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  • Where do you come from?

  • It's such a simple question,

  • but these days, of course, simple questions

  • bring ever more complicated answers.

  • People are always asking me where I come from,

  • and they're expecting me to say India,

  • and they're absolutely right, so far as 100 percent

  • of my blood and ancestry does come from India.

  • Except, I've never lived one day of my life there.

  • I can't speak even one word

  • of its more than 22,000 dialects.

  • So I don't think I've really earned the right

  • to call myself an Indian.

  • And if "Where do you come from?"

  • means "Where were you born and raised and educated?"

  • then I'm entirely of that funny little country

  • known as England,

  • except I left England as soon as I completed

  • my undergraduate education,

  • and all the time I was growing up,

  • I was the only kid in all my classes

  • who didn't begin to look like the classic English heroes

  • represented in our textbooks.

  • And if "Where do you come from?"

  • means "Where do you pay your taxes?

  • Where do you see your doctor and your dentist?"

  • then I'm very much of the United States,

  • and I have been for 48 years now,

  • since I was a really small child.

  • Except, for many of those years,

  • I've had to carry around this funny little pink card

  • with green lines running through my face

  • identifying me as a permanent alien.

  • I do actually feel more alien the longer I live there.

  • (Laughter)

  • And if "Where do you come from?"

  • means "Which place goes deepest inside you

  • and where do you try to spend most of your time?"

  • then I'm Japanese,

  • because I've been living as much as I can

  • for the last 25 years in Japan.

  • Except, all of those years I've been there on a tourist visa,

  • and I'm fairly sure not many Japanese

  • would want to consider me one of them.

  • And I say all this just to stress

  • how very old-fashioned and straightforward

  • my background is,

  • because when I go to Hong Kong or Sydney or Vancouver,

  • most of the kids I meet

  • are much more international and multi-cultured than I am.

  • And they have one home associated with their parents,

  • but another associated with their partners,

  • a third connected maybe with the place where they happen to be,

  • a fourth connected with the place they dream of being,

  • and many more besides.

  • And their whole life will be spent taking pieces

  • of many different places and putting them together

  • into a stained glass whole.

  • Home for them is really a work in progress.

  • It's like a project on which they're constantly adding

  • upgrades and improvements and corrections.

  • And for more and more of us,

  • home has really less to do with a piece of soil

  • than, you could say, with a piece of soul.

  • If somebody suddenly asks me, "Where's your home?"

  • I think about my sweetheart or my closest friends

  • or the songs that travel with me wherever I happen to be.

  • And I'd always felt this way,

  • but it really came home to me, as it were,

  • some years ago when I was climbing up the stairs

  • in my parents' house in California,

  • and I looked through the living room windows

  • and I saw that we were encircled by 70-foot flames,

  • one of those wildfires that regularly tear through

  • the hills of California and many other such places.

  • And three hours later, that fire had reduced

  • my home and every last thing in it

  • except for me to ash.

  • And when I woke up the next morning,

  • I was sleeping on a friend's floor,

  • the only thing I had in the world was a toothbrush

  • I had just bought from an all-night supermarket.

  • Of course, if anybody asked me then,

  • "Where is your home?"

  • I literally couldn't point to any physical construction.

  • My home would have to be whatever I carried around inside me.

  • And in so many ways, I think this is a terrific liberation.

  • Because when my grandparents were born,

  • they pretty much had their sense of home,

  • their sense of community, even their sense of enmity,

  • assigned to them at birth,

  • and didn't have much chance of stepping outside of that.

  • And nowadays, at least some of us can choose our sense of home,

  • create our sense of community,

  • fashion our sense of self, and in so doing

  • maybe step a little beyond

  • some of the black and white divisions

  • of our grandparents' age.

  • No coincidence that the president

  • of the strongest nation on Earth is half-Kenyan,

  • partly raised in Indonesia,

  • has a Chinese-Canadian brother-in-law.

  • The number of people living in countries not their own

  • now comes to 220 million,

  • and that's an almost unimaginable number,

  • but it means that if you took the whole population of Canada

  • and the whole population of Australia

  • and then the whole population of Australia again

  • and the whole population of Canada again

  • and doubled that number,

  • you would still have fewer people than belong

  • to this great floating tribe.

  • And the number of us who live outside

  • the old nation-state categories is increasing so quickly,

  • by 64 million just in the last 12 years,

  • that soon there will be more of us than there are Americans.

  • Already, we represent the fifth-largest nation on Earth.

  • And in fact, in Canada's largest city, Toronto,

  • the average resident today is what used to be called

  • a foreigner, somebody born in a very different country.

  • And I've always felt that the beauty of being surrounded by the foreign

  • is that it slaps you awake.

  • You can't take anything for granted.

  • Travel, for me, is a little bit like being in love,

  • because suddenly all your senses are at the setting marked "on."

  • Suddenly you're alert to the secret patterns of the world.

  • The real voyage of discovery, as Marcel Proust famously said,

  • consists not in seeing new sights,

  • but in looking with new eyes.

  • And of course, once you have new eyes,

  • even the old sights, even your home

  • become something different.

  • Many of the people living in countries not their own

  • are refugees who never wanted to leave home

  • and ache to go back home.

  • But for the fortunate among us,

  • I think the age of movement brings exhilarating new possibilities.

  • Certainly when I'm traveling,

  • especially to the major cities of the world,

  • the typical person I meet today

  • will be, let's say, a half-Korean, half-German young woman

  • living in Paris.

  • And as soon as she meets a half-Thai,

  • half-Canadian young guy from Edinburgh,

  • she recognizes him as kin.

  • She realizes that she probably has much more in common with him

  • than with anybody entirely of Korea or entirely of Germany.

  • So they become friends. They fall in love.

  • They move to New York City.

  • (Laughter)

  • Or Edinburgh.

  • And the little girl who arises out of their union

  • will of course be not Korean or German

  • or French or Thai or Scotch or Canadian

  • or even American, but a wonderful

  • and constantly evolving mix of all those places.

  • And potentially, everything about the way

  • that young woman dreams about the world,

  • writes about the world, thinks about the world,

  • could be something different,

  • because it comes out of this almost unprecedented

  • blend of cultures.

  • Where you come from now is much less important

  • than where you're going.

  • More and more of us are rooted in the future

  • or the present tense as much as in the past.

  • And home, we know, is not just the place

  • where you happen to be born.

  • It's the place where you become yourself.

  • And yet,

  • there is one great problem with movement,

  • and that is that it's really hard to get your bearings

  • when you're in midair.

  • Some years ago, I noticed that I had accumulated

  • one million miles on United Airlines alone.

  • You all know that crazy system,

  • six days in hell, you get the seventh day free.

  • (Laughter)

  • And I began to think that really,

  • movement was only as good as the sense of stillness

  • that you could bring to it to put it into perspective.

  • And eight months after my house burned down,

  • I ran into a friend who taught at a local high school,

  • and he said, "I've got the perfect place for you."

  • "Really?" I said. I'm always a bit skeptical

  • when people say things like that.

  • "No, honestly," he went on,

  • "it's only three hours away by car,

  • and it's not very expensive,

  • and it's probably not like anywhere you've stayed before."

  • "Hmm." I was beginning to get slightly intrigued. "What is it?"

  • "Well —" Here my friend hemmed and hawed

  • "Well, actually it's a Catholic hermitage."

  • This was the wrong answer.

  • I had spent 15 years in Anglican schools,

  • so I had had enough hymnals and crosses to last me a lifetime.

  • Several lifetimes, actually.

  • But my friend assured me that he wasn't Catholic,

  • nor were most of his students,

  • but he took his classes there every spring.

  • And as he had it, even the most restless, distractible,

  • testosterone-addled 15-year-old Californian boy

  • only had to spend three days in silence

  • and something in him cooled down and cleared out.

  • He found himself.

  • And I thought, "Anything that works for a 15-year-old boy

  • ought to work for me."

  • So I got in my car, and I drove three hours north

  • along the coast,

  • and the roads grew emptier and narrower,

  • and then I turned onto an even narrower path,

  • barely paved, that snaked for two miles

  • up to the top of a mountain.

  • And when I got out of my car,

  • the air was pulsing.

  • The whole place was absolutely silent,

  • but the silence wasn't an absence of noise.

  • It was really a presence of a kind of energy or quickening.

  • And at my feet was the great, still blue plate

  • of the Pacific Ocean.

  • All around me were 800 acres of wild dry brush.

  • And I went down to the room in which I was to be sleeping.

  • Small but eminently comfortable,

  • it had a bed and a rocking chair

  • and a long desk and even longer picture windows

  • looking out on a small, private, walled garden,

  • and then 1,200 feet of golden pampas grass

  • running down to the sea.

  • And I sat down, and I began to write,

  • and write, and write,

  • even though I'd gone there really to get away from my desk.

  • And by the time I got up, four hours had passed.

  • Night had fallen,

  • and I went out under this great overturned saltshaker of stars,

  • and I could see the tail lights of cars

  • disappearing around the headlands 12 miles to the south.

  • And it really seemed like my concerns of the previous day

  • vanishing.

  • And the next day, when I woke up

  • in the absence of telephones and TVs and laptops,

  • the days seemed to stretch for a thousand hours.

  • It was really all the freedom I know when I'm traveling,

  • but it also profoundly felt like coming home.

  • And I'm not a religious person,

  • so I didn't go to the services.

  • I didn't consult the monks for guidance.

  • I just took walks along the monastery road

  • and sent postcards to loved ones.