Place Aliens

The Global Village Has Spawned Members Of A New Kind Of Country Club.

The Global Soul, By Pico Iyer (Alfred A. Knopf). Cloth, $25.

BORN IN ENGLAND to Indian parents, the journalist and travel writer Pico Iyer has spent large parts of his life in southern California, London, New York and Japan, "with," he writes, "no real base of operations or property even in my thirties."

He continues to haunt those places, a jetsetter and cosmopolitan in every sense. But more of his time, it seems, is spent between them--in airplanes, in business-travelers' hotels and in airports, those liminal places that belong to no country, no culture, no time. As we quickly learn from the pages of The Global Soul, Iyer is an unusual case. He is a man familiar with but never at home in nearly every corner of the world, comfortable only, it seems, when he doesn't quite know the language and customs of whatever place it is he finds himself. In the countries where he does choose to live, he is, by appearance, forever marked as an outsider, while in the country where he does appear to belong, he cannot speak the language, cannot even pronounce the name he was given at birth.

He is unusual, yes. But, Iyer suggests, his type is becoming ever more common as the world lurches toward its long-awaited reformation as a global village.

In The Global Soul, an uneven but unfailingly thought-provoking collection of essays born as magazine articles, Iyer profiles a new kind of world citizen, one who subscribes by choice or necessity to the view that, as a fellow Eurasian in-betweener comments at a party in the Japanese countryside, "One country's not enough."

In one piece, Iyer profiles a friend who lives in an apartment in Hong Kong for a few days of the month, a home in London for a few others, in any one of the 27 countries in which he works for a few others--and in the airspace between them for the rest of the time. "I have voice mail in Japan, Hong Kong and Boston," his friend says, "and I can check my messages from anywhere. The only trouble is, I don't have a mobile modem, so I can't collect my e-mail in a car."

In another piece, Iyer visits what he considers to be a model global city: Toronto, which enjoys an apparently harmonious mix of ethnicities, languages and cultures in a Canada whose former divisions between French and English speakers belong to another, simpler age.

Iyer contrasts Toronto, a model of tolerance, with what he takes to be hell on earth--namely, Atlanta, Georgia, the undeserving, racially divided site of the last Olympiad. In Toronto, Iyer writes, people seem "amused at the world, while living at a small distance from it"; as one of his Toronto friends remarks, "The beauty of the present is that we can find ourselves in the company of cultures that we never expected to encounter otherwise." In Atlanta, conversely, amusement gives way to fear, hatred and mistrust; it is a city, after all, of which large districts decided to have nothing to do with the Olympic Games because to do so would have meant repealing official resolutions condemning homosexuality.

There may be places on earth that surpass Atlanta in self-willed awfulness. Atlanta is symptomatic, however, of a problem at which Iyer hints--namely, that of all nations on earth, insular and self-absorbed America is the one least prepared for the global future, in which an acquaintance with several languages and several ways of life will be critical to success. And that familiarity will have to be more than just passing. Iyer writes of the dangers of half-knowledge, of the misapprehensions that can come from a too-rich diet of media in the place of direct experience. Without that first-hand contact, we wind up with mish-mash cultures--the utterly artificial world, say, of a moneyed Japanese teenager, all Paris fashions and half-English slang words.

Just what is this "global soul" of which Pico Iyer writes? To judge by his attempts at definition, it appears to be schizophrenic, marked by alienation, homelessness, and a sour stomach--but also by a fine sense of adventure and a healthy disregard for superpower jingoism.

Whether the rise of this global soul is necessarily a good thing or not is an open question. For free-trade advocates like Thomas Friedman, whose recent book The Lexus and the Olive Tree sings the praises of postmodern capitalism, globalism is an unalloyed good thing. Iyer takes a more guarded view; mindful of the reality of cell phones, jet lag and airports, he remarks, "Globalism has become the convenient way of saying that all the world's a single market." In that one-market world, Iyer observes, whole cultures seem to be going global. Millions of Filipinos, for instance, now work outside their country--130,000 in Hong Kong alone, hundreds of thousands more in places as far-flung as Osaka, Rome, and Reno. These "domestic outsourcers," as they are called in the bloodless language of business, are exponents of the "global soul" as much as any bohemian with a backpack--or any jetsetter with a credit card and laptop.

Globalism, then, may be just a shorthand description for a world of displaced peoples, of willing and unwilling refugees whose homeland is a tarmac. Iyer points to the example of the Japanese novelist Kazuo Ishiguro, who lives in London with his Scottish wife and a daughter "who will be growing up in an England very likely full of Muslim fundamentalists (and their enemies)"--an England, in other words, very much like the one depicted in Salman Rushdie's Satanic Verses.

On the other hand, globalism may turn out to have a friendly Torontonean face, a world that resembles a giant website where people with common interests meet without regard for shibboleths of religion or skin color. Iyer's red-eyed travels in these alternate realities have yielded a subtle, intelligent book.

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