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The Journey Home

As Asians set down new roots around the world, home is no longer a xed destination, explains
Pico Iyer. It is as much a favorite dish, a memory or an idea as it is an old house. In this special
issue, TIME invites some of the Asian diaspora's top writers to embark on physical and mental
voyages of return
Where do you come from?" "what do you call home?"
The simplest questions these days bring ever more
complex answerswhen they bring answers at all.
Which is another way of saying that the fundamental,
dening questions of any life have been spun around
and sometimes exploded in the modern, mongrel world.
I, for example, am 100% Indian by blood and heritage.
Most of my relatives live in India, my family name
places me very specically in terms of caste and region
and religion, and everything about my face shouts out,
unanswerably, "India!" Yet I've never lived in India or
worked there. I speak not a word of any of the country's
1,652 dialects. And when I return to what is, on paper at
least, my ancestral homeBombayI feel more a
stranger there, often, than do many of my friends from
San Francisco or North London. Ask me to take a
journey home, and my rst question is: do you mean
Oxford, England (where I was born), or California
(where I keep my things and pay my taxes)? Or do you
mean Japan (my adopted home, where I spend seven or
eight months of every year)?
The one place that does not come to mind is India.
For the Asian diaspora, home, like everything in the
modern oating world, has gone global and fragmented, portable and underground. What once
might have resembled a well-creased snapshot now looks more like an MTV video. To better
understand what home means in the midst of constant ux, what exile truly is, and what it involves
to live in many places all at once, Time invited leading Asian writers to stage some version of the
classic journey home in the pages that follow. Some found themselves in places they hardly
recognized. Others went to lands where the only roots they could see were as indecipherable as the
roots of a language they could not speak. Still others chose not to leave their Western homes at all
and instead fashioned their sense of belonging at their desks.
When Ma Jian returned to his beloved home street in Beijing, he realized that the only home that
lasts, and will be safe from time and history, is invisible, inside himself. Gish Jen, an American by
choice, takes apart the very meaning of "Chineseness," while Chang-rae Lee seems to dissolve the
very category of "Korea" in his return to a family far away. Wendy Law-Yone suggests, thinking of
her native Burma in her exile home in London, that home may be the place you long to ee (and
exile may be a haven, a glad escape). And Pankaj Mishra, staying put, writes wistfully of how the
quiet home he has found is changing around him daily.
My own sense is that the chance to choose a home, which many of us have, is a blessing. In my
grandparents' time, homesand with them our sense of self, community and traditionwere
Asian Journey TIME Asia
Homeward Bound: For many Asians,
home is an intangible thing
inherited. All four of my grandparents were born in India and xed within its hierarchies and
distinctions. Even in my parents' day, when they moved from India to England (and then to
California), they traveled at rst by ship, and every farewell seemed nal. I, by contrast, was lucky
enough to be an Indian in England who moved to California at age eight and so, from early on,
could pick and choose among afliations. I was free to live in many worlds and outside the
limitations of my tribe. When, some years ago, my family home suddenly burned to the ground in a
forest re, and all my photos, mementos and notes were reduced to ash, I was reminded forcibly
again that home nowadays has nothing to do with a piece of soil and everything to do with
something I carry around inside me.
All this applies, of course, only to the fortunate among us, the ones who have chosen at some level
to leave and can choose, at times, to return. The vast majority of the displaced these days are forced
to move, by poverty or famine or war, and obliged to try to patch together a sense of home in a
place where they don't and will never feel very much at home at all. The backward glance for them
is not luxury but daily necessity. And even among the privileged, home is sometimes, surely, a
notion in ux. Ved Mehta in these pages returns to Lahore and a family home that was taken from
him by the partition of India and Pakistan. Monique Truong, though fashioning her rst novel, The
Book of Salt, around the dening Vietnamese gure of Ho Chi Minh, passionately denies
attachment to the Vietnam she ed at six while acknowledging that her new abode in New York can
never really be her home.
The Asian Journey Home, we quickly see, has grown complicated, mixed-up, in a world in which
everything is spraying out in all directions. A modern Odysseus may nd upon returning home that
Penelope is in New York now and Telemachus has applied for refugee status. For many people,
even if they're not among the desperately dispossessed, home as a moving target can feel unsettling.
Living between cultures, they feel lost, neither here nor there. Instead of an abundance of homes,
they feel a dearth or sense that a surplus of homes can be more desolating than a paucity, especially
if none of them speaks to every part of you. People get caught in the revolving doors of cultures.
The Asian part feels this way, the American says thisand it's all doubly complicated because
you're living in Berlin.
Yet one by-product of this rotating sense of home is that those of us who are multicultures within
may often feel a small kinship with others in the same position. The half-Thai, half-German living
in Los Angeles nds that she has a lot in common with the half-Swede, half-Japanese based in
Kuala Lumpur. More and more of us belong to a new community that could be called the
deracination state, the spiritual home of many in the new century (whose actual location may be in
such mongrel cities as Sydney or Paris or Vancouver). Homesickness has perhaps become close to
universal in an age in which so many are living far from home, yet homecomings are more easily
effected at a time when home is around many corners. I, though not formally connected to Toronto,
feel instantly at home there, partly because it is trying to bring a European legacy together with an
American sense of promise, and leaving it often in the hands of immigrants from South Asia. I feel
at home in Hong Kong or Singapore, where many of the people I meet are facing the very same
questions of belonging that I face. And I have no qualms at all about "going home" to a Japan where
I barely speak the language, live on a tourist visa and will always be known, even after years of
residence, as a gaijin, an "outsider person."
The Asian Journey Home, I suspect, has less and less to do with a trip into the past and more and
more to do with a journey into our future, where people will have to think of home in more and
more imaginative and nonlinear ways. The classic story of the exile's returnintrinsic to the human
condition, some would say, since Adam and Eve (or the Buddha)has gone virtual. And when I
think of bringing all the pieces of my home into one place, I may think of an airport (where a cousin
is at gate 43, a school friend is just coming through customs and I can get the magazines and foods
Asian Journey TIME Asia
of almost every one of my homes). "What is home?" someone asks me. I pull out from my pocket a
picture of a longtime partner. I speak of the Benedictine monastery to which I retreat four times a
year. I think of the English language, my companion for every moment of my life. I cite the books
and ideas and loyalties I take everywhere I go. Homethe need for solid groundis as vital as it
ever was, but now more and more of us are obliged to nd it on the move. For millions of us, the
journey becomes the destination. And a part of usat sea, in the air, in passage or in passageway
wishes that there were a simpler way home.
Asian Journey TIME Asia