The world is very connected now. Not just in the digital sense, but also in the physical sense. Someone boarding a plane right now in Cheyenne, Wyoming could be in Kuala Lumpur in under 30 hours. Looking around at the other passengers boarding, our traveller departing Wyoming may see many folks leaving for holidays, with more travelling for work. Some of those people, though, would be travelling on one way tickets, uprooting themselves and moving around the globe for a new life. The International Organisation for Migration estimates that over 3% of the world’s population are migrants, 214 million people living in countries not their own.
Global Souls are voluntary migrants, not forced to leave by strife, disaster or economic imperative. “A person like me can’t really call himself an exile (who traditionally looked back to a home now lost), or an expatriate (who’s generally posted abroad for a living); I’m not really a nomad (whose patterns are guided by the seasons and tradition); and I’ve never been subject to the refugee’s violent disruptions,” explains Iyer in his book, The Global Soul: Jet-Lag, Shopping Malls and The Search for Home. The people, who are “best characterized by the fact of falling between all categories,” Iyer calls Global Souls.
Pico Iyer is a man without a home, Indian by descent, British by birth, spending time jetting between England and California as a boy and living in Japan. In India, where he looks like the locals, he can’t speak the language. In England, where he sounds like a local, he looks foreign. In Japan, where he lives, he doesn’t fit in at all. “The only home that any Global Soul can find these days is, it seems, in the midst of the alien and the indecipherable,” Iyer says.
To examine these Global Souls, Iyer sets out on a jet setting trip across the world. Forced out of his parent’s California home by a forest fire, Iyer comes across a family of Mexican migrants, living unseen in an upper-middle class neighbourhood of Los Angeles. The contrast between the journey and experience of the family of economic migrants and Iyer’s own migrant journey sets the stage to explain the Global Soul.
From there, Iyer globe hops, examining the lives of Global Souls like himself. A Chapter on Los Angeles International Airport (LAX) looks at the moment of transition, and the hopes and dreams those migrating have of their new home. Hong Kong sets the stage for an examination of what this merging and mixing of cultures is doing to our sense of place and sense of self. Toronto, my former home and a city that prides itself on being multicultural, allows Iyer to question our sense of national identity. I found myself reflected in many of the people that Iyer meets along these chapters. They are people who are displaced, but somehow find some comfort in that displacement. Like fuzzy signals on a slightly mistuned radio, Global Souls are comfortable in being slightly out of tune with their surroundings.
A chapter on Atlanta, home to global brands Coca-Cola and CNN, allows Iyer to examine what global culture means. This is where the ten year old book starts to feel dated. Written in the late 1990s and published in 2000, I couldn’t help but feel that so much has happened since then to change our view of the wider world. Written before the 1999 Seattle WTO protests, which marked the mainstream awareness of the growing anti-globalisation movement, a movement further strengthened by the recession of 2008 to the present, I wondered what the Global Soul would make of the international brands now. What impact did September 11th, and the follow on wars in Afghanistan and Iraq have on voluntary migrants views of the world, or even the experience of LAX? Technology plays a big part in the lives of many of the Global Souls in the book, allowing them to live abroad but stay connected. However, much of the tech seems positively quaint now, and I couldn’t help but wonder if high speed internet, special interest forums and social media were making us more globally connected or less. Does living in another country, but still interacting daily with your friends back in your home country make us more globally minded, or just physically distance but still locally connected? Though the chapter seems dated, at least it does raise some interesting questions to contemplate.
Iyer returns to his place of birth, England, to examine the immigrant experience there. Can a migrant, or even second and third generation immigrants, ever fit in, or are their forever doomed to feel somewhat displaced. Finally Iyer examines his own place of residence, a rural village in Japan. The final two chapters, where Iyer examines his birth home of England and current home of Japan are unfocused, and the head of steam that the book had gained in the early chapters, with observations building upon each other, seems to disperse without resolution.
However, the early chapters contain more than enough to get a Global Soul thinking about their existence, and those that live abroad or enjoy being in the company the foreign should find some interesting personal insights in the book. It could be the perfect book to keep a new migrant occupied on a flight from Cheyenne to Kuala Lumpur.
Find this book on Amazon: The Global Soul: Jet-Lag, Shopping Malls and the Search for Home