Growing up in the US, I often found myself caught between two worlds: my somewhat traditional Filipino upbringing and the dominant American culture of my teachers and peers. Later, after traveling the world and relocating to Germany as an adult, I felt even more conflicted in terms of cultural and national identity. What am I? An American? An Asian? A German? None of those descriptions could ever satisfy me or the person receiving my answer. Whatever the case, I was a permanent foreigner who could never fully assimilate into the country I lived in, no matter how much I tried. Though I have come to accept this without any bitterness, I often feel that I have no claim on any country as my own. I cannot lord my rights to the land over others I deem unworthy or separate people into neat categories based on superficial attributes: my folk and “the others”, good and bad, first class and second class. Always grasping for a foothold on that shaky ground of privilege and worth assignment, and struggling to find a word to define myself that wasn’t reductive or derogatory.
Imagine my disbelief and happiness one day about a year ago, when I watched Pico Iyer’s beautiful lecture, “Where is home?” on TED. For the first time in my life, I listened to someone describe being a multicultural, multinational person in this day and age with such beauty and positivity. I was transfixed, his words had a profound resonance, and they would later inspire me to create this blog. I went on to watch Mr. Iyer’s other lectures on TED, visit his website and read more of his wonderful work. I can go on and on about the accomplished writer and his achievements, which are many, but I’ll best leave the facts to his website, his TED and Wikipedia pages. I would also like to mention that this is not a paid advertisement for the man but my honest opinion.
What is the most striking about Pico Iyer is his warmth and optimism. His worldview is so bright and hopeful — especially when set against the dark frame of current events. A peaceful eye within the violent storms of identity politics, globalism, terrorist threats and technological disruptions swirling around him. In a world clogged with negative views of foreigners and immigrants, all too often from the outside looking in — he looks out from within, shining a bright light at and from lesser known and intriguing new places. I say “at and from” because the writings on his website are classified in that way: “inner life” and “outer life”, though these lines often seem to blur. He sheds light on the inner life and spirituality of that rapidly growing modern-day creation — the multicultural or multinational person. And that perspective can hardly be complete without describing the outside world seen from those fresh, observant eyes.
In his TED lecture, “Where is home?”, he describes the multicultural, multinational people, like himself, that he meets all over the world as a kind of expanding “floating tribe”, a fast-growing product of the modern age, people “whose identities are not fixed on their country of residence or origin as they were in the past.” And how do such people define themselves without the clean borders of a map? Well, they’re all not tearing their hair out, hiding in a dark corner somewhere — it doesn’t have to be so bad. It can be liberating, thrilling, it can even be an opportunity for spiritual growth. He continues:
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.
He goes full circle, way beyond the kitschy perspective of a touristy outsider, never reversing the role of the “other” vindictively, never disparaging regionalism or traditional ways of life. Throughout all his journeys around the world, physical and mental, he always retains his heart and soul, even finding nurture. His attention is centered not on rightness or competition, but on self-investigation and balanced with awareness. He fearlessly explores meanings, especially the ones that have become detached from physical locations and are no longer taken for granted. In one of my favorite of his writings, “Before the Fall” (originally published in Salon.com 1999, link), he contrasts the desire to travel with the feeling of home:
I think that sacredness means only having so strong a sense of trust that we hardly know the meaning of the word, and find a world without change . . . a land so familiar that we know it’s home only because it’s the place we always—always—long to flee.
These feelings strongly resonated in me. I knew all too well the thrill of the unexplored when I traveled, but after a prolonged time on the road, I began noticing less the differences in people, rather, how strong the commonalities were. I found myself wondering while I roamed the streets of a foreign city with a sightseer’s greedy eyes, how long it would take for my excitement to fade and those wonders to take on the quality of the mundane as they eventually had for most of the jaded inhabitants around me in every place I visited.
Reading his words or listening to him speak is a bit like watching ocean waves crashing on the shore or sitting in a sunlit meadow. The rhythms and language of his prose are meditative and soul-searching. If the wind blowing across the meadow or the sunlight on the waves took on a voice, my guess is they would sound much like him, after all, they have no fixed nationality, they are in constant motion, they are eternal silent witnesses to our history of follies, they simply are. Mr. Iyer often talks about the power of mindfulness, of connection to the earth, of finding a stillness within amidst the constant noise and distractions of modernity. I would also add in my case, of finding a self in an array of cultural identities and nationalities. He states in “Where is home?”:
Where you come from now is much less important than where you’re going. More and more of us are rooted in the future or the present tense as much as in the past. And home, we know, is not just the place where you happen to be born. It’s the place where you become yourself.
The sense of not knowing something for sure doesn’t have to be avoided or feared — it can be an endless source of wonder, as he so eloquently describes in another great talk, “The beauty of what we’ll never know“. And being foreign, being different, not fitting a standard model of identity doesn’t have to be painful, nor does it have to be better than or lesser than anything else to be of significance. The multinational and the local do not have to compete, they are both important. They can define and inform each other, just as movement and stillness do, they can even exist simultaneously in one person. He starts to conclude in “Where is home?”:
. . . 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.
Defining yourself and other people beyond stereotypes and nationalities, caring for each other as humans all over the world — these are not the burdens of modernity but its privileges. With his inner peace, wisdom and optimism, Pico Iyer tells us that the human heart is capable of much, much more than the rigid roles of yore or the cold algorithms of computers, the heart can find its truer self, stronger, brighter, closer to the soul — if it wills to, whatever the challenge. Even a permanent foreigner can fall in love with the world.
Text and photos © M.P. Baecker and http://www.alightcircle.com 2017. Please click on the links within the text to access the sources of Pico Iyer’s work. My heartfelt thanks to Pico Iyer for his generosity and kindness.