Anthony Bourdain: Food For Thought

I was on the platform to return home from Ikebukuro to Saitama, scrolling through my podcasts to pick the right one to carry me through the length of the ride. I curiously tapped on Fresh Air, as I hadn’t checked out the latest episodes in about a week. The second on the list was titled “Remembering Anthony Bourdain.” Perplexed, I tapped on the description to see that Anthony Bourdain had died. I want to share a little bit about my experiences with Bourdain and why it felt like a punch in the gut to read.

Note: I didn’t really edit this; apologies for the off-the-cuff roughness of it all

Bourdain: Living the Dream

Bourdain - Two Second Street - www.twosecondstreet.com
Anthony Bourdain (Image courtesy of CNN)

There were a lot of things about Bourdain, as there are with most people. He was complex, multilayered, flawed, engrossing. At times he seemed incredibly humbled by the experiences in his life. At others he appeared full of himself and sauntered with a devil-may-care attitude. His life was full of adventure but that adventure didn’t start until later in his life, after he had spent so much time learning to cook and run businesses. The way many of us today remember him didn’t start for him until he was around 40 years old.

I first learned about Bourdain via the Travel Channel and his show No Reservations. I had heard of his book but wasn’t really that much into his scene. I was in college, preparing for life after graduation, which coincidentally, would involve me working in a fastfood kitchen, much to my surprise when I was handed my work assignment on check-in day for the Disney College Program. One of my managers, the one who trained me, could probably tell I wasn’t happy there. It was a difficult time in my life. He recommended I travel. To Thailand. The seed was planted.

I lived in Thailand a short four months, but it was transformative. It started to get me thinking about expanding my world beyond the comfortable borders of my home country. I returned to America in 2009, still in the middle of the recession, unemployed and feeling low. I started watching more about travel, trying to absorb everything I could in that obsessive way I can get when I feel the euphoria of learning something new. I watched the Travel Channel, particularly Bourdain, almost every day. This was around the time the all-day marathons of the most popular shows began to be standard practice for cable networks and Travel Channel bet the farm on Bourdain. I would watch him bounce from Asia to Europe, the Middle East to the heart of Africa, all with a unique perspective and an appetite for what the country had to offer. I was fascinated that this could be a career for a select few. It looked like he was living the dream.

Suicide

Bourdain’s death from suicide felt all-too familiar in a morose way. I’ve heard about the passing of many of my celebrity idols from a screen: Scott Weiland, Adam Yauch, and Robin Williams, to name a few. I’ve also had many friends pass away over the years in tragic ways: losing control of vehicles, drug overdoses, and other accidents. It never gets easier to hear that the guy you talked about your respective futures with so many years ago flipped his car on the freeway and didn’t survive. Accidents are tragic and confusing and bring a great deal of pain but I’ve never had someone close to me die form suicide. It’s always troubling to hear because we feel there is a sense of agency with this death, that there was a choice that was made.

It’s complex, the issues with mental health, and the taboos surrounding someone who dies from suicide. The term “commit suicide” is one I try to avoid. Suicide used to be illegal in many nations, hence why “commit” is the verb we’ve chosen to pair up with suicide. You commit robbery, you commit arson, you commit murder, and you commit suicide. You commit crimes. Suicide is not a crime and I refuse to acknowledge it as such.

Bourdain had some rough spells, as we all do: drug abuse, addiction, recovery, and what I can imagine is a healthy amount of self-reflection and introspection. I think it’s because his own life was one that I aspired to that made it difficult to accept his death upon reading it. I almost cried on the train because the man I was hoping to emulate with my own modified version died in a very tragic way. He died visiting a village in France to film an episode of his show. Doing the work he loved wasn’t enough to prevent this. It rarely is, it seems.

A Small-scale Parellel Voyage

Photo on 2012-11-03 at 08.12 #2
Me in Mongolia, 2012

Bourdain continued to travel, write books, and make shows as I started my travels, created a blog, and eventually started a YouTube channel. I wanted desperately to share my experiences with friends and family back home who might not be able to experience these things otherwise, to give them a glimpse into the things I was seeing and experiencing in my travels. This was the most important for me in Mongolia, a country that is not understood very well by most of the world. Whenever I mention that I lived in Mongolia to students, I ask them where it is in the world. Out of hundreds of students, maybe one or two answered correctly. Living there made me realize the importance of integrating into a community, the value of being a local, and the goodwill you build when you show a genuine interest in people and their lives. I wanted to share that message and experience with everyone: all the warmth, food, and vodka my Mongolian hosts would shower me with. Bourdain would always say that if you got people around a meal, they would loosen up and share things with you that extended far beyond the food you ate. I’ve found this to be incredibly accurate as I’ve bounced around the world for the past 10 years.

It started with this blog, where I shared things about Mongolia and Mongolian culture. That is part of the third goal of Peace Corps: To increase people’s understanding of our host culture back home. I kept up the blog for two years. I revived it in Arizona and have continued to write for it now that I’ve come to Japan. I wanted to develop a voice, one that when read would have people thinking “Yeah, that’s Adam for you!” While I do feel, at times, my voice is somewhat relatable and–dare I say–enjoyable, I found that I wanted to do more. So, I made my YouTube channel. I wanted to make travel shows for everyone to enjoy, to show them tips, insights, and ways of viewing a location that might otherwise go unnoticed or get lost in the intercultural shuffle. I just got back from Nagoya where I had so many wonderful experiences, one in particular on a boat where a small Japanese family adopted me for the voyage and, to no surprise, shared food and stories with me. It’s those moments, like the ones Bourdain would try to organize and capture on film for his shows, that make travel awesome. While I’m not quite comfortable enough to film those types of interactions, they definitely inform how I travel and the type of information I share with others. It makes things feel more complete.

Defining Happiness

I think many Americans, like myself, would say they want to do what makes them happy. As a student of linguistics, I feel we’re not really meaning what we say when we say that. One linguistic theory that I am particularly fond of involves the notion that we negotiate meaning in a conversation. For example, if I say something is “the bomb” to someone not from the USA in the 1990s, they might pause for a moment. “Surely he doesn’t mean it is an actual bomb, that’s silly!” they will think. They may ask for clarification, or, as not to threaten face, let the idiom slide, resulting in a loss of meaning that damages the interaction. When we say we want to do something that makes us happy, or live a happy life, I think we’re all just letting that slide without clarifying, leading to a major shared breakdown in communication.

We don’t want to be smiling and elated all that time. I think what we want is a sense of contentment with our established ordinary, so we can get through the trudgeries of daily life to enable us to be prepared for the lows and to be excited for the highs. Bourdain was working extensively in what I considered, and perhaps what he also considered, to be a dream job. Yet that wasn’t enough to be “happy.” Something wasn’t right and now he’s gone.

The circumstances around Bourdains death are still coming to light, even as I type this. To end your life is not an easy thing to do and sometimes you feel there is no choice. It aggravates me when people say they had a choice, or they are coward, or it took bravery to do it. It didn’t. They didn’t. Bourdain was a complex man living a complex life. His death appears to be equally as complex. The work he leaves behind, however, has had and will continue to have great influence on the lives of other people. It pains me that he is gone. The world is poorer for it, but only because he brought such a richness to it. Now, the seeds he planted will begin to flourish, and the next generation of Bourdains will soon rise, to continue the work he started. They will continue to share meals, culture, and travel to wherever anyone will have them. He left an indellible mark on my life, and I hope I can pay that forward somehow, the way Bourdain did for me.

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