Given how much Anthony Bourdain traveled in the world, it comes as no surprise that he made it to China. Though his death is still shocking, I’d just like to take a moment to talk about his brief encounters with China and Chinese food.
“The one thing I know for sure about China is, I will never know China. It’s too big, too old, too diverse, too deep. There’s simply not enough time.” (Bourdain’s words from On Parts Unknown). Of course he’s right: China is huge, both culturally and geographically. There are 1.3 billion people living in China, and just about as much geographical area as the United States (depending on how you divide borders). There’s an immense impenetrability often associated with it, and because of this, fear. But Bourdain wasn’t afraid to explore China or to really grapple with its intricacies, much like his ventures in other parts of the globe.
It’s true that Bourdain suffered from depression, which is something very few could possibly glean from his energetic pursuits. Not too long before he committed suicide earlier this month, Bourdain was in Hong Kong, learning jiu-jitsu with tenacity like a pro. His sparring partners would likely have no idea that before long, the man would be gone. Instead, there was a man throwing himself into the ring and really engaging with a culture face-to-face. Though he did not live as long as it seems fair for him to have lived, it’s clear from his adventures that he was always fully present when he was around.
Bourdain didn’t shy away from spicy Sichuan food, either, and instead found the humor in spices that sear the tears right out of one’s eyes, quoted as saying “If you imagine Ilsa, she-wolf of the SS tormenting you with nipple clamps as the la, the ma, provided by the pleasantly deranging peppercorns, would be like the naughty nurse with the ice cubes,” when talking about Sichuan’s mala spices. He was a fan of whatever took him furthest away from what he knew, staying forever curious in a way that can sometimes baffle even me, someone who has lived in China for so many years. Familiar places have their strangeness, and strange places can be familiar. But even if a strange place is unfamiliar, it is still worth stopping by.
There is something poignant and pressing that we as travelers and citizens of the world can take from Bourdain’s experiences. It is that nothing is truly impenetrable, not even China and its Great Wall. No place is deserving of knee-jerk fear and aversion; other cultures deserve our very best, on-the-ground-efforts to engage with the world. China is becoming a bigger and bigger part of our daily lives, and so we would do well to make the effort to greet it with curiosity and stamina.
Bourdain’s end came as a shock, and so in tandem with the lessons he has taught us, we must learn leverage with what we are doing and what we feel we ought to do. Reach out when we feel alone. Listen when someone is upset and needs attention. Recognize when professional help is needed — and feel no shame when it is.
And when it comes to China, order some hot pot, brew some tea, and eat some dumplings. Who knows? China might just be what you should order from the menu.