Pico Iyer describes himself as “a global village on two legs.” It’s a fitting appellation for someone who was born in England to Indian parents, immigrated to California as a boy, was later educated at Eton and Oxford, and now spends much of his time in Japan.
“I am simply a fairly typical product of a movable sensibility,” he once said, “living and working in a world that is itself increasingly small and increasingly mongrel. I am a multinational soul on a multicultural globe on which more and more countries are as polyglot and restless as airports. Taking planes seems as natural to me as picking up the phone or going to school; I fold up my self and carry it around as if it were an overnight bag.”
A longtime essayist, and the author of four books, Iyer is one of the most eloquent and incisive observers of the new cultural mix that characterizes today’s borderless world. His writing moves from travel reportage to social criticism to philosophical rumination, always with a keen eye for odd juxtapositions. Whether he is speaking German to a tipsy police chief in Cuba, eating enchiladas in Nepal, or reading a Jackie Collins novel at a public library in Bhutan, his world is one where the foreign and the familiar coexist in unexpected ways.
The Utne Reader recently hailed Iyer as one of America’s leading visionaries for “elevating travel reportage to new heights,” and the Los Angeles Times has called him the rightful heir to Jan Morris, Paul Theroux, and company.” He is sometimes compared with Indian writers Vikram Seth and Gita Mehta, but he dismisses the comparisons. “I’m different,” he says simply. “I guess I’m more international because of the vast amounts of traveling I do. I’m not so much an Indian, but an international traveler.”
Iyer’s first book, Video Night in Kathmandu (Knopf), has become a minor classic of travel reportage. Falling off the Map (Knopf), his most recent travel book, recounts his journeys to such far-flung places as Iceland, North Korea, and the Australian Outback. His latest, Cuba and the Night (Knopf), is a novel set in modern-day Havana.
When I met with Iyer recently at his part-time home on a hilltop overlooking Santa Barbara, California, I found him as amiable and unassuming in person as he often seems in his prose. The impression was not dispelled as we launched into conversation, but it was overshadowed now and again by his flashing intellect, playfulness with words, and highly developed, ironic sense of humor.
— Scott London
London: Your work is, in a sense, a study of the emerging global culture. You travel to the Far East and describe seeing a Rambo movie dubbed into Mandarin, or eating tiramisu at a Burger King in Kyoto.
Iyer: When I first became a travel writer, I realized that people have been visiting the temples of China and the gardens of Japan and the mountains of India for hundreds of years and have written wonderfully about them, but what was new and striking and more or less unrecorded were these absolutely contemporary and constantly shifting wonders of the modern world. In China, for example, three times more people watch the Super Bowl than in America. In Japan, they play baseball, but they smile when they strike out, and they don’t slide into second base because they don’t want to offend the opposition. In India, they were shooting five different remakes of Rambo movies while I was there, even one with a woman in the title role. All of this seemed to me unrecorded and unprecedented.
I am writing about the future, in a sense, because these are the new forms that the world is moving toward. Things we take for granted in the United States acquire a different meaning and value abroad. McDonald’s is a status symbol in Thailand. When you go to Beijing and visit Tienanmen Square, you see a Kentucky Fried Chicken restaurant — the biggest in the world — just around the corner from Mao Tse-tung’s mausoleum. People spend a whole week’s wages just to eat there. They take pictures of one another in front of the tables and stare at the photos on the walls that show such promised lands as Santa Barbara and Hollywood.
I think of the global village partly in such terms, and partly in terms of individuals. Like me, more and more people have many different cultures singing and clashing and conspiring within them.
London: What do you consider home at this point?
Iyer: There are two ways of responding to this state of statelessness: You can go all around the world and feel alienated and displaced wherever you are. Or you can treat everywhere as equally home. Because I’m not fully English, Indian, or American, I’m no more displaced when I go to China or Ethiopia or Peru than when I’m in India, because I can’t speak a word of Hindi, or when I’m in England, because I don’t look like an Englishman, or when I’m in California, because my accent sounds so bizarre to people here.
The drawback is that it’s hard to put down roots. I still don’t have a place I can really call home. I’ve never bought property; I just move between temporary base camps. The very notion of home, of having a family or community, is hard for me to embrace.
But perhaps it will become easier for people like me in the immediate future, as there become more and more of us. Now, when I walk down the street in Los Angeles or San Francisco, most of the people I see are in a similar state of rootlessness.
London: The Indian writer Bharati Mukherjee said that, after spending her whole life searching for home, she feels she has found it here in the U.S.
Iyer: I think that America is an ideal place for the privileged homeless, people like Bharati or myself, who are used to different cultures. It’s the most accommodating because it is a country of exiles and immigrants and newcomers. There is always the feeling that traditions are being made as we speak. So you can drop yourself into a slot.
I think Bharati must have found, as most of us do, that home is essentially a set of values you carry around with you, something that is part of you and can be equally a part of you wherever you are. I think not having a home is a good inducement to create a metaphysical home.
Our grandparents could never enjoy the illusion of knowing Pakistan. . . . We can see every possible image of Pakistan on our CD-ROMs in our living room and yet really have less understanding because of that illusion.
London: One effect of the global village is a widespread sense of homelessness. Beneath that, there also seems to be a certain spiritual homelessness.
Iyer: I think that’s true partly because we can now see and reach places that were once inconceivable. Our grandparents could never go to Tibet. Now you or I could go to the airport and be in Tibet in hours. I actually regard this as a great opportunity. I think spiritual homelessness is not necessarily a bad thing if it leads us to question the assumptions that we have grown up with, and if it takes us deeper into foreign cultures. Just as there are more and more Californians to be found in the temples of Kyoto or in the villages of Bali or in the Himalayas, one can go to downtown Santa Barbara and find ayurvedic medicine, Thai restaurants, and Japanese cars in abundance.
I have also observed that, when I’m wandering around the Himalayas, for example, most of the people I see are Westerners dressed in sandals and Indian smocks, in search of enlightenment, antiquity, peace: all the things they can’t get in the West. But most of the people they meet are Nepali villagers in Lee jeans, Reeboks, and Madonna T-shirts, looking for a paradise of material prosperity and abundance that they associate with Los Angeles. It’s tantalizing because we can see what we don’t have.
London: You mentioned Los Angeles. That city perhaps best exemplifies what the world will look like in ten or twenty years. But, in a way, it is rather frightening, because Los Angeles is very cold and impersonal and full of extremes — South Central on one side, Bel Air on the other. Do you think Los Angeles represents the city of the future?
Iyer: I do. People now call it the “capital of the Third World.” It’s the prime example of a new kind of city where a thousand different tribes are thrown together. The virtue of it is that one can travel the world just by walking down the street, but the drawback is the clash of customs.
Los Angeles now teaches eighty-two different languages in its schools. It is the second-biggest Thai, Salvadoran, and Korean city in the world. I recently spent a lot of time in the Los Angeles airport writing an article for Harper’s, and there you can really see the future landing with a bump all around you.
More and more of the world is made up of these generic cities. It’s not just a global village, but a global metropolis. Whether you fly to Toronto or London or Singapore or Sydney or Los Angeles, you feel as if you were just visiting different suburbs of the same city. When you fly to Toronto, most of the people on the plane will be Chinese, and most of the people who will greet you at the airport will be Indian. Our cities are becoming part of a global culture.
London: You’ve said that one of the dangers of the global village is the “illusion of understanding” between cultures. It’s easy to think we understand each other when we have a classmate from Pakistan, for example, or a neighbor from Jamaica. But differences are often more deep-seated.
Iyer: Those are precisely the kinds of conflicts that a place like Los Angeles creates. Our grandparents could never enjoy the illusion of knowing Pakistan — it was on the other side of the world, as remote as the moon. Now there is a sense of having a superficial acquaintance with every country. We see more and more images, and we don’t know how deeply they go into us, or how to separate the ones that are fleeting from the ones that are eternal. We can see every possible image of Pakistan on our CD-ROMs in our living room and yet really have less understanding because of that illusion.
London: I was working in Norway some years ago, north of the Arctic Circle in the dead of winter — so far north, in fact, that the sun never rose the entire time I was there. People there had a strong, vibrant local-music culture. Then the Norwegian government installed new satellite and cable technology, and suddenly people were picking up MTV, CNN, and other stations. Overnight, they were inundated with American pop music, news, and advertising. I was struck by how fragile their local culture was and how quickly it was swept away by this new international — but mostly American — culture. You must have seen a lot of this in your travels to small, remote places.
Iyer: Yes, and the scary thing is it can happen so quickly, and there really is no defense against it. Iceland, which is more or less on the Arctic Circle, takes great pride in the fact that it has an unbroken cultural lineage. To this day everyone who immigrates there has to adopt a traditional Icelandic name. The language is unchanged since the thirteenth century, so Icelanders can pick up the sagas and read them as if they were today’s newspaper. There are all kinds of curious laws aimed at preserving the culture. Yet, when I went there recently, the old geyser formations were named after Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and images of Madonna were on every street corner. There is no way to keep those forces at bay. Every parent knows that telling children not to do something is a sure-fire way to get them to do it. So governments that try to keep out foreign influences are, more or less, inviting people to enjoy them.
What’s interesting to me is that every culture sings Madonna in its own accent. She is something different for Tibetans than she is for us. Once, when I was in Cuba visiting a very good friend of mine — an intellectual and a dissident and a very sophisticated person — he brought out what was clearly his most precious treasure: a copy of Michael Jackson’s album Bad on which he had scribbled heartfelt pleas to Michael Jackson to rescue him from Castro, from Cuba, from everything. At first I was rather taken aback that he would invest so much in such a remote figure whom people here tend not to take very seriously. Later I realized that, in some ways, Michael Jackson is a shorthand for everything that’s banned in Cuba. He is American; he appears gay; he is very rich. He is all the things it’s not good to be in Cuba, and, to that extent, he is a perfect symbol of rebellion. While here he is an unthreatening establishment figure, there he is the ultimate rebel and carries a political charge that he would never have in the U.S.
London: Music is a good example of the emerging global culture. As American and British music become more and more popular around the world, we find ourselves looking to other cultures for new music, which we call “world music.” There is a debate between those musicians who feel that the best world music blends and fuses different genres and cultures, and those musicians who feel that local musical heritage is vanishing in the drive to commercialize and meet the West’s demands for more “exotic” music. How do you feel about this borrowing and lending between different cultures?
Iyer: I think it’s always easy to see the dangers of it, but what is often forgotten is that this very process of cross-cultural communication can be an incentive to creation. In Bali, the influx of tourists has generated new dances and new musical forms, and breathed new life into a culture that people took for granted. In some ways, like it or not, these fusions are our future. Still, within the privacy of their homes, people are doubtless keeping virgin the traditions that they have grown up with. So I think that I tend to be more of an optimist than many people.
I’m also interested in what I call “world fiction” — the literary equivalent of world music. In England, the Booker Prize, which is given to the best novel of the year, has only gone to an English person maybe two or three times in the last fourteen years. The winners are nearly always from the West Indies, India, South Africa, Australia. It’s an example of the colonies striking back; all those poor little kids in St. Lucia and Delhi were made to read Keats and Wordsworth, and now kids in London are reading Indian voices like V. S. Naipaul. There is a nice symmetry there, though the drawback is that all integrity can get lost in the process, and we may soon inhabit a world of blurred boundaries where everything is a hybrid.
Whatever is happening in the real America — where the murder rate is worse than Lebanon’s, and there is homelessness and poverty — America is still a shorthand throughout the world for everything that is young and modern and free.
London: What do you think will be the result of all this blending and fusing of cultures? Will we end up with a bland monoculture, or a vibrant mosaic of different cultures?
Iyer: I think it will be harder and harder to find someone who is, as it were, a spiritual Icelander. Icelanders are very proud of the fact that they are of 100 percent Icelandic blood. But we are living in an almost postnational age where everyone is a hyphen. We may soon look back nostalgically to a time when somebody could say, “I am 100 percent Indian.”
London: I hear a lot about the so-called postnational age. In economic circles, in particular, people are talking about how we are moving into an era of commerce without national borders.
Iyer: People say that soon there will be no Japan, only Japanese, and that nations are becoming akin to the Italian city-states of the fifteenth century — which is making many people nostalgic for the clarity of the Cold War, when there were only two sides and you could align yourself firmly. This world full of shifting borders reminds me more of a Jackson Pollock canvas: everything is happening all at once in every possible direction.
Living here in California, I find that one of the scariest things about this place is the fact that it is constantly rewriting its script; many people don’t know who they will be a year from now. When I go to Japan, where I spend a lot of time, I can really see the virtues of a strong sense of tradition and community. I think that what gives the Japanese their strength — economically, psychologically, and in other ways — is the knowledge that every spring they will celebrate the flowering of the cherry blossoms, just as they did ten years ago, and one hundred years ago.
The more the external forms fade, the greater the necessity for creating inner rituals and forms. Otherwise we will just be formless selves moving in a formless world.
London: Are you an American citizen?
Iyer: No, I’m not. I’ve never been a part of any community. This is one reason I love those occasions where the world comes together: the Olympic games, for example. I think what the world is turning into is like what happens at the end of the Olympics, when all the nationalities spill onto the field and the flags are thrown down and you can’t tell anyone apart. I love that kind of fusion, probably because I don’t really have any sense of affiliation. When I go to the Olympics, I think, “Well, whom am I rooting for?” Occasionally I can summon some excitement for Japan since it is, I suppose, my adopted home. Sometimes I support the Cubans. But it can be alarming to have people all around me shouting and cheering while I’m not.
We hear a lot these days about the dangers of nationalism and tribal differences. But I think the opposite danger is that of internationalism. People like me, who don’t know whom to root for, can perhaps move to extremes of dispassion; our problem is not that we are too ready to fight wars against our enemies but that we don’t know who our friends or our enemies are.
London: And there is also the difficulty of not having a sense of belonging. Do you ever feel, with all the traveling you do, a certain loneliness?
Iyer: I’m one of those perverse people who like being alone. I’m an only child. I went to school in England, my parents lived in California, and my other relatives were in India. So I think I always took myself to be a community of one. That’s what I am comfortable with still.
Travel, in a superficial sense, at least, is a good cure for loneliness. When you travel, especially in the Third World, you quickly find that you have more friends than you know what to do with. You can hardly walk down the street before a woman is proposing marriage and somebody else wants to whisk you to his uncle’s carpet shop and somebody else just wants to practice his English with you. Plus, you’re glamorous when you’re abroad. If I were inhabiting a world made up entirely of Indians born in England and living in California, I would just fade into the crowd. But when I’m abroad I become exotic.
A country like this one seems to me the loneliest place in the world in many ways. But I think a more fundamental loneliness can arise when you realize that you don’t have an affiliation anywhere, and that if you are going to cast a vote it has to be a kind of inner vote — you are not participating in any democracy but a democracy of the self.
London: We’ve talked a lot about the globalization of the world. What about the Americanization of the world? We’ve got McDonald’s in Beijing, and Disneyland in Europe. Will the world become increasingly American, or will the U.S. have the same influx of foreign culture someday?
Iyer: I think we are already getting that influx of foreign cultures. A Traveler’s Aid desk in the Los Angeles airport can dispense help in 115 different languages.
I think America the notion is still very different from America the nation. What’s touching and almost regenerative is that, whatever is happening in the real America — where the murder rate is worse than Lebanon’s, and there is homelessness and poverty — America is still a shorthand throughout the world for everything that is young and modern and free. One interesting thing is that Mick Jagger, the Beatles, Reebok, pizza, enchiladas — everything that is hip and desirable — are all regarded as American no matter what their true origins. Japan may arguably be stronger economically than America, yet there is no “Japanese Dream,” and people in Germany and Peru aren’t longing to emulate Japanese pop stars or see the latest Kurosawa movie. America has a hold on imaginations like no other country, I think partly because it is an immigrant country, and partly because there is still a kind of innocence in America that translates very well everywhere in the world. The American Dream is strongest of all in the hearts of people who have only seen America in their dreams.
But I don’t really worry about things becoming Americanized, partly because countries whose cultures are as old and deep and subtle as Japan’s or China’s are able to take in as many American forms and fashions as they need and still, in some fundamental sense, remain Japanese and Chinese. You may walk down the street in Shanghai and see people wearing American clothes and watching CNN, but there is still a whole infrastructure of Confucian ideas and hopes there that are very alien to you. In some essential sense, these people speak a different language, however fluent they are in English.
We are talking about the challenges of cultural blending, but there is also a safety in having a good awareness of other cultures. When you go somewhere like North Korea, you see the dangers of isolation. It’s so removed from the outside world, so completely sealed, it has almost a cultlike mentality. It’s like another planet, and it either doesn’t know or doesn’t care how the rest of the world works. There are no foreign newspapers. The whole country is hermetically sealed. At six in the morning, loudspeakers on the streets begin broadcasting propaganda about living in a socialist paradise. When you go to a country like that, you realize that in some ways our fears about it are very well founded; a country that doesn’t even know the rules is liable to do anything.
London: When we were talking before about the idea of home, I was reminded that the political writer Edward Said identified exile as the great tragedy of our era. Because of the nature of the global economy and the arrival of the global marketplace, many people are migrating away from their homelands and living in voluntary exile. Do you agree that this is one of the defining characteristics of our modern world?
Iyer: I would make a very strong distinction between exile and expatriation, between those people who are exiled by necessity and those who choose to leave. There are, I think, 15 million refugees in the world today, many more than ever before. That is tragic. People like me are in a relatively privileged position because we have, to some extent, chosen to live in foreign places. I would always make the distinction between those who are being thrown out of the place they want to be and others who are going toward a place they would rather be. I think there are voluntary exiles who are making the best of this floating condition, and there are others who are its victims.
London: I’ve developed this friendship with a fellow via the Internet. He is from Barbados, but spent many years living in England and Germany, and now makes his home in Israel, so he typifies the new global citizen. He passed along to me a quote by a twelfth-century monk named Hugo of Saint-Victor: “The person who finds his homeland sweet is still a tender beginner; the person to whom every soil is as a native one is already strong; but he is perfect to whom every soil is as a foreign land.” You’ve said that you try to preserve that sense of being in a foreign land when you travel. But how do you find that sense when cities like Tokyo or Singapore start looking more and more like variations of San Francisco or Toronto? Where do you find the foreignness?
Iyer: I find it in the ways that Tokyo will draw upon the common pool of images, as it were, and make each one different. I used the example of baseball before. At a baseball game in Tokyo, the crowds all follow a cheerleader, singing on cue; they have a different chant for each player. American players are often regarded as deities over there, even when they are considered over the hill here. In Japan, they become bright new prospects. So even the things that are familiar acquire a different meaning in a different context.
I think that foreignness is always with you. Indeed, I find California more foreign the longer I live here, and to me that makes it a more desirable place to live. I like the glamour and romanticism and exoticism of it. I was raised on I Love Lucy and the Grateful Dead and Jack Kerouac. To me, they were all symbols of this foreign land of promise and movement.
To some extent, home is whatever place holds no glamour and exoticism for one — whatever doesn’t get one’s pulse racing. England is my home in that sense, because whenever I go back to England, whatever the circumstances — even on a glorious, never-ending summer’s day — my heart sinks, and there is no way I can bring any wonder to it the way I can to California.
Home is also, I think, whatever you rebel against. A place that propels you away from it, in a sense, proves that it’s your home.
London: In many respects, California is the epicenter of the Western world, because the images that are broadcast through television and movies originate here.
Iyer: One of the interesting things about Los Angeles is that it is supplying the whole world with dreams through movies and songs and TV — images of the all-American family — at the same time that the real Los Angeles is being peopled by souls from Vietnam, Guatemala, and Korea, who look nothing like the images being beamed out. I think that is going to have to change, and illusion is going to have to catch up with reality.
Lots of people have saved all their lives and channeled all of their energies toward coming to this promised land of abundance and plenty. But everything becomes much more complicated when they get here. One of the first things they discover, before they have even left the airport, is that most of the people working there are recent Guatemalan or Vietnamese immigrants who have pretty grim, menial jobs. The people who come from Guatemala or Vietnam bright with hopes of the new lives they are going to make are instantly confronted with a reality that may be worse than what they have left.
One of the startling things for people arriving in Los Angeles today from Tibet, say, is that half the faces they see are Chinese — exactly the people they are trying to flee. And everywhere they turn they see kimchi restaurants and mee krob and sushi, and they wonder, “What is this America we’ve landed in? This is not the hamburger-and-French-fry paradise that we imagined.” So people are going to have to become accustomed to the fact that all the world is international now. Cities like San Francisco and Los Angeles are the models of our future.
As you suggested, there are many perils involved, but it’s also within our reach to enjoy all the possibilities that were denied our grandparents, who, whether they wanted to be or not, were rooted in a single culture.