since I was a really small child. Except, for many of those years, I've had to carry around this funny little pink card with green lines running through my face, identifying me as a permanent alien. I do actually feel more alien the longer I live there. And if where do you come from means which place goes deepest inside you, and where do you try to spend most of your time, then I'm Japanese, because I've been living as much as I can for the last 25 years in Japan. Except, all of those years I've been there on a tourist visa, and I'm fairly sure not many Japanese would want to consider me one of them. And I say all this just to stress how very old-fashioned and straightforward my background is.

RAZ: When you were a kid in the U.S., you know, with this British accent and, you know, you looked Indian, did you feel like you didn't really know who you were?

IYER: Well, I felt luckier than that. I felt that I had a lot of choices. And I think, being a part of many places, but not entirely of any one of them, is a terrific emancipation. And it means that even if I'm in North Korea or Paraguay tomorrow, I'm no more foreign than when I'm in India or California or England. And I think when I was a little kid, I thought, well, it's an advantage that I have more choices at my disposal than many people do, and that they can't fit me into any category. But what I didn't expect or realize then when I was a little kid growing up in the '60s, was that very quickly, within maybe 30 years, somebody like myself would become almost the norm.


IYER: When I go to Hong Kong or Sydney or Vancouver, most of the kids I meet are much more international and multicultural than I am. And they have one home associated with their parents, but another associated with their partners, a third connected maybe with the place where they happen to be, a fourth connected with the place they dream of being, and many more. And their whole life will be spent taking pieces of many different places and putting them together into a stained-glass whole. Home for them is really a work in progress.

It's like a project on which they're constantly adding upgrades and improvements and corrections. And for more and more of us, home has really less to do with a piece of soil than you could say with a piece of soul. If someone suddenly asks me, where's your home? I think about my sweetheart or my closest friends or the songs that travel with me wherever I happen to be.

So those are much deeper homes. You know, I remember as a little boy, my parents would sometimes take me to a museum. And I would look at a 19th-century Japanese painting, and something in it would pierce me with a sense of familiarity. And I would look at the scene from a culture that I have nothing to do with and I would feel I recognize that much better than the street on which I was born or the house in which I keep all my things.

RAZ: Why do you think you felt you understood it, that it resonated with you in such a visceral way?

IYER: I can't explain it and that's what I trust about it. You know, I have most faith in those things that are beyond my understanding. And I think most of us have these secret homes as it were, but the beauty of the global moment is that we can actually live in these secret homes.


IYER: The number of people living in countries not their own now comes to 220 million. Already, we represent the fifth-largest nation on Earth. And, in fact, in Canada's largest city, Toronto, the average resident today is what used to be called a foreigner - somebody born in a very different country. For the fortunate among us, I think the age of movement brings exhilarating new possibilities. Certainly, when I'm traveling, especially to the major cities of the world, the typical person I meet today will be, let's say, a half-Korean, half-German young woman living in Paris. And as soon as she meets a half-Thai, half-Canadian young guy from Edinburg, she recognizes him as kin.

She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany. They become friends. They fall in love. They move to New York City. And the little girl who arises out of their union will, of course, be not Korean or German or French or Thai or Scotch or Canadian or even American, but a wonderful and constantly evolving mix of all those places. And potentially, everything about the way that young woman dreams about the world, writes about the world, thinks about the world, could be something different.

RAZ: Is your home where you find your identity or is your identity your home?

IYER: Wow, that's a beautiful question and I would say that my home is where I find my identity, where I create my identity, which is an ongoing phenomenon. So, for example, next week, I'm going to Iran and maybe that will have an important effect on my life and my thinking and my imagination. And that will become part of the collage that is my home.

RAZ: Do you ever wonder if the more identity becomes something that's not the way we've traditionally defined it, that there's almost a possibility that we could lose something?

IYER: I think so. I mean, it's certainly, as I said, it's posing a question to us that we have to answer, that our grandparents didn't even have to think about. It's almost like being lost in one of those long, gray, anonymous passageways in an airport, where you don't belong to either the place you've left or the place you're about to arrive in, and you feel completely lost. And I sometimes will meet people who've grown up in the same house where their parents and their grandparents grew up in and have this wonderful sense of rootedness. And those of us who don't inherit those kinds of circumstances have to create our own equivalent versions.


IYER: And I'd always felt this way, but it really came home to me, as it were, some years ago when I was climbing up the stairs in my parents' house in California, and I looked through the living room windows and I saw that we were encircled by 70-foot flames, one of those wildfires that regularly tear through the hills of California and many other such places. And three hours later, that fire had reduced my home and every last thing in it, except for me, to ash. And when I woke up the next morning, I was sleeping on a friend's floor, the only thing I had in the world was a toothbrush I had just bought from an all-night supermarket. Of course, if anybody asked me then, where is your home? I literally couldn't point to any physical construction.

RAZ: That must've been devastating.

IYER: It was difficult at first. And it took a little while to find my feet again. But at the same time, I think it underlined what I had always felt, which is just that my home had to be something inside me rather than any physical piece of property. And in those circumstances, it's really important to have some home inside you that's been there all along that will guide you into the next phase of your life.


IYER: And eight months after my house burned down, I ran into a friend who taught at a local high school. And he said, I've got the perfect place for you. Actually, it's a Catholic hermitage. So I got in my car and I drove three hours north along the coast and the roads grew emptier. And then I turned onto an even narrower path up to the top of a mountain. And when I got out of my car, the whole place was absolutely silent, but the silence wasn't an absence of noise. It was really a presence of a kind of energy. And at my feet was the great, still, blue plate of the Pacific Ocean. And I went down to the room in which I was to be sleeping and I sat down.

And I began to write and write and write. And by the time I got up, four hours had passed, night had fallen. It was really all the freedom I know when I'm traveling, but it also profoundly felt like coming home. And I began to think that something in me had really been crying out for stillness, but of course I couldn't hear it because I was running around so much. I was like some crazy guy who puts on a blindfold and then complains that he can't see a thing. It's only by stopping movement that you can see where to go. And it's only by stepping out of your life and the world that you can see what you most deeply care about and find a home. And home, in the end, is of course not just the place where you sleep. It's the place where you stand. Thank you.


RAZ: Writer Pico Iyer. Check out his full talk at TED.NPR.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.