Anthony Bourdain Showed Us Our World

In the fall of 2006, news came across my yahoo home page that Steve Irwin had died. I was in my first big backpacking trek, riding the Eurail pass, drinking and eating my way through the European capitals. In the early morning hours, I left the cramped room full of seven other snoring and butt scratching budget travelers and signed onto a shared computer in a quiet hostel in East Berlin. The keyboard had buttons with Spanish, German and English letters. After struggling to find the @ sign, I managed to log in to my first and still existent yahoo account. In those days, yahoo was king. It was like HuffPost, Buzzfeed and Google had a website baby.

The headline of that September morning was that the ‘Crocodile Hunter’ died filming on location in Australia. He died doing what he loved most, pursuing wild creatures to show viewers a glimpse of the world that is out there. A world the majority won’t and might not even want to see. A wild world, a world of crocodiles, orangutans, sharks, giant spiders, massive lizards, sluggish sloths and even those damned sting rays. I saw an episode where he jumped into a crocodile infested river in the dark with only his ubiquitous khaki outfit and a headlamp. The croc swam away! That croc probably could be heard exclaiming to its own reptilian camera crew, “Crikey, didya see that human? He came rawght afteh me!”

He was one of the heroes of my youth, among the incongruous others in the list such as Pee-Wee Herman, Mark Recchi, Chris Farley and Jack Kerouac. I loved watching animals and he seemed to put them at ease, almost telepathically informing them they were on TV and could go about their business after a quick picture. In 2005, I was working in my friends’ sandwich shop in Austin, TX, and every day after the lunch rush, Crocodile Hunter reruns came on. While sweeping up the cracked old floors and wiping off the scattered sesame seeds on the tables, I’d watch ol’ Steve take me far away from that repetitive grind to Australia’s outback, Indonesia’s forests, coral reefs, deserts or even Antarctica.

Steve Irwin revealed a world through his travels, but also with his personality. His passion was unmistakably clear. That feeling of having lost an enthusiastic soul, someone who took us out to show us what we were never going to see, came again last week with the passing of Anthony Bourdain.

He was a New Jersey punk, chef, writer, traveler and recently, an activist, all of which was on display in his globe-trotting semi-documentaries. Bourdain’s shows went way past the sparkling Greek islands and elegant restaurants of Rick Steves’ Europe. They had none of the blatant marketing of Samantha Brown’s check out this fancy hotel show. Even when strange food was presented, it wasn’t to be eaten like a dare a la Andrew Zimmern. Anthony Bourdain is a synonym for adventure and discovery. He looked comfortable in even the craziest situations. South Africans shouting at him, cooking on the Congo River with no lights, hunting in Scotland, he’s cool. Only the Tokyo robot show seemed to faze him, he looked like me at twelve watching A Clockwork Orange.

While reading all the memorials on the internet, I saw one quote that collected my feelings. It came from N.Y. Times travel writer Lucas Peterson: “And if success, respect from your colleagues, getting to eat your way around the world and generally just being the coolest person on the planet doesn’t guarantee happiness, what hope do the rest of us have?” That’s what got me. I know outwardly having it all doesn’t fix the metaphorical inner void that feels so real, but damn. It’s heartbreaking when we see people who give so much of themselves, who in the end, seem to have given so much, there was an insuperable emptiness left at the end of the day. Yet, his terminal sadness won’t be what I remember about him.

Reading Bourdain’s graphic Kitchen Confidential while working in a restaurant made me feel like a soldier among the heat of the ovens or battling the thick steam of the dish room, proud of my working sweat, earning that six pack after work. His shows were always DVR’d on my TV. I’m not sure if there was a conscious notion of wanting to travel because of his show, but it definitely made it seem possible.

He didn’t like particular things or people. I thought that was so cool even when I disagreed with him. He spoke candidly. I’m too Libra balanced to let a situation get awkward. He ate everything. I still don’t think I’d eat live octopus, chicken feet or escargot. He wrote in his voice. I write like it’s for a good grade. My natural jealousy and envy of his work was tempered by knowing how hard travel can be, especially the places he went. But, I always respected him. I respected his reporting from the forgotten corners of the globe. I respected his food knowledge, his ability to talk to anyone and his pure joy of a simple thing like a bowl of noodles.

I was in Vietnam. My crappy hostel had no A/C, so I was up at the heat of sunrise. Marching out with my backpack for a long day of who knows what, I stopped at a street stall and order Pho Bo, beef with noodles. I sat on the small plastic stool, motorbikes whizzing past my table kicking up yesterday’s dust, and I took that first bite. Memorable. So are you my man.

AB

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Italy vs. Korea: Living Life Abroad

I’ve been to 10 countries this year but spent the bulk in either Italy or Korea. I think somehow I’m fully American diluted with Italian and Korean blood now. My roots spread far. Both countries have their pros and cons, but which is the better place to live?

Food

Italy—Everyone knows Italian food. Pasta, pizza, risotto, cheese and focaccia are staples of the Italian diet and world famous. No food incites more opinionated responses than, “Where is the best pizza?”

Korea—Not many people know Korean food. Korean BBQ has gotten recognition lately, but the diversity of food is what’s most appealing to me. There are soups for every ailment, vegetables for “power,” plenty of soothing white rice and that famous marinated meat is never hard to find. Also, kimchi is a magical food.

*VERDICT: Italy. They win simply because inventing pizza is forever unbeatable; however, whichever country I’m in, I crave the others’ cooking.

Movies

Italy—Famous for La Dolce Vita. There’s plenty of existential 1960’s films of the absurdity of life. Lots of cigarette smoking by men in black suits. At the current cinema, everything is dubbed into Italian, presumably because it sounds great, but makes the film less cohesive and impossible for me to watch.

Korea—Famous for Oldboy. There’s rarely a happy ending in Korean movies. At the cinema, they sell numbered seats to ensure fairness, cheap snacks and Hollywood movies shown in English. Also, they have cozy DVD rooms—win.

*VERDICT: Korea. Unconventional movies, private DVD theaters, and cinema in original language (that includes Russian dialogue in the new Die Hard movie).

Music

Italy—Famous for opera, but Italian MTV is pretty boring. The street performers can be entertaining.

Korea—Famous for K-pop, PSY’s silliness and long-legged lady singers. Friday nights are for watching girl groups parade onstage on muted TV’s in a restaurant, bar or sauna.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although K-pop chicks are contained dynamite, to hear Andrea Bocelli sing “Con Te Partirò” gives me chills every time.

Nightlife

Italy—The night is dominated by hanging out, gesticulating with cigarette in one hand and wine glass in the other.

Korea—People here get bombed wasted constantly and then sing karaoke.

*VERDICT: Korea. Despite the blatant alcoholism, I love karaoke (noraebang/노래방).

Sports

Italy—Four World Cup titles is quite an achievement. Serie A is a quality soccer league. Kids play soccer amid ancient ruins and use cathedral walls as goals, which is cool.

Korea—Sports is only for those with enough talent to play in the Olympics. The other kids must focus on their studies! But, they offer decent competitions in soccer, baseball and basketball leagues.

*VERDICT: Even. South Korea beat the Azzurri in the 2002 World Cup. But neither country dominates this aspect of life.

Friendliness

Italy—Old people are nice and helpful. Young people can’t be bothered with showing you the direction to Piazza San Giacomo.

Korea—Old people (especially the old ladies) push you out of their way. Young people can’t wait to help or talk to you about anything.

*VERDICT: Even. This category is fluid and changes depending on the person.

Ease of Living

Italy—There’s a three-hour daily lunch break in the shops, two weeks off in August, many retail stores close at 19:00, lots of coffee breaks and everything is closed on Sunday. You’d think that is helpful, but more to workers and less to consumers.

Korea—The 24-hour 7-11’s, karaoke, saunas and restaurants work to any time schedule. The >50-hour workweek is stressing and daunting.

*VERDICT: Even. Korea works too much and Italy works too little. (**NOTE: Internet is a major factor in ease of living and Korea wins big time in that area, but not enough to overcome their habit of six 12 hour days per week.)

Price

Italy—Euro. (1$=1.3Euro) To eat well, you have to pay for a first and second plate plus a vegetable, and the recycled water bottle (usually around 50$).

Korea—Won. (1$=1,052Won) To eat well, you pay 10-15$ for meat, unlimited vegetables, rice and free refills of water. Sometimes you get “service”=free food.

*VERDICT: Korea. This one is an easy choice.

Travel Opportunities

Italy—You are within striking distance of mainland Europe via EUrail or Ryan Air as well as anywhere in the magical land of Italy.

Korea—Mountains and beaches surround you, Incheon Airport is the best in the world and many places in Korea are completely unexplored and unspoiled.

*VERDICT: Even. Would you rather explore Europe or Asia? Both are charming.

Public Transit

Italy—Buses and trains are often late and there are decent subway lines in Milan and Rome.

Korea—Seoul has the biggest and longest subway in the world and punctual everything.

*VERDICT: Korea. You are never more than three blocks away from the subway in Seoul.

Language

Italy—Italian is quite possibly the most beautiful language on Earth, and only gets cuter to hear little kids arguing in it.

Korea—Korean is the easiest Asian language to learn to read, but complicated to speak.

*VERDICT: Italy. Ciao vs. Annyeong Haseyo.

Architecture

Italy—This country understands it. Angels hanging off of corners, fountains, piazzas, statues, obelisks, strange faces in the marble walls, naked lady door-knockers, mythical creatures guarding entrances, and The Colosseum!

Korea—They didn’t go from bottom to the top in 50 years by worrying about decoration. They just built for efficiency. Things are changing now, with expanding green spaces, Gangnam’s renaissance and new art projects.

*VERDICT: Italy. The everyday beauty has a salubrious energy.

History

Italy—Roma, Venezia, Marco Polo, Columbus, Caesar, and gladiators: “All roads lead to Rome.”

Korea—They are stuck between two giants of Asia: China and Japan. Koreans were constantly in the middle of the wars of those two ancient enemies.

*VERDICT: Italy. Although Korean history is fascinating, Italian history is undeniably more important in global impact.

People/Dog Watching

Italy—Dogs enter restaurants here with impunity. There are dogs of all sizes and most people are not scared to pet them. Having a coffee at an outdoor café offers great fodder for playful banter about the passing hipsters, fashionistas and archetypical stereotypes.

Korea—Dogs are predominantly small and decorative. Kids/young girls sometimes shriek at the touch of a dog’s tongue. Couples in identical clothing, businessmen in shiny suits and cheap shoes, kids practicing taekwondo in the park or 20 ajumma’s with identical permed hair provide ample opportunity for pithy observations.

*VERDICT: Even. There’s more diversity and acceptance of dogs in Italy, but things are just a bit crazier in Korea.

Women

Italy—They are famous for being hot. But, too many smoke cigarettes, and they do it in an affective manner as if it’s making them seem more attractive. It isn’t. Milano and Roma are sure to find you exceptionally fashionable, skinny model types riding Vespa’s with long hair streaming behind them. EX: Sophia Loren in 1965.

Korea—They are becoming more famous for producing beautiful, forever-young actresses and models. Many are conservative with upper body exposure but adore a short skirt. Visit Gangnam on a summer night for a glimpse of the plastic surgery obsessed climate of Korea. Nevertheless, some understand that their striking beauty comes from embracing their traditional features. EX: Kim Yuna in 2014.

*VERDICT: Korea. What can I say? My girlfriend is Korean, and she’s beautiful.

The answer is: 5 for Italy; 5 for Korea; 5 All Even

Honestly, what did you expect? I actually went at this subject expecting Korea to win because that is where I’ve enjoyed living most. Yet, when you take it all into consideration, Italy has lots of positives too. These 15 subjects are some major indices of quality of life for me. I suppose I love both of these countries too much to decide. (Shh. It’s Korea.)

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America and Food

Of all the culinary concoctions and gustatory delights conceived and created in America, we have few originals—Twinkies, cheesesteaks, Buffalo wings and maybe sweet potato pie, but that could be a derivation of an American Indian tradition. Most American foods, as American people, are a consequence of the extreme influx of 18th-20th century immigration. Germans brought hot dogs and hamburgers; Italians brought pizza and pasta; English brought fish and chips; Polish brought water ice, but it melted on the way over and they forgot the recipe—it took years of dedicated trial and error before they figured it out again. 😉

America has delicacies throughout her large landscape. The chowders and lobsters of New England, the great Italian hoagies of the Northeast, the soul food of the south, the cheesy meat and potatoes of the Midwest, the Tex-Mex of Texas, the haute hippie cuisine of California are all gems of American traditions, borrowing largely from our collective past. We are all proud of our families and where we came from long ago. Soon, we must allow our mutt genes to seep into our consciousness and become merely Americans instead of hyphenations. We owe it to ourselves to realize we are much more American than we are European, Asian or African.

We are, and continue to be, a diverse country of differing tastes, beliefs, and backgrounds. We are also (possibly due to the permanence and conspicuousness of fried/salty/sugary foods) many different shapes, with a slight majority in the comfortably plump variety. Americans are viewed by most of the world as that perfect stereotype of loud and fat, but usually pleasant. We are like jolly bags of tourist money. We visit Paris and comment on how small the “Mona Lisa” is; we visit Berlin and ask why there are bullet holes in all the buildings; we visit Rome and complain about portion size or the abbandanza of walking there is on this “walking tour.” Of course, we are not all ignorant bags of discretionary income ready to boost foreign economies. There are many polite, articulate, well-informed and well-traveled Americans, but they are not always the ones who stick out in crowds wearing pornographic t-shirts in the Vatican or ordering water at increasing volume in English in Spain. The crude and rude of a species get remembered. All Parisians are not inhospitable, but the ones who are become the goats of stories told back in the American heartland over Coors Light’s, ribs and potato salad.

But, once an American travels abroad and learns how other parts of the world eat, I believe he or she can have two reactions: confusion or cravings. I have had both now. I am confused as to the amount of rice I didn’t eat while in America, and confused as to the amount of bread I did eat. I crave certain things, things that are easily found here in Korea, but with a slight twinge of mediocrity and clumsiness. They make cheesesteaks, but the bread is stale. They make deli sandwiches, but use plastic wrapped slices of cheese. They make pizza, but it has corn on it. It is all there for you in a muddled form, but never really satisfies you the way it used to stateside. Korean food is delicious and healthy; and Seoul has every type of restaurant a city of 10 million inhabitants should have, but they don’t do a perfect burrito or a perfect turkey club yet. (That I have found, it’s a big city!)

However, luckily, I have found a place of perfection for the most American of American pleasures—cheeseburgers. I found this place in my first month in Korea, and not a week has gone by when I haven’t frequented the establishment. No, it’s not a McD’s or BK, it’s called BurgerHolic, and I would do free advertisements for them, if only they’d ask. (Please ask me!) It is a four-top seating area hole-in-the wall with fresh cut fries, mozzarella sticks, chicken fingers and burgers. They are excellent and completely comparable to any In-n-Out, P. Terry’s or Five Guys type chains. For 8$ I get a large double cheese, bacon burger, fries and drink. Every Monday, more regular than a Metamucil swilling grandpa, I am there. They know me, they know my order and they are consistent with quality.

When I told my students about my weekly habit, they were silent in bewilderment for a few seconds at how anyone could do such things to their body and then commented, “But, teacher [faces contorted and puzzled] not fat?” Koreans are wary of American food, and seem to indulge sparingly, for they have seen the ravages our diets have inflicted on some of our expats. These young, brainy kids couldn’t understand how I could eat a burger a week and not become morbidly obese the way their parents probably tell them they would. I didn’t have the heart to tell them how many hamburgers I consumed while substitute teaching in Austin, when Wendy’s was a two minute drive away and my budget for lunch was in the 4$ range. (Coincidentally, my total cholesterol level during those years was also a worrying 237.) I have a strong metabolism, but as my family will attest, after four months of convivial alcohol consumption backpacking Europe, eating baguette and croissant breakfasts, pizza lunches, huge dinners followed by midnight kebabs and crepes, I had quite a belly when I arrived back home. I’m not immune to weight gain in the midsection. I also work out hard to maintain core strength; therefore, I treat myself in the food department.

I do know what they are talking about in their fear of fast food. American obesity is a huge strain on our already feeble preventative health care culture. We treat the cancer, not the cause. Anyone who has seen the greasy, giant burgers unwrapped and leered at in a rather gluttonous and disconcertingly seductive way by the corpulent chap falling out of his booth at Arby’s or Carl Jr.’s knows how appetite suppressing that can be. Nobody will wonder how he got that far, it’s written in the grease stains on his napkin and highlighted by his blubbery bottom.

It has been said that fat is the “last acceptable prejudice.” I know there are people born with glandular problems. I know there are people who were raised in a house of loose dietary restrictions. I know there are people who have a disease whose main symptom is the inability to get full. I tried to make it a point in my life to only insult people’s choices, i.e. their clothes, hairstyle or words, things they choose. It’s not okay to make fun of birthmarks, family problems or big noses. Those things can’t be helped and were not choices. Is chunkiness a choice or a form of birthmark? Whatever it is, they have a decision to make every day of their life, as Tracy Chapman said, “Leave tonight or live and die this way.”

Small Pleasures

Hungry after a long day at the hagwon with a slight headache breathing through my temples, I wandered into a local eatery. There were no less than 7 policemen in their full blue and gray gear, loudly, violently and quickly consuming a crowd of plates. They ate with typical Korean gusto, so it was not surprising. However, one always feels good eating where the local cops eat. I ordered my mandu-gu soup and sat back. There were no empty seats left now that I had sat down to share a table with three young dudes. One table of men kept gaining occupants and simultaneously gaining volume. My soup arrived along with my tablemates. We had all ordered the same thing, which made me smile. It was soft dumpling soup, with a splash of seaweed and egg in peppery chicken broth. It was delicious. I ate slowly and appreciated each bit, sampling my side dishes of soy marinated potatoes, spinach in spicy sauce, fried egg, kimchi and marinated seaweed. The policemen finished and left, but the tables never emptied, as soon as one-person left, another arrived. This was definitely the place to eat, I felt embarrassed I hadn’t eaten here more than twice. Then, one of the guys at the loud, ever-expanding table inexplicably brought me a bottle of water and a glass. I was thirsty but it was too busy to reach the self-serve water area. I finished every plate including my ‘bap’—aka rice. It was one of those great dinners where you feel a part of your city.

I asked for two things in Korean, got what I ordered, paid exact change after being told how much it cost in Korean and left saying goodbye in Korean. It was a success. I could write about almost every meal I’ve eaten in this country. The delightful successes, the frustrating failures, the good, the bad, the very ugly and smelly have all been on my plate. This one just felt normal and completely at ease. Walking the two blocks home, I saw one of the resident stray cats munching through a trash bag. He is strong and healthy looking with the unstable eyes of a street urchin, which lets me know he is eating well and knows his business. I was thankful to be able to have eaten off a plate in a warm, cozy corner of a popular diner. It’s important to be aware of our good things, no matter how small.

Thanksgiving

I look forward to the day of thanks like pedophiles look forward to the first day of school. I am gluttonous and ravenous and prime myself for the day. I always eat an early breakfast, drink water and try to excrete fully before the call of “it’s ready” comes from the kitchen. In Texas, we have Thanksgiving on Friday so we can watch the UT-A&M football game. It’s odd because everyone on the TV tells us that its turkey day, but I know it’s not. We watch the Cowboys and Lions and Longhorns, but we know our day isn’t until tomorrow. I wait patiently and stuff myself. After the initial fear of puking from overeating passes and I begin to digest, the realization that 364 days of longing has passed and the holiday season has begun settles in to my gorged brain. It is a purely American holiday. It is secular and not based on love. It is a family and friend based celebration. We, who can, eat all that we can. Those on a diet curse their body and those skinny few with high metabolism. The most fascinating part of the day is the traditions and foods that are on our table were probably not similar to the Pilgrims. It’s almost like we created a holiday based on true events but situated to be palatable to American tastes. The Natives gave the poor Pilgrims gifts and they ate together sharing each other’s good humor and feasting on the bountiful harvest. Shouldn’t we then bring food to the less fortunate and eat with them? It would change the meaning of Thanksgiving greatly. The banquet has become such a selfish occasion that most of us couldn’t possibly imagine spending the day away from our couches and dining room tables to spend the day with the unfortunate ones without associates. I know it would be hard for me, but I think it’s something I’d like to try. It would be an easy thing to do it on Thursday and then have our Friday buffet to continue our familial traditions. Let’s take the next year to think if that’s something we’d like to do and give thanks for our blessings, of which there are many.