On a dark March evening in 2013, lying beside a sleeping woman with whom I’d been collaboratively ruining two lives – mine and hers – I was strung out, lit up, crying, and inspired as the hot blue TV played the Hokkaido episode of No Reservations. Anthony Bourdain was sipping soup. The soup was prepared with fish sperm. Absurdly removed from my nook in North Carolina, that scene confirmed my decision that – no matter where I was or who I was with in a year – I’d follow up on a lead to teach English in Japan. In 2014, I did just that. All that is to say: Anthony Bourdain helped me save myself.
So it was a little disorienting that he hung himself last night in a French hotel.
I went to lunch at China Chef for the third time today. It was less crowded but still full of shift workers. The lady at the counter knew my name, my order, I sat at my awkward window table below a CRT blaring Fox News. I watched cars drive by and ate a good meal. Bourdain would have disapproved of the dish – tofu, no meat – but I think he would have appreciated the restaurant. A mom&pop run by immigrants. Food that connected me to another culture and to my own. I found myself over and over in the hot rice, thick sauce, bubbling-crisp spring roll – this was every tiny Chinese diner I grew up visiting with my Dad. Like my last couple visits, I was the only white face. I felt wonderfully alone and wonderfully together.
Anthony Bourdain was the best thing going for white America. He found a voice in hardship, empathy in privilege. He had power but used it to lift those without it. He wasn’t good, wasn’t perfect, or even all that nice, but he kept his eyes open and ears ready and tongue watering for whatever disagreed with him. He grew. Watch A Cook’s Tour, then watch Parts Unknown. He knew that America looks best when she’s bursting full of language, flavor, culture, color. He knew he’d lived thirty years of advantage so he spent the next thirty traveling the world to understand – and ultimately extend to others – that advantage. He didn’t have a message, an agenda, other than to approach the world on its own terms, however frightening or strange it might seem. He spoke love to the simplest places and cut wickedly at those with corrupting power.
Anthony Bourdain was the best thing going for white America. He was an example of how to be both honest and good. Last night, he hung himself in a French hotel.
I’ve gotta say: what you did was pretty selfish, Bourdain. You probably knew that – you had a hundred dark horses running through your thoughts – but knowledge doesn’t absolve so I have to call you out. There’s no strength in running and no matter how weak you are there’s always enough strength to go on. Take it from me – I grew up in a family of brinksmanship; I’ve flirted with the edge on windy nights. But there’s no justice to bowing out early.
People still need you. Your family surely does. Every immigrant cook in an American kitchen needs you to keep giving their powerful voices a platform. America needs you, especially now as her most dangerous demons bubble up like indigestion. And, like a million other writers, artists, scoundrels, addicts, vagabonds, low-down honest persons just trying to get by, I need you. It was a bad, nasty thing you did last night. It hurt us all; it will for a while.
But I guess I’ll take a page from your book: just this once – inspired by the open way you met the lowest, weakest, roughest hearts exactly where they were, no judgment, just open ears and appreciation – I’ll forgive you.
I don’t know which hell or heaven has you, Bourdain, but make sure you’re too much for them to handle.
“Night falls – like a fat man tripping over his shoelaces.” – Anthony Bourdain