Finding Reservations in Parts Unknown: Anthony Bourdain and the Travelogue (and my own hopeful travels)

By Michael W. Harris

Better late to the game than never

It is much to my detriment that I never really encountered the works of Anthony Bourdain until after his death, but it is a process that happens to me more often than not (I had barely listened to either Prince or David Bowie until after they died). Regardless, my only prior experiences with his work was the graphic novel Get Jiro, which is really fun, and a few episodes of Parts Unknown that a friend sat me down to watch during a visit this year. I really enjoyed these dips in Bourdain’s work and gave me a lot of respect for him and how he approached other cultures. He was upfront with his background, never shied away from who he was, and approached others from a place of respect and eagerness to learn.

As a person who studies cultures other than his own, I have a lot of respect for that. And also as someone who has a healthy disdain for the type of person who adopts the stylings of cultures they study in some forced “rejection” of being American or White or Western (or whatever their background is)—it is refreshing to see someone respect, enjoy, and truly love other food and cultures while also being secure enough in their own identity to just be themselves.

Being the fan of Japanese culture that I am (film and anime in particular), it is all too often that I observe this type of “going native” (I hate the pejorative nature of that phrase!). There is even a term for it, of course: weeaboo. Becoming such a person is something that I have steadfastly resisted. I am a Midwestern boy, and always will be. I will always strive to learn from and appreciate other cultures, ideas, points of view, but I will never try to shed my Midwesterness. I view that as disrespectful at best and borderline racist/colonialist at worse. And this is where I have tremendous respect for what I know of Anthony Bourdain’s work. Yes, every now and then you can sense some of his ego creeping around the edge of questions he asks, at other times the editing makes it seem like he is doing all the talking (not sure if that is true or an artifact of the editing process), but the respect for others is always there.

And his utter unpretentiousness is great. His love of street food, the dives, the country and homestyle cooking. And this is not the same “divey” tourism of something like Guy Fieri, or other kitschy “reality” shows. No, Bourdain comes across as honest and authentic. And what’s more, what makes Parts Unknown really great, is the use of the food to open up the wider history and culture of wherever he is, be it Vietnam or Mississippi. Tokyo or New Mexico. Rome. Montana. Wherever. It was a great service to his viewers, and such a travelogue (and that is what the show was) is something I would like to discover, watch, and read more of…and eventually emulate myself.

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My city of lights. (Photo Credit: 25 February 2016. Satoko Kawasaki photo.)

I have a long-standing desire to take a trip to Japan (along with a handful of other places), but me being me, I also want to write and reflect on the trip. However, I also don’t want it to be one of those self-helpy, “transformative” type of travelogue. But something honest, reflective, informative, and genuine, like what I detect in how Bourdain approaches others. It is truly inspiring, the way he seeks to build bridges, even to those he might disagree with…I dare say it might even give one hope in this fractious world in which we currently live.

I may have a tendency to romanticize some ideas, I remain a hopeless romantic in so many ways, but the idea of travelling for two weeks to a month through Japan, keeping a journal of the trip, and somehow turning that into a book, or at least a collection of essays, I find very appealing. And like Bourdain, I would like to use something (food, music, etc.) as a lens into a wider cultural or societal exploration. I can really imagine a series of essays, each using a different focal point. However, I would actually have to have a purpose and aim behind them. I could go and have a perfectly wonderful trip, but nothing worthy of an essay or book length treatment.

Too often people go places and try to force an experience. There is a colonial mindset with so much travel, and again this is not what it appears that Bourdain does. There is so much joy and glee in his experiences. A true enjoyment to so much of what he is doing, an earnest desire to learn that seems absent in so much these days. Maybe it is my own cynicism coloring how I see others, but I just despise so much of modern media and entertainment. Such that when I come across something authentic, an honest enjoyment and appreciation, that I can’t help but take notice.

I can never be Anthony Bourdain, nor do I want to be. He and I have very different backgrounds and upbringings. To try and be like him could be just as bad as becoming a weeaboo or what have you. While I have never been the most confident or self-assured person in the world, I do know who I am and am quite secure in that. I am a Midwesterner, a nerd, a Boy Scout, a librarian, and a perpetual student of something. My desire is to always be learning might be my defining characteristic, and if I can turn that lens onto something productive and educational for others, then I have an obligation to do so.

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So the recognition of these things, along with other changes in my life, have caused me to reflect and reorient many aspects of my focus and attention, planning what I am calling my “hard reset” as I finally set aside some projects, try to tie off others, and plan for those that really matter to me. And this Japan trip will probably be my biggest planning headache as I really want to do it right and allow myself time to explore and not feel rushed, so either a two week deep dive into one area, or a more laid-back month spent in multiple places in a single region. Either way, it will take some degree of planning and prepping, and then the time–which I might finally have as I am leaving the world of contingent labor for an actual tenured, permanent job.

And Japan, the travelogue, and Bourdain calls to me. It might be my second book, but as I begin to exit this liminal, post-PhD phase of my life, things are becoming slightly clearer. Still a but fuzzy as many parts of “the future” remain up in the air, but I can see the way forward…and I have the stars to guide me.

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If there is one thing, though, that I could probably never emulate that makes Parts Unknown so special is Bourdain’s ability to interview and draw the best out of those he interacts with. This goes hand and hand with how he explores other cultures, but between having a production crew who can do advance prep work, set-up meetings, arrange for translators, etc., there is also the fact that Bourdain was not only a celebrity, but also effortlessly likable. He could draw the best out of people, break down barriers, elicit stories, and just connect with people.

Now, I have been told that I am easy to talk to, though I also know that I have a hard time convincing myself to actually talk to someone I don’t know. I also don’t have the power of celebrity and a production staff to help out with that, but by setting myself a goal of travelling and writing and trying to have new experiences, I hope I will be able to force myself to step out of my comfortable little box and be something more than I am on a day-to-day basis.

And I think this is a part of what I am trying to do with some of my writing and projects. Continue to grow and open up as a person. I may be approaching a certain milestone age much more quickly than I would like, but I feel like many of my best years lie ahead of me, especially as I am finally comfortable with myself. And it also helps that my professional life is also becoming more stable, which will hopefully allow me the financial freedom to take more expensive trips to the many places I have longed to see.

But talking to people, interviewing and getting the local view on culture and history that make for engaging storytelling, that will be a tall order for me…especially with the added barrier of language. However, if there is one thing I hope to do with these projects is to continue to grow. The next step is to actually do it, though!

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They have pretty mountains in Japan

So concrete plans, put in writing for all to see and hold me accountable for. This is slightly hard to do without knowing where I would be going in Japan or for how long (to say nothing of the when). At the very least, though, I know one thing about the trip, the first thing I would do: fly into Tokyo and find a stationary store and buy two new pens, a bottle of ink, and a fresh notebook. This will form the core of my notetaking and writing for the trip. Past that, I do have a few places in mind that I would like to visit, however they are so spread out that it would hard to do in one trip regardless of time. However, these places include: Akihabara, Hokkaido, Mount Fuji (either hiking the mountain or exploring the lakes and forests around it…preferably both), the Seto Inland Sea (the setting of Donald Richie’s beautiful travelogue), and the Hiroshima Peace Memorial. But to see all these places, and to also have my goal of having time to explore with no agenda (or very little agenda…a vague direction), I would have to focus on a place and wander. I feel like for me to really have the trip I want, I would have to go with a very loose outline…which is so not my normal. But it would be the way that I think I would want to experience Japan. Hit a few of the more touristy spots, but given my aversion to crowds, spend as little time as possible among them in Tokyo and then get out of the cities and into the countryside. Especially the mountain hot springs and onsens.

So that’s it. I want to do more writing and more travel going forward, and I think I may almost be in a position to do that. And if, in the process, I can channel a bit of Anthony Bourdain and his approach to travel documentary, then I feel like I will be all the better for it.

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