From the acclaimed author of Video Nights in Kathmandu comes this intriguing new book that deciphers the cultural ramifications of globalization and the rising tide of worldwide displacement.
Beginning in Los Angeles International Airport, where town life?shops, services, sociability?is available without a town, Pico Iyer takes us on a tour of the transnational village our world has become. From Hong Kong, where people actually live in self-contained hotels, to Atlanta's Olympic Village, which seems to inadvertently commemorate a sort of corporate universalism, to Japan, where in the midst of alien surfaces his apartment building is called "The Memphis," Iyer ponders what the word "home" can possibly mean in a world whose face is blurred by its cultural fusion and its alarmingly rapid rate of change.
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March 13, 2001
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Excerpt from The Global Soul by Pico Iyer
The Burning House
Suddenly, the flames were curling seventy feet above my living room, whipped on by seventy-mile-per-hour winds that sent them ripping across the dry brush like maddened horses. I tried to call the fire department, but the phone was dead. I tried to turn the lights on, but the electricity was gone. I went upstairs again, to see that the flames, which minutes before had been a distant knife of orange cutting through a hillside, were now all around me, the view through the picture windows a wall of flames.
I picked up my mother's cat and ran out of the house, with two friends who had just arrived to try to be of help (my mother and father were out of town). But there was nowhere for us to go. At our feet, a precipitous slope that fell towards the road. On every other side, fires that were rising to a crest. We jumped into a car and drove down the orange-licked driveway to the narrow mountain road, and saw that we couldn't go up, we couldn't go down. Bushes were bundles of orange, and flames were leaping over the slope beside us like dogs jumping at a fence. The way down led to a blaze of burning; the way up led into the conflagration.
Beside us on the road was one other vehicle -- a water truck driven up by a Good Samaritan who found himself now as trapped as we were, and stood alone in the road, in his shorts, extending a forlorn hose towards the fire. Already the smoke was so thick, we could not even see the helicopters above as we sat in an angry orange haze listening to their blades. One friend, and our new companion, stood in the road and pointed the water at every new roar of fire that flamed over the ridge.
I had never known that fire moves so fast, so purposefully. We could see it cutting through the slope across from us as if with a letter opener, and scrambling up my driveway as if summoned to an execution. We sat in the car, the cat coughing in my lap, and for two hours saw and felt nothing but flames and more flames.
After night fell, at last a fire truck came up, and led us back to a safer spot a little down the mountain, from which, as an opera played on the radio, I saw the fire up above lick at my room, reduce the second floor to a skeleton, charge down towards the city below.
Along the road, a horse was running madly. A man caked in soot appeared, not knowing where he was going. Below, we could see cars burning placidly along the side of the road.
At last, after another hour, the fire having already shot into the suburbs below and leaping the eight lanes of the freeway, which leads all the way to Canada, we were free to drive down, through a wasted world of steaming cars and ravaged houses, the black hills all around wearing necklaces of orange.
I got taken to a friend's house, went across to an all-night supermarket to buy a toothbrush, and started my life anew.
The next day, in the early morning, I returned to the road along which I'd been driving for all my adult life and found it blocked off, exhausted firemen sitting on the pavement at the foot of the mountain, bowing their heads or gulping from bottles of water. I was allowed to climb it, as a resident -- the fire having retreated back into the hills -- and so, for the first time in twenty-five years, I walked all the way up the road, past houses reduced to chimneys or just outlines of themselves, past occasional houses, just as randomly, entirely intact. Here and there wisps of smoke still trickled up through the asphalt, and beside the hulks of cars along the road, the aluminum from their hubcaps had made little pools of silver.
When I arrived at my house, high up on a ridge, two-thirds of the way up the mountain, it was to find a smoking ash gray sea. Bronze statues had been reduced to nothing; filing cabinets were husks. All the props of my parents' sixty years, all the notes and prospects I'd been collecting for fifteen years, all the photographs, memories -- all the past -- gone.
I'd often referred to myself as homeless -- an Indian born in England and moving to California as a boy, with no real base of operations or property even in my thirties. I'd spent much of the previous year among the wooden houses of Japan, reading the "burning house" poems of Buddhist monks and musing on the value of living without possessions and a home. But now all the handy metaphors were actual, and the lines of the poems, included in the manuscript that was the only thing in my shoulder bag when I fled, were my only real foundations for a new fin de si�cle life.
A little later, California being what it is (a society built on quicksand, where everyone is getting new lives every day), just as the final touches were being applied to a new house on the lonely ridge, an earthquake shook its foundations, and all our neighborhood trembled. Then, a few months later, as finally we moved back into our old address (and days after an earthquake shook my other adopted home, in western Japan), huge rains came down and sent whole parts of the slope underneath the house sliding towards the city below.
I, alone and lost in writing at my desk -- and used, besides, to mud slides that regularly washed away parts of our road -- got ready early, and, for almost the only time that year, put on my only semirespectable set of clothes (blue jacket, gray trousers, white shirt, and tie): I had to speak to a women's club a hundred miles away in Los Angeles.
As I began driving down the road, I found huge branches -- large parts of trees -- blocking the way. Boulders stood in the middle of driveways, and overhead, ominously, I could hear the whir of helicopters. But such disruptions are not uncommon in the California winter, and so I drove on, swerving past rocks and edging past the debris, until, within a hundred yards of leaving my house, I accelerated past a piece of the road that was just dirt and scrabble, tried to speed through a long puddle, and found myself buried, three feet deep, in a muddy river.
I had no choice but to get out, of course, and as soon as I did, I was heart-high in mud. My clothes were waterlogged, my shoes were thick with gunk, and my broken umbrella seemed only to protect the elements from me. Thus encumbered, I began slipping and falling and rappeling my way towards the nearest house on the desolate mountain. Below me I could see the red roof and Spanish-style white walls of the only house that had survived the fire (thanks to a swimming pool and capacious water tank), and so, my umbrella bouncing against me in the wind, my trousers soggy and thick with mud, half-sliding down a brown liquid slope, I made my way through groves of avocado trees across to the distant place of calm.
When I got to the landscaped driveway, it was to find it empty in the rain, with all its gates closed, and no answer to my bell. A security system winked above the door to remind me that I was an intruder (a postmodern neighbor, that is, who'd never even been to this house maybe five minutes from my own), and I realized that my only hope lay farther down, through another ravaged orchard, where I could see some figures moving.
I began slipping, shoes all brown and legs stiff with mud, my umbrella extended like some contraption ready to take off in the wrong direction, down the squishy slope, over fallen branches, and tangled up in trees, reckless now, and hardly caring what got torn, until I came to a small white trailer sitting precariously in the shadow of a slope that looked ready to collapse. The owners of the house were far away, I heard -- in Puerto Vallarta, for all I knew: their full-time laborers, now, were trying to carry their few possessions out of the two-room trailer before the hillside crashed down upon them.
My neighbors, unmet for more than twenty years -- I hadn't even known of their existence here, or of this temporary house -- welcomed me into their room and handed me a cell phone with which to call the women's club. The lines were all cut, though -- fourteen inches of rain had fallen in less than a day in this arid, subtropical town -- and so there was nothing to do but sit there and catch my breath for a moment as the men, in sturdy galoshes and thick sweaters, went uncomplainingly about their evacuation.
There were a couple of mattresses on the floor, an empty can of Yuban coffee, and a couple of tapes of John Sebastian singing Spanish songs. A crucifix hung on a wall; a Mexican movie star smiled back from a frame; a comic book told the story of Estephania, Defensor de los Indios.
"We were five," an older man explained, the traditional civilities in place as he took it upon himself to make me feel at home. "But now only four. My sister and two brothers -- in Jalisco. The other died when I was young. An epidemia -- is that what you say?"
He had nine children of his own, he went on, but six of them were girls. "My daughters are too old now," he said, though he looked to me as if himself only in his forties. "Thirty and thirty-one. My youngest -- he is the boy you saw on the hill."
We looked out to where the younger ones were putting their lives into a pickup; they moved as efficiently as if mishaps were a fact of life.
"Always my daughters tell me, 'Come back to Mexico,'" the man said. "'Live here. Take it easy. We'll take care of you.'" He looked up at me almost helplessly. "But I cannot do it. It is my duty, my obligation, to take care of them." Sometimes a hundred dollars saved up to send back; sometimes two.
The rain was still coming down in torrents, and the small dirt road was a tangle of fallen trees. The stables, my host explained, would be safer: down a slope from the trailer, they were a set of gated, white-walled buildings -- Spanish-style -- that looked fit to withstand all the calamities in the Bible.
"I want to improve my English," the father said as we retreated into the warmth and shelter of the stalls. "Is terrible."
"No," I said, thinking of my Spanish.
"I try," he said. "I want to try."
He'd lived here, my unknown neighbor, for twenty-eight years now, more than half his life, I figured, "here" being Texas and Arizona and all kinds of other places from which he was able to visit Mexico for two weeks every year. His eyes lit up when he spoke of "our Mexico," of the village rituals of his place, of the beauty of Guadalajara, of the international airport not far from where he owned eighty acres in Aguascalientes. Here, of course, he had next to nothing except neighbors he'd never met and a trailer that looked perilous.
"You must miss your country, your family?"
"Is sad." We heard shouts, excited cries, as the boys finished loading up the truck and began making plans for walking into town to party. "I am buried here." It sounded ominous until, reflecting, I realized he'd said "bored."
"At night, I've got this" -- he pulled out a brand-new copy of the 1995 World Almanac in Spanish, though this was only the tenth day of January 1995.
"You don't have a television?"
"We do. But is broken. Two months already. I don't like to watch the television."
The man wanted to be an American, though. "I had an interview, last September," he said, the two of us shivering a little in the chill, dark stables, "September fourteenth. But I missed it."
Outside, the sky had begun to clear a little, and I'd grown almost used to looking like some member of an Amazon tribe whose notion of dressing up was putting on coat and tie and smearing himself in mud. The young workers, bearing spades, suddenly began walking off into the rain, tramping up the tree-crushed slopes, and the man smiled out at them.
"Every night they go to town. Even walk. Is three miles to the supermarket."
Below us, though we couldn't know it yet, waters fourteen feet high were actually burying underpasses, and kids were surfing on the transcontinental highway; the heaviest rains in five hundred years, people were saying (assuming the Chumash and early Spaniards kept records of these things). But my host was still anxious to make me feel welcome, and he asked me about India, about whether it was in Europe, about whether there were many poor people there.
He shook his head when I said it took twenty-four hours to fly there, and told me that his nephew-in-law -- the boy on his way to town now -- was on his way to Baltimore.
"America must be hard."
He shrugged. They didn't get much money, but they could eat a big meal for $1.50, and they had security. After you'd been working five years in this place, you could take a three-week vacation. Life wasn't so bad; they just needed papers. "They studied in California," he said of the boys; "they speak English."
We looked out through the sludge and drizzle to a nearby house, rebuilt since the fire. "Is a Spanish word," he said, a little proudly, holding it gently on his tongue. "A-do-be."
When I decided the storm had broken enough for me to clomp back up to my house (my clothes so caked in filth that I ended up stripping naked at my front door, and leaving all the sodden clothes outside), I turned to my new friend and said, "�Qu� l�stima!"
He waved and smiled. "Is a nice word."
. . .
It is a classic story in a way, of fire and flood and migration; the two moments I've just described could almost come from some Old Testament parable. The words themselves, of exile and homelessness and travel, are old ones that speak to something intrinsic to the state of being human. But it is a modern story, too, of a person with an American alien card and an Indian face and an English accent, on his way to Japan, meeting a neighbor who lives down the street in a universe that has never touched his own; and a man coming to a country where he can scarcely speak the language and passing twenty-eight years as an "illegal" to support a family scarcely seen. Two kinds of cross-border experiences meet, one postmodern and fueled by technology, the other tribal almost; over the Atlantic and under the border fence.
The other truth is that they are crossing all the time these days -- the new and the old -- and producing encounters seldom seen before. Two different worlds are coming together now, and both of us, aliens and unofficials for twenty-eight years in the great immigrants' Land of Promise, were being tossed about in the fast, driving winds that were blowing the world all around.
The century just ended, most of us agree, was the century of movement, with planes and phones and even newer toys precipitating what the secretary-general of the UN's Habitat II conference in 1996 called the "largest migration in history"; suddenly, among individuals and among groups, more bodies were being thrown more widely across the planet than ever before. Therein lay many of the new excitements of our time, and therein lay the pathos: in Cambodia recently, I heard that the second city of the Khmer people had been a refugee camp; even in relatively settled Central Europe, the number of refugees is greater than the populations of Vienna and Berlin combined.
For more and more people, then, the world is coming to resemble a diaspora, filled with new kinds of beings -- Gastarbeiters and boat people and marielitos -- as well as new kinds of realities: Rwandans in Auckland and Moroccans in Iceland. One reason why Melbourne looks ever more like Houston is that both of them are filling up with Vietnamese pho caf�s; and computer technology further encourages us to believe that the remotest point is just a click away. Everywhere is so made up of everywhere else -- a polycentric anagram -- that I hardly notice I'm sitting in a Parisian caf� just outside Chinatown (in San Francisco), talking to a Mexican-American friend about biculturalism while a Haitian woman stops off to congratulate him on a piece he's just delivered on TV on St. Patrick's Day. "I know all about those Irish nuns," she says, in a thick patois, as we sip our Earl Grey tea near signs that say City of Hong Kong, Empress of China.
Up the hill, in my hotel, a woman named Madame Nhu is waiting in a corner of the lobby to talk to me.
"Are you from Vietnam?" I ask as we introduce ourselves, following the implication of her name.
"You never lived in Vietnam?" I press on, not very diplomatically (and mostly because I want to share with her my enthusiasm for her country).
"I'm from Hue."
"But" -- I don't want to make it hard for her -- "you left when you were young?"
"Yes. I never lived there; I am American."
I feel a little uneasy about this line of questioning, knowing that I would squirm just as restlessly if someone asked the same of me: those of us who live between categories just tend to pick the nearest (or handiest) answer so we can move the conversation along. In any case, "Where do you come from?" is coming to seem as antiquated an inquiry as "What regiment do you belong to?"
"I remember once, in Vietnam," this highly cultured woman goes on, understanding, perhaps, that I'm only looking for a point of contact and, in fact, that I probably have more in common with her than someone from Hue or from the Berkeley Hills might, "the chambermaid at my hotel finally picked up the courage to ask, 'Are you one of us?'"
"No, in Vietnamese."
"And you must have found it difficult to answer?"
"No. I said, 'Yes. Definitely. Yes, I am one of you!'"
"Even though, when I asked just now, you didn't sound so sure. Maybe it depends on whom you're talking to?"
Unfair again, though doubtless true: after all, nearly all the cultures of which she'd been a member had been at war with one another during her lifetime, and wherever she was, whether it was Paris or English boarding school, New York or San Francisco, she must have felt that many of her lives were far away. The previous night, I'd met a man at dinner who'd told me that he dreamed in Swedish, English, and Italian (though only his Italian dreams were in black and white).
The surprising thing about such encounters, really, is that they don't seem surprising any more. Already we're taking yesterday's astonishments for granted.