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  • Writer's pictureYennie Cheung

Some Thoughts on the Passing of Anthony Bourdain

The more I travel, the more I come to realize that I'm a bit of a snob when it comes to other travelers. I become annoyed quickly with travel companions who just want to lounge poolside or go shopping, and I can't stand tourists who hit famous tourist spots so they can take pictures proving they were there but have no interest in learning about or respecting the place they're seeing.

I'm more of the traveler who tires herself out exploring and learning, returning home needing a few days' rest to recover from all the adventuring. As such, Anthony Bourdain was an inspiration, jetting around the globe in search of local flavor, both in terms of food and lifestyle. He was a wondrously positive force for many people who watched his show or read his books, wishing we could be him, learning to better understand the world by breaking bread with everyday people. I even took cues from his writing and his TV show No Reservations when I tried blogging about the food I encountered while traveling.

One of the things I appreciated most about Bourdain was that he respected other people's lifestyles and never tried to teach his audience about other cultures' foods; instead, he enlisted the aid of local food experts and asked them to teach him. He allowed himself to be our gateway into that culture, and as a sort of cultural ambassador, he traveled everywhere, from the glamorous to the down and dirty, wanting to try everything. His loyalty to the everyman was obvious, as he was outspoken against treating another culture's food as "gross" or "weird." Nothing was a gimmick; it was someone's way of life, and that made it cool. That made it worthy of his respect.

The beauty of this as a traveler has been finding his influence abroad, especially in Hong Kong since it's a place important to me. On one visit, my mother took me to a restaurant locally acclaimed for its wonton noodle soup, and I found a newspaper article in its window touting Bourdain's patronage. This explained all the white tourists waiting in line, and it made me smile. One of my favorite episodes of No Reservations is the Hong Kong episode, which highlights things I love in the city like the restaurant in Central where he eats dim sum, typhoon shelter crab, and street food in one of many dai pai dong. The episode was so authentically Hong Kong that when I showed it to my cousin Ruth years ago, she laughed at the street vendor featured about 6:30 into the show, yelling at Bourdain to hurry up and stop interrupting her business. "I know her!" Ruth cried. "That's how she is with everyone."

But perhaps what made Bourdain especially potent was that, in his role as our guide to the world past our doorstep, he made sure we better understood our doorstep. I see this in the Los Angeles episode of No Reservations—and, honestly, any episode of any of his LA shows, as the LA Times noted. For the most part, Bourdain purposefully ignored the white-washed Hollywood glam of stereotype, choosing instead to grab tacos, dumplings, noodles, and french dip. These foods, to me, represent the real Los Angeles, just as dai pai dong and rude food hawkers represent Hong Kong. I've been saying for a while now that, unlike Paris, Rome, or New York, you can't go to Los Angeles and expect to understand the city in its buildings and tourist traps; you understand Los Angeles in its people and in its food. Bourdain was one of the few New Yorkers who got that.

As a writer, I loved that Bourdain wrote his essays and his TV narrations with the voice of a working class stiff and the eloquence and wit of a poet. He made himself and the people he featured relatable while elevating his audience's intelligence. And in cracking open my copy of Medium Raw yesterday, I remembered that I also respected him for being so upfront, so sincere, so willing to explore the worst of himself. The best essayists do this. Sadly, it's no coincidence that the essay I picked at random to read starts with a description of him feeling "regularly suicidal," drinking abundantly, and acting recklessly. Reading it reminded me that his passing was sad not because it was a surprise but because the world was pulling for him to never feel that way again. We need more people as compassionate as Bourdain in the world, not fewer.

A few people have pointed out that people who are depressed and suicidal often don't reach out because depression prevents them from actively seeking help, so telling people to reach out is often unhelpful; instead, others need to reach in to them. This is an excellent point. I've also been thinking about my friend Suzy, who killed herself fifteen years ago. She'd given everyone warnings, but they were so intentionally vague and so shrouded in humor that nobody noticed. One thing I remember: In the weeks before her death, she'd fill out a lot of those online surveys asking questions about favorite colors and foods and whatever else, and she'd post them on LiveJournal. One of the questions was something like "weapon of choice," and she wrote "KCN." Nobody understood. Only after she died, when we all went searching for clues, did we realize that KCN is the formula for potassium cyanide. That was, in fact, her weapon of choice.

I tell you this, readers, to remind you that the signs are easy to miss. It's easy not to question certain behaviors, especially when someone is far away or prone to dark humor or… lots of other reasons. It's not your fault if you miss the signs; they are often intentionally easy to miss. But that gives us all the more reason to actively check in with our loved ones. It's hard, I know. I feel sometimes like life gets so busy that I forget, and then I feel guilty. But this is important. Check in. Ask how someone's doing. Don't just take their answers at face value. I'm going to work harder at doing the same.


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