Author Pico Iyer explores the notion of “home” in a world where so many of us are multi-cultural, global citizens
When I tell friends my dream is to live in a hotel, they often look alarmed. What about a place of your own, they say, designed to your own specifications, with its own special sense of cosiness and warmth? It wouldn’t, I say, have hotel-quality restaurants and spotless carpets and secret corners to explore. It wouldn’t offer smiling, familiar faces every morning and an exhilarating new cast of characters every afternoon. It’s unlikely it would serve up both familiarity and mystery. The richest person I know, born and raised in Europe and based in the US, still lives, in his fifties, in hotels, flitting from one room to the next in pursuit of his passions.
Home, after all, is not so much about where you live, but about what lives inside you. It’s not an address on an immigration form so much as a place where you feel deeply understood. And, more and more, it’s less like a set of parents that you inherit than like a partner that you choose.
Growing up — as someone born in Oxford, England, to parents from India and moving to California when I was seven — I always felt I’d been given an unusual and useful tool-kit: I could be a part of three separate countries (indeed, continents), even as I could stand apart from all of them. I could enjoy a foreigner’s sense of immunity (and fascination) in Los Angeles, London and Delhi, even as I could feel somewhat at home, it seemed to me, almost everywhere I happened to be. Where most of my classmates were confined within the assumptions and physical boundaries of their grandparents, I could be free of those and not think of Pakistan or the Soviet Union as an enemy.
I little guessed then, as the only dark-skinned boy in all my classes, that soon my situation would be not an exception but, in more and more cases, the norm. There are now more than 230 million people living in countries not their own; the number of us many-homed is greater than the populations of Britain, France, Italy and the Netherlands combined. And our number is increasing so quickly that soon we’ll form the third largest nation on the planet. The average person you meet on the streets of Toronto, Canada, is what used to be known as a “foreigner”— someone born in a different country. The most powerful person in the world, officially, is a half-Kenyan, half-Kansan raised in Indonesia and blessed now with a Buddhist sister and a Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law.
I always felt, growing up, that home was something more in my soul than in the soil
Of course, Barack Obama’s circumstances highlight some of the challenges for those of us whose homes are moving targets. As he explores with such honesty in his memoir,Dreams from My Father, he sometimes feels too African for Kansas, too American for Kenya. Many who grow up between cultures feel themselves neither here nor there, belonging to nowhere except a space between or an airport passageway. Most of the refugees in the world, now numbering over 50 million, never wanted to leave home and wish they still had solid ground under their feet.
Yet what someone who is part Kansan and part Kenyan soon discovers is that he may have more in common with someone who’s half-Jamaican and half-English than he has with anyone who’s entirely from Kansas or Kenya. We mongrels with many different kinds of affiliation form our own community, with its own music and literature and possibilities. Go to the cinema and you’ll see Keanu Reeves, partly Chinese and partly Hawaiian, born in Beirut, raised in Australia and in many ways therefore a true Canadian. Pick up a book, and you’ll find yourself reading Malcolm Gladwell or Zadie Smith, both half-Jamaican and half-English and mostly based in the US. When someone from Vietnam writes a play about the rift in her household between parents allied with a home across the world and children who identify themselves as from Melbourne (or Garden Grove or Vancouver), she speaks to a Cuban, a Bangladeshi, a Somali in the same situation.
Even someone who’s never left his grandmother’s house and doesn’t own a passport has to redefine himself nowadays because if he’s in London — or Paris or Sydney or Singapore — he’s surrounded by the smells of South Asia, the sounds of Senegal and the customs and costumes of almost everywhere. So many homes are swirling around us that we have to create an ever-evolving sense of home even while standing still.
I always felt, growing up, that home was something more in my soul than in the soil — an imaginative as much as a physical construction. I carried it with me as a snail does and it consisted of the woman that I love, the Big Sur coastline I keep returning to, my favourite Van Morrison song, my most beloved Graham Greene novel. Home was what grounded and steadied me wherever on the planet I happened to be.
But then, one day, I walked up the stairs in my family home in California and saw that our house was surrounded by 70-foot flames, a wildfire. When I woke up the following morning, my house and everything in it reduced to ash, the only thing I owned in the world was the toothbrush I’d bought from an all-night supermarket the night before. The only home I could possibly turn to was what was portable inside me — my values, my friendships and my enthusiasms.
Is it any wonder that a hotel can make me feel at home as no home ever did? It’s the perfect model for the life many of us know — on the move constantly, yet happy to be rooted in something deeper than our surroundings or a nation-state. I admire and cherish the company of the many who are still always located in a single tradition or piece of countryside, but I’m also happy that, when I step into a room in La Paz or Kyoto tomorrow, I won’t feel too disoriented and will feel that everything that sustains me and defines me is right here, where I sit. Having a mobile sense of home means I never need feel truly a foreigner.
Pico Iyer is the author of many books about the joys of travel, including The Lady and the Monk, The Global Soul and, most recently, The Art of Stillness.