Pico Iyer: Where is home?

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Last year, the latest reports from United Nations about international migration proved something surprising about the world today: more people are living outside their home countries than ever in human history. As many as nearly 250 million people – that’s a quarter of a billion – do not, or do no longer, live in countries they were once born or raised. Many factors contribute to such phenomenon. When a country’s economic situation is in dismal condition, a huge diaspora will ensue. If a country is plagued by wars or other civilian conflicts, millions of people will seek a safer place to survive, no matter what challenges they endure. Some choose to leave just because ‘they want to leave’; looking out for a better, more tranquil life, or somewhere that really supports their souls, dreams, and/or ambitions.

No matter what the reasons are, these people are increasingly identifying themselves as ‘global citizens’. They share a belief in the source of their origins, or ancestors; but in the end, with waves of globalization penetrating all aspects of life, migration is now an inevitable issue. There will be more and more people moving out of their countries, forming new communities, new mindsets, new cultures, and for sure, reshaping the world over and over. Earth has never been colorful like that before.

Pico Iyer, himself a full-blooded Indian, but raised in UK, working in US, and spending some time in a rural village in Japan, and also a travel author, shares his insight as one of 250 million international migrants, in this empowering TED talk about travel, moving out, and self-identity.

 

The standalone man

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A grim, Kafkaesque story about the last remaining Japanese prisoner-of-war (POW) who has called Kazakhstan, a former Soviet republic, his brand-new home.

His full story is available in Japan Subculture Research Center. And this is the excerpt:

 

Tetsuro is the last Japanese man still remaining in Kazakhstan out of the hundreds of thousands Stalin shipped to the most desolate parts of the Soviet Union, putting them to work in mines, in construction, and in factories. More than a tenth of them died due to the brutal working conditions.

“I think all the Japanese have gone back apart from me,” he says. “There was one from Lake Balkhash, who went to Japan because his wife was ill, and there was also one in Almaty. I think there are no other Japanese here now.”

 

Note: after the end of Second World War, it was estimated that as many as 560,000 to 700,000 Japanese, many of whom were soldiers stationed in Northeast China, Korea, and Sakhalin Island, were interned as forced labors in various work camps in Soviet Union and Mongolia, known as gulags. It was estimated that between 60,000 and 350,000 of them died due to the grim conditions they encountered in the camps. Read the full article on Wikipedia regarding the information.

Ingenious homes in unexpected places

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Torre David, one of Venezuelan capital Caracas’ tallest skyscrapers, is now mostly known for being the world’s most well-known epitome of a typical vertical slum. Originally intended for use as an office tower, the unexpected death of the edifice’s developer has since left an unprecedented, and painful, mark on the fate of this huge building: it subsequently ran out of funds, and many of the city’s poorest inhabitants now hinge on this building as homes, factories, shops, and even places to gather with other fellow inhabitants.

 

What are the similarities of:

1. A skyscraper in Caracas, Venezuela, that is unexpectedly used as ‘safe haven’ for a city’s poorest rank-and-file

2. An abandoned ‘dream city’ in Chandigarh, India (a Utopian project by Le Corbusier), that for the city’s most impoverished, is a ‘brand-new huge office space’ to find new dreams upon?

3. A slum city (Makoko) on the suburbs of Lagos, Nigeria, that is entirely built above water and houses up to 150,000 people, and even supports a lively and vibrant economy despite decrepit infrastructure?

4. A densely-stacked town (Zabbaleen) on the outskirts of Cairo, Egypt, that wholly depends on mounts of waste and garbage, and that for its inhabitants, are the primary sources of income?

5. And lastly, houses built underground that are scattered throughout China, for the reason that ‘governments are overlooking their housing needs’, when in fact more and more ghost cities are built in perpetuity across the whole country?

For Iwan Baan, a globe-trotting photographer, the answer is plain simple: ingenious.

 

And this is the similarly ingenious, and truly original, TED talk by which he presents the illustrations of real human ingenuity.

An uneasy home named Hong Kong

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Were it not for its mountainous terrains, Hong Kong would not have been dubbed the world’s most vertical city.

Occupying an infinitesimal carve out of Chinese land, and a few hundred outlying islands, all of which are no larger than 1100 sq km, Hong Kong can only afford to provide to its 7.2 million inhabitants approximately one-fifth of its total areas, given the geographically steep contours, virtually on all its entire spaces. Even the skyline on Big Apple, the first major city on Earth to proudly attest its nature-defying abilities with supertall skyscrapers, is no match to the enormity – and the monstrosity and all its narrow-gauge compactness – of the skyline in Hong Kong. New York City, in a century, has built over 4000 high-rise buildings, mostly in Manhattan; Hong Kong has put up to 8000 in half a centenary, scattered all over Hong Kong Island, Kowloon, and New Territories.

Sum it up, in historical sweepstakes, with its integrated 99-year rule by British Empire. Firstly concentrated on manufacturing, the government, realizing the potential impacts China’s open market reforms could impede on its economic growth, created a brand-new experiment to jack up its popularity as a global city: laissez-faire market, mainly on financial and trading sectors, with government intervention almost null-and-void. Thus is the brand-new Hong Kong we recognize today: glitzy skyscrapers, burgeoning elites, vibrant streets and markets, beyond-excellent infrastructure, and highly flexible bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, the environment simulated by the laissez-faire system has also procreated ruthless competition among individuals to achieve paramount success, enforced the people’s appetites to far-reaching extents, and pushed them for more recognition upon their higher social echelons. Driven even further by China’s economic boom, by which numberless mainland Chinese, mostly parvenus, have begun to enter the competition, the contest has been itself increasingly arduous. This is evident, particularly, from one major detail: more and more mainland Chinese are buying up apartments and condominiums, the already-exorbitant prices of which having been marked up by major real-estate developers bulk of the locals, self-dubbed ‘Hongkongers’ can barely afford in their lifetime.

As a consequence, social gap has increasingly exacerbated in the last decade. Despite the fact there are up to 100,000 millionaires and multimillionaires living lavish lives in over-sized condominiums, or to a lesser extent, mansions on mountain peaks, it is also estimated that more than 170,000 people in Hong Kong are struggling to live in cubicle-sized, stacked boxes they call ‘homes’, most of whom are former construction and industrial workers having been displaced due to the city’s dwindling industrial sectors.

In short, the race itself is not going to stop anytime soon.

The New York Times has published an article and a slide show to document the plight of Hong Kong’s poorest, each of whom is struggling to find a better home for oneself.