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What Pico Iyer taught me about home and belonging

Earlier this month, I was lucky enough to interview famous travel writer (and brilliant human!) Pico Iyer for Seattle Arts & Lectures.

With decades of “criss-crossing the globe” under his belt, Pico weaves storytelling with his own observations on cultures that demonstrate his genuine love for people. He does it in lyrical prose, but also with a humility that I find so lacking in many travel “experts.”

Our connection was instantaneous and our conversation stayed with me long after.

Like Pico, my roots span countries and cultures. So what really struck me about his work is his explorations of seeking travel AND finding home.

I’ve struggled to define “home” for me as an Indian-Singaporean-British-American global citizen. When I asked him how he defines home, he responded:

“Home is not really connected with a piece of soil as much as a piece of soul.”

I love this idea—that home isn’t a physical place, but a piece that lives within us and a connection with the people we love. We may be constantly searching for the place that feels like home, but it doesn’t have to be a physical place, no matter how much the world and passports and our colleagues want us to choose a neat box and category.

Pico told stories of traveling to places like North Korea and Yemen, parts of the world where he risked imprisonment for the way he folded a newspaper and feared being kidnapped as he traveled through the countryside. And as he took us to these corners of the globe that were so fraught, what he focused on was the common humanity and generosity of all the people he encountered. His storytelling is remarkable, truly.

Ruchika Tulshyan and Pico Iyer sitting on blue chairs with microphones in front of them. Image courtesy: Seattle Arts & Lectures

He brought up the example of how people in North Korea could be executed for just glancing at a foreign newspaper, for being curious about the world. He’s met many people who would give anything to visit Seattle or New York or any number of cities outside of their own, but face barriers to even reading about it. But what is our excuse for not being more curious and informed about the world and seeking stories of it beyond a narrow, western lens? It is so easy to surround ourselves with people who are just like us. (You know I’ve talked extensively about affinity bias.) And Pico brought up a point that meant so much to me—perhaps the illusion of living in the digital, smartphone age can trick us into believing that we know more about others than we do. But “the world is always richer and deeper and more interesting than our ideas of it.” And then there is our fear of the unknown which prevents us from seeking stories beyond ones like our own. I draw inspiration from his approach:

“It’s wonderful that we know so little.”

When we know so little about the world, there is opportunity to get curious and explore.


So how do we do so responsibly?

As we gear up for summer and, possibly, travel, I encourage people to travel while also considering that there’s a line between cultural appropriation and appreciation. Learn about where you’re going, educate yourself on cultural norms, and treat everyone you meet with respect. For some places, this may even mean planning a trip elsewhere. Hawaii, for example, does not encourage visiting many parts of the state that have been negatively impacted by tourism. Pico and I talked about how I’ve learned so much about the world by frequenting restaurants and shops in Seattle owned by people from cultures around the world. Sometimes, the greatest adventures come from exploring new cultures in your own backyard. I’ll close with another favorite quote from Pico:

“Travel has very little to do with movement and everything to do with being moved. You don’t have to go far to be transformed.”


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