Lessons From…Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations

I have never been a big fan of reality television. The caricatures of people dealing with what can at best be described as “first world” or “white people” problems was always farcical to me without the ability to produce actual laughs. Travel or competition (legitimate ones) are a little better since then there are people with some sort of skill or talent than the insipid waste of programming usually found in such shows.

I suppose this is what led me to watch Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations on Netflix. I had always heard about the show through friends and referenced on other television programs. I decided to give it a try and I gotta say I was hooked. I don’t know if it is the open mindedness and willingness to go off the tourist path in the visited cities of Bourdain. Maybe, it’s his acerbic and sarcastic demeanor, certainly doesn’t hurt. Or perhaps it is just a good show, but whatever it may be I highly recommend its viewing.

Wouldn't you want this man to guide you on a culinary adventure?

Wouldn’t you want this man to guide you on a culinary adventure?

As with most media I consume, I found a few worthwhile nuggets of wisdom to further ponder on. Obviously, there are some SPOILERS, but it’s a television show, so not too much would be ruined anyhow. There is no story for me to destroy, thus just enjoy.

I am not going to discuss the entire series because there is just way too damn much to go over. Nor am I even examining the totality of episodes I watched over the weekend. Instead, I am focusing on two specific episodes: Season 4, Episode 11 “Laos” and Season 4, Episode 16 “Tokyo.”

In the “Laos” episode, Bourdain visits the landlocked country examining the nation’s culture, cuisine, and past. This last part becomes of particular interest since Laos was the victim of our ammunition during the Vietnam War.

Honestly, I had to Google to figure out where it was.

Honestly, I had to Google to figure out where it was.

During his travel, Bourdain eats a meal with a man, and his family, who was the victim of one of these bombings. At the age of nine, he lost a leg and most of his arms to an American bombing. Understandably, Bourdain is not his usual sarcastic self as he tries to converse with this man. At one point, the gentleman asks Bourdain why he is having so much trouble speaking plainly or at all. Bourdain responds that he has nothing to say to this man and that he just wants to listen and learn about what happened as that is the least he can do.

I honestly believe this was the moment that Anthony Bourdain won me over. He was not some host or tourist figuring out how to sell or package an experience but someone willing to understand his limits and willing to allow the life around him to influence and teach. It is a lesson we should all take to heart: Sometimes all we can do, and all we should do, is listen with an open mind and honestly hear the other person. Forget giving advice or preparing your counter argument. Just shut up and allow the other person their dignity and voice. Not always, but you’ll recognize the moments when you should.

Later in the episode, Bourdain witnesses a ritual of Buddhist monks collecting rice from villagers in the morning in a long procession. This is an everyday occurrence for the people of this village and for the monks it is most likely their only meal of the day. While this is going on, Bourdain notices a significant number of tourists clicking away photographs and videos to shout to the world evidence of this sighting to the masses of the world. He begins to worry that perhaps his choice of showing these beautiful places, delicious food, and intriguing rituals has a dark side. After all, exposure always changes what is exposed and by doing so aren’t we all slowly killing the things we love?

I get the slight hypocrisy of using this image. No need to tell me.

I get the slight hypocrisy of using this image. No need to tell me.

Technically speaking, he is not wrong. However, Bourdain’s worries are assuaged by one of the local villagers. The villager tells him that although people may take pictures and videos of their ritual it is still theirs. It is what they do everyday and that will not stop just because people see it. In essence, people are not science experiments and the change to themselves, their culture, and their land should be of their choice and not outside observation and influence. The history of the world is marked by the interference of a few major countries. However, try as the may, the cultures, ideas, and lives of the oppressed nations have continued on. We may think we affect these, for lack of a better term, ‘exotic” locales and we do to some extent, but for the most part, they will continue on regardless of our thoughts of them.

(Should be noted, this is not carte blanche to simply observe and appropriate other cultures, ideologies, and lands. In fact, you should respect them even more because of your ignorance and allow the “other” to dictate the conversation and discussion for once)

The “Tokyo” episode acts as an interesting companion to the “Laos” episode. Whereas Laos seemed like a land unvarnished by time, Tokyo completely embraces, and in many ways goes beyond, the modern. However, even amid this revolutionary future, lies an unshakeable foundation built upon tradition and ceremony. Chef Masaharu Morimoto says it best in this episode when he states how even when innovating you need to have a good foundation of tradition, history, and basics because otherwise who knows what you are trying to do or build. Essentially, Innovation, growth, and change should be built upon healthy, stable traditions and practice.

Been there before. Desperate to go again.

Been there before. Desperate to go again.

Like with all his journeys, Bourdain also experiences several of the area’s practices and customs. One of the activities he tries is the art of Kendo. During his observation of this martial art, Bourdain speaks with the sensei (teacher), a 70 something man who has studied Kendo for decades. The teacher says how every day is a new lesson and experience studying Kendo. At this point, curious and still reeling from his other adventures Bourdain asks the sensei if he believes that perfection can be achieved in Kendo.

Not perfection but damn near close.

Not perfection but damn near close.

The sensei’s response is simply that just because perfection is unattainable does not mean you should not strive to achieve it. This is why he trains every day in Kendo and why he continues to fight because every single one teaches him something new and makes perfection just a little bit closer. It might be the most any of us gets, but it is a worthy endeavor.

Thus endeth today’s lessons.

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