TEDGlobal 2013

Pico Iyer: Where is home?

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More and more people worldwide are living in countries not considered their own. Writer Pico Iyer -- who himself has three or four “origins” -- meditates on the meaning of home, the joy of traveling and the serenity of standing still.

- Global author
Pico Iyer has spent more than 30 years tracking movement and stillness -- and the way criss-crossing cultures have changed the world, our imagination and all our relationships. Full bio

Where do you come from?
00:12
It's such a simple question,
00:14
but these days, of course, simple questions
00:16
bring ever more complicated answers.
00:18
People are always asking me where I come from,
00:21
and they're expecting me to say India,
00:24
and they're absolutely right insofar as 100 percent
00:27
of my blood and ancestry does come from India.
00:30
Except, I've never lived one day of my life there.
00:34
I can't speak even one word
00:38
of its more than 22,000 dialects.
00:40
So I don't think I've really earned the right
00:43
to call myself an Indian.
00:46
And if "Where do you come from?"
00:48
means "Where were you born and raised and educated?"
00:49
then I'm entirely of that funny little country
00:53
known as England,
00:55
except I left England as soon as I completed
00:57
my undergraduate education,
00:59
and all the time I was growing up,
01:01
I was the only kid in all my classes
01:03
who didn't begin to look like the classic English heroes
01:05
represented in our textbooks.
01:09
And if "Where do you come from?"
01:11
means "Where do you pay your taxes?
01:13
Where do you see your doctor and your dentist?"
01:14
then I'm very much of the United States,
01:17
and I have been for 48 years now,
01:19
since I was a really small child.
01:22
Except, for many of those years,
01:24
I've had to carry around this funny little pink card
01:25
with green lines running through my face
01:28
identifying me as a permanent alien.
01:30
I do actually feel more alien the longer I live there.
01:33
(Laughter)
01:37
And if "Where do you come from?"
01:39
means "Which place goes deepest inside you
01:41
and where do you try to spend most of your time?"
01:43
then I'm Japanese,
01:47
because I've been living as much as I can
01:48
for the last 25 years in Japan.
01:50
Except, all of those years I've been there on a tourist visa,
01:53
and I'm fairly sure not many Japanese
01:56
would want to consider me one of them.
01:59
And I say all this just to stress
02:01
how very old-fashioned and straightforward
02:05
my background is,
02:07
because when I go to Hong Kong or Sydney or Vancouver,
02:08
most of the kids I meet
02:12
are much more international and multi-cultured than I am.
02:14
And they have one home associated with their parents,
02:18
but another associated with their partners,
02:21
a third connected maybe with the place where they happen to be,
02:24
a fourth connected with the place they dream of being,
02:27
and many more besides.
02:30
And their whole life will be spent taking pieces
02:33
of many different places and putting them together
02:36
into a stained glass whole.
02:39
Home for them is really a work in progress.
02:42
It's like a project on which they're constantly adding
02:45
upgrades and improvements and corrections.
02:47
And for more and more of us,
02:50
home has really less to do with a piece of soil
02:52
than, you could say, with a piece of soul.
02:57
If somebody suddenly asks me, "Where's your home?"
02:59
I think about my sweetheart or my closest friends
03:02
or the songs that travel with me wherever I happen to be.
03:05
And I'd always felt this way,
03:09
but it really came home to me, as it were,
03:11
some years ago when I was climbing up the stairs
03:14
in my parents' house in California,
03:16
and I looked through the living room windows
03:19
and I saw that we were encircled by 70-foot flames,
03:22
one of those wildfires that regularly tear through
03:27
the hills of California and many other such places.
03:30
And three hours later, that fire had reduced
03:33
my home and every last thing in it
03:36
except for me to ash.
03:39
And when I woke up the next morning,
03:42
I was sleeping on a friend's floor,
03:45
the only thing I had in the world was a toothbrush
03:46
I had just bought from an all-night supermarket.
03:49
Of course, if anybody asked me then,
03:52
"Where is your home?"
03:53
I literally couldn't point to any physical construction.
03:55
My home would have to be whatever I carried around inside me.
03:59
And in so many ways, I think this is a terrific liberation.
04:04
Because when my grandparents were born,
04:08
they pretty much had their sense of home,
04:10
their sense of community, even their sense of enmity,
04:12
assigned to them at birth,
04:16
and didn't have much chance of stepping outside of that.
04:18
And nowadays, at least some of us can choose our sense of home,
04:21
create our sense of community,
04:24
fashion our sense of self, and in so doing
04:27
maybe step a little beyond
04:30
some of the black and white divisions
04:32
of our grandparents' age.
04:34
No coincidence that the president
04:36
of the strongest nation on Earth is half-Kenyan,
04:38
partly raised in Indonesia,
04:40
has a Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law.
04:42
The number of people living in countries not their own
04:46
now comes to 220 million,
04:49
and that's an almost unimaginable number,
04:54
but it means that if you took the whole population of Canada
04:57
and the whole population of Australia
05:00
and then the whole population of Australia again
05:02
and the whole population of Canada again
05:04
and doubled that number,
05:07
you would still have fewer people than belong
05:09
to this great floating tribe.
05:11
And the number of us who live outside
05:13
the old nation-state categories is increasing so quickly,
05:15
by 64 million just in the last 12 years,
05:19
that soon there will be more of us than there are Americans.
05:23
Already, we represent the fifth-largest nation on Earth.
05:26
And in fact, in Canada's largest city, Toronto,
05:31
the average resident today is what used to be called
05:34
a foreigner, somebody born in a very different country.
05:37
And I've always felt that the beauty of being surrounded by the foreign
05:42
is that it slaps you awake.
05:45
You can't take anything for granted.
05:47
Travel, for me, is a little bit like being in love,
05:50
because suddenly all your senses are at the setting marked "on."
05:52
Suddenly you're alert to the secret patterns of the world.
05:57
The real voyage of discovery, as Marcel Proust famously said,
06:01
consists not in seeing new sights,
06:05
but in looking with new eyes.
06:08
And of course, once you have new eyes,
06:10
even the old sights, even your home
06:12
become something different.
06:15
Many of the people living in countries not their own
06:17
are refugees who never wanted to leave home
06:20
and ache to go back home.
06:23
But for the fortunate among us,
06:26
I think the age of movement brings exhilarating new possibilities.
06:28
Certainly when I'm traveling,
06:32
especially to the major cities of the world,
06:33
the typical person I meet today
06:35
will be, let's say, a half-Korean, half-German young woman
06:37
living in Paris.
06:42
And as soon as she meets a half-Thai,
06:44
half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh,
06:47
she recognizes him as kin.
06:50
She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him
06:52
than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany.
06:57
So they become friends. They fall in love.
07:00
They move to New York City.
07:03
(Laughter)
07:05
Or Edinburgh.
07:07
And the little girl who arises out of their union
07:09
will of course be not Korean or German
07:12
or French or Thai or Scotch or Canadian
07:14
or even American, but a wonderful
07:17
and constantly evolving mix of all those places.
07:19
And potentially, everything about the way
07:23
that young woman dreams about the world,
07:26
writes about the world, thinks about the world,
07:29
could be something different,
07:32
because it comes out of this almost unprecedented
07:34
blend of cultures.
07:37
Where you come from now is much less important
07:39
than where you're going.
07:42
More and more of us are rooted in the future
07:43
or the present tense as much as in the past.
07:46
And home, we know, is not just the place
07:49
where you happen to be born.
07:52
It's the place where you become yourself.
07:54
And yet,
07:58
there is one great problem with movement,
08:01
and that is that it's really hard to get your bearings
08:03
when you're in midair.
08:07
Some years ago, I noticed that I had accumulated
08:08
one million miles on United Airlines alone.
08:11
You all know that crazy system,
08:15
six days in hell, you get the seventh day free.
08:17
(Laughter)
08:21
And I began to think that really,
08:24
movement was only as good as the sense of stillness
08:27
that you could bring to it to put it into perspective.
08:30
And eight months after my house burned down,
08:34
I ran into a friend who taught at a local high school,
08:37
and he said, "I've got the perfect place for you."
08:39
"Really?" I said. I'm always a bit skeptical
08:43
when people say things like that.
08:45
"No, honestly," he went on,
08:46
"it's only three hours away by car,
08:48
and it's not very expensive,
08:50
and it's probably not like anywhere you've stayed before."
08:51
"Hmm." I was beginning to get slightly intrigued. "What is it?"
08:55
"Well —" Here my friend hemmed and hawed —
08:59
"Well, actually it's a Catholic hermitage."
09:02
This was the wrong answer.
09:05
I had spent 15 years in Anglican schools,
09:07
so I had had enough hymnals and crosses to last me a lifetime.
09:10
Several lifetimes, actually.
09:14
But my friend assured me that he wasn't Catholic,
09:17
nor were most of his students,
09:19
but he took his classes there every spring.
09:21
And as he had it, even the most restless, distractible,
09:23
testosterone-addled 15-year-old Californian boy
09:28
only had to spend three days in silence
09:32
and something in him cooled down and cleared out.
09:35
He found himself.
09:40
And I thought, "Anything that works for a 15-year-old boy
09:42
ought to work for me."
09:45
So I got in my car, and I drove three hours north
09:46
along the coast,
09:50
and the roads grew emptier and narrower,
09:51
and then I turned onto an even narrower path,
09:54
barely paved, that snaked for two miles
09:57
up to the top of a mountain.
10:00
And when I got out of my car,
10:03
the air was pulsing.
10:06
The whole place was absolutely silent,
10:08
but the silence wasn't an absence of noise.
10:10
It was really a presence of a kind of energy or quickening.
10:13
And at my feet was the great, still blue plate
10:17
of the Pacific Ocean.
10:21
All around me were 800 acres of wild dry brush.
10:23
And I went down to the room in which I was to be sleeping.
10:27
Small but eminently comfortable,
10:30
it had a bed and a rocking chair
10:32
and a long desk and even longer picture windows
10:34
looking out on a small, private, walled garden,
10:37
and then 1,200 feet of golden pampas grass
10:42
running down to the sea.
10:45
And I sat down, and I began to write,
10:48
and write, and write,
10:51
even though I'd gone there really to get away from my desk.
10:53
And by the time I got up, four hours had passed.
10:56
Night had fallen,
11:01
and I went out under this great overturned saltshaker of stars,
11:03
and I could see the tail lights of cars
11:07
disappearing around the headlands 12 miles to the south.
11:10
And it really seemed like my concerns of the previous day
11:14
vanishing.
11:18
And the next day, when I woke up
11:20
in the absence of telephones and TVs and laptops,
11:21
the days seemed to stretch for a thousand hours.
11:25
It was really all the freedom I know when I'm traveling,
11:29
but it also profoundly felt like coming home.
11:33
And I'm not a religious person,
11:37
so I didn't go to the services.
11:39
I didn't consult the monks for guidance.
11:40
I just took walks along the monastery road
11:43
and sent postcards to loved ones.
11:46
I looked at the clouds,
11:48
and I did what is hardest of all for me to do usually,
11:50
which is nothing at all.
11:54
And I started to go back to this place,
11:57
and I noticed that I was doing my most important work there
11:59
invisibly just by sitting still,
12:03
and certainly coming to my most critical decisions
12:06
the way I never could when I was racing
12:09
from the last email to the next appointment.
12:12
And I began to think that something in me
12:14
had really been crying out for stillness,
12:17
but of course I couldn't hear it
12:19
because I was running around so much.
12:20
I was like some crazy guy who puts on a blindfold
12:22
and then complains that he can't see a thing.
12:25
And I thought back to that wonderful phrase
12:28
I had learned as a boy from Seneca,
12:31
in which he says, "That man is poor
12:33
not who has little but who hankers after more."
12:37
And, of course, I'm not suggesting
12:42
that anybody here go into a monastery.
12:44
That's not the point.
12:46
But I do think it's only by stopping movement
12:48
that you can see where to go.
12:51
And it's only by stepping out of your life and the world
12:54
that you can see what you most deeply care about
12:57
and find a home.
13:01
And I've noticed so many people now
13:03
take conscious measures to sit quietly for 30 minutes
13:05
every morning just collecting themselves
13:08
in one corner of the room without their devices,
13:11
or go running every evening,
13:13
or leave their cell phones behind
13:15
when they go to have a long conversation with a friend.
13:17
Movement is a fantastic privilege,
13:21
and it allows us to do so much that our grandparents
13:24
could never have dreamed of doing.
13:28
But movement, ultimately,
13:30
only has a meaning if you have a home to go back to.
13:32
And home, in the end, is of course
13:36
not just the place where you sleep.
13:39
It's the place where you stand.
13:42
Thank you.
13:45
(Applause)
13:46

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About the Speaker:

Pico Iyer - Global author
Pico Iyer has spent more than 30 years tracking movement and stillness -- and the way criss-crossing cultures have changed the world, our imagination and all our relationships.

Why you should listen

In twelve books, covering everything from Revolutionary Cuba to the XIVth Dalai Lama, Islamic mysticism to our lives in airports, Pico Iyer has worked to chronicle the accelerating changes in our outer world, which sometimes make steadiness and rootedness in our inner world more urgent than ever. In his TED Book, The Art of Stillness, he draws upon travels from North Korea to Iran to remind us how to remain focused and sane in an age of frenzied distraction. As he writes in the book, "Almost everybody I know has this sense of overdosing on information and getting dizzy living at post-human speeds ... All of us instinctively feel that something inside us is crying out for more spaciousness and stillness to offset the exhilarations of this movement and the fun and diversion of the modern world."

More profile about the speaker
Pico Iyer | Speaker | TED.com