The Brood: Anthony Bourdain was — is — one of my heroes. Here’s how his life, and loss, affected me.
I’ve sat down to write this piece almost a dozen times. Every time I get it out, the words feel hyperbolic, and the essay is too long, which feels unfitting for a man who mastered the art of threading delicate needles. But I guess that when I talk about Anthony Bourdain, its hard for me not to be exuberant. After all, like so many others in my generation, he made me who I am.
My father loves travel shows. He loves Rick Steve’s Europe, Globe Trekker, Discovery and Travel channel shows about wild places like Alaska, and on and on. I don’t remember a time before having the experience of being on the couch, with my dad, watching these kinds of programs. When A Cook’s Tour and No Reservations debuted, we were instant fans, but there was something different about this show than the others. Whereas the others felt like anthropological romps that treated foreign lands as somehow both exotic and abstract, Bourdain shattered the formula and gave us something new: humans.
The first human in Bourdain’s shows to jump out and grab you by the collar is Bourdain himself. Bourdain, unlike traditional cookie-cutter, happy-go-lucky and/or professorial travel hosts, is a jittery, snarky, insecure, funny, charming, somewhat worldly, complex character. For this reason, in the first episode of No Reservations, the show feels like a snide shadow of its future self.
He is in Paris, and the stated mission of the episode is to get you to shed your Bush-era Franco-phobia, and embrace a love of the French. In other words, it’s a self-indulgent monologue, in which he simultaneously purports to represent that culture, and finds himself on an impromptu absinthe bender with another American, partially because he insulted his French guide. Even in episode 2, in Iceland, he shows a certain amount of disdain for his hosts, and trades in a common sexist joke about Sarah Jessica Parker looking like a horse.
If you fast-forward to episode 100 of No Reservations, also in Paris, the metamorphosis is striking. He talks less. He’s quieter. Less cynical. Whereas the first episode sometimes feels as though he is aimlessly wandering, episode 100 is incredibly purposeful. In order to show us the generational revolution happening in Parisian culture and cuisine, he ferries us from one Parisian perspective, to the other, in the process adding as much flavor and texture to the people and cultures depicted as there is in the food they’re eating.
Travel, as he would later tell interviewers, changes you. That was what was so powerful about watching Bourdain do his work. It wasn’t just a travel show — it was a character study. What happens to a cynical, pompous, left-leaning New York chef when his whole existence is to travel the world 250 days out of the year? Well, his bad-boy braggadocio became brittle, until it softened into a fine, world-weary powder. In an age where everyone has a self-righteous take, Anthony dared to be humbled by the scale of his (and our) ignorance.
It’s being remembered, correctly, that Bourdain was a giant of social justice. He supported immigration justice, Black Lives Matter, #MeToo, among other movements, with great eloquence. He made historic, ongoing injustices manifest in the flesh, as he famously did repeatedly in places like Southeast Asia, notably in Cambodia.
But Anthony Bourdain is not, and did not want to be, your new patron saint of wokeness. He was much bigger than that. It’s been frustrating to see liberal friends, outlets and publications use his memory as a way to celebrate their own way of seeing the world. That entire approach to his passing — remembering him only as an “ally” — belies a diminution of his legacy, and skips over the philosophy he so painstakingly tried to articulate in his works.
It should be noted that, even when covering the same historic injustices that are the calling cards of all woke people, Bourdain did not use, or even like, the language of wokeness. In fact, when tweeting about his support of his partner and #MeToo, he explained “I ain’t “woke”. I was lucky enough to meet one, truly extraordinary woman.” That is to say, he did not want to couch his support, and introspection, in stuffy, unrelatable buzzwords. He did what I wish more of us on the left would do. He took those complex ideas, and translated them into something relatable, human, and compelling.
He took the time to contrast that approach with the kind of “smug, self-congratulatory left” he found on places like Bill Maher’s show; a brand of liberalism, and recently, socialism, any lefty has become familiar with over the years. It’s the kind of “woke” that claims to know how to walk in other people’s shoes — except for those other ignorant, backwards, shill, bastard rubes. It is an inconvenience, for this type of enlightened person, to make their argument to someone who is not already convinced.
From what I see on social media, and hear from friends and family back home, we’ve become very, very bad at reaching out to understand the other. We’re afraid of the inevitable discomfort and pain that comes from the process of genuinely coming to inhabit radically different perspectives and opinions. We’re complacent in our own corners of America. I’ll be straightforward in saying I’m not looking forward to returning to that.
Instead, Bourdain was a different brand of “woke”. Left or right, white or black, gay or straight, enlightened or ignorant, the sole target of his ire was malice, greed, and imagined superiority. As much as he cared about the people he met along the way, he also cared enough about himself, and us, to shake us from intellectual complacency with a “Shut up”, or a “Screw you”. He would have told you that no one cares about your opinion. You are small. The world is big. It’s complicated. Two contradictory things can be true at the same time.
Someone once said that the personal is political, and if you go back and watch, Bourdain’s art — and that’s what it was — demonstrated that the personal reveals the political. Instead of coming into a conversation with his ideological occupying front stage, Bourdain would come with bread to break. Literally.
As much as we loved his journeys in foreign lands, he also traveled to what would become Trump country many times over many years, and when asked about how Trump’s election could happen, he pointed towards the resentment partially caused by people like, well, me. I grew up thinking the South was, to borrow Trump’s phraseology, a shithole, and I was more than familiar with the term “flyover states”. In an interview with the New Yorker, when he was asked about how Trump changed his approach to the TV show, he touched on something I’ve talked about realizing in China:
“…I scrupulously avoid an agenda as best I can. Clearly I’m pissed off about some things, and I do have some issues that I feel very strongly about. […] But generally speaking, I try to avoid thinking about it.
[…] That’s one of the things that travel has done for me is that you know I said, y’know, I’m meeting with Viet Cong, I’m meeting with former KGB officers, I’m meeting with, y’know, all these other belief systems in places where practices or beliefs are completely foreign to the way I was brought up, you know? And yet […] I’m empathetic. I’m willing to give people a pass whose attitudes towards women, or homosexuals or [other groups] would be COMPLETE conversation enders to me. You say this shit at my table in New York? That’s it. We’re never going to meet again. But [when I’m in America], [those sorts of things are] okay when I’m in West Africa or parts of Asia or the Middle East. Why can’t I go into West Virginia [and] make that same leap of faith that people are doing the best they can?” [Source]
It didn’t matter if he was meeting with ideological enemies. He kept it simple. He ate. He asked. He listened. He reflected. He had an uncanny, and hard-earned ability to suspend the emotional triggers built into his beliefs, enabling him to accept people where they were.
I’ve tried to keep Bourdain’s approach in mind as an inspiration when talking to my students. Because of this, I’ve been able to be both inspired by one of the students here whose driving ambition is to be a productive member of the Communist Party. I disagree with the vast, vast majority of that organization’s positions, but this student hopes to join the party for the same reasons aspiring progressives hit the campaign trail: Idealism. Hope. Love of community. To quote a friend, “If all communists were like [him], it might actually work.”
Seeing Bourdain seamlessly unravel the layers of whichever society he was in, made me as “hungry for more” as he was. So when it came time to choose a college major, a direction in life, the most natural decision was to study international relations. And what better way to challenge myself, in the way Bourdain did, than to study Chinese, a language and culture so radically different from “way I was brought up”.
But now that I’m here, doing the thing, in China, trying to be and do what Bourdain did at such a grueling, 20-year pace, I’m in awe of him. I can see why the challenges and rewards of this kind of life of travel can be addicting. When you get up, and out, you learn something new every day. That’s intoxicating.
But I’ve also been in and out of depression and anxiety myself this last year. I’ve drank, to cope, more than I’ve ever drank before in my life, which has earned me a pretty unfortunate beer belly. Negotiating differences in culture? In perspective? It’s goddamn hard work. Just to go day-to-day takes some serious emotional labor.
It’s out of line for any of us to speculate about what happened, but I can imagine that this must have been a challenge for Bourdain, too. There is, after all, that newly famous quote of Bourdain’s, that:
I’ve wanted to become something like Anthony Bourdain for a long time. He was able to take some of that struggle, and pain, and turn it into something beautiful. He was a man who inadvertently made us, and himself, more just, by eating, asking, listening, and reflecting.
Which makes it all the more painful that this man, who showed us how much capacity for empathy and growth we all have in ourselves, took his own life. It seems that that sharp, critical, eloquent mind couldn’t always extend that empathy inward, and as someone who has struggled with feelings of disorientation and worthlessness over the last few years, his loss hurts. Like a bitch. I know for my friends and family who have struggled with depression and suicidal thoughts, it hurts even more.
But whatever he felt, whatever the reason had for himself in the moment, I’ve got to believe that in a more lucid state of mind, maybe with the right kind of help, at the right moment, he would have wanted to keep going. I know I want to be there for my loved ones so that they want to keep going, too. As long as I keep going, I hope I can do him proud. Wherever he is.