My steps felt unexpectedly light as I ran the neighborhood streets, my heart pounding with anticipation. After spending nearly ¾ of my collegiate experience forcing myself into an unfitting mold of hard sciences and pulling frustrated all-nighters to strategize escape plans for my rapidly-approaching fate of medical school, I had finally come clean to the world that I was making a change. I was adding on a second major – French – fed by all the hours I had already invested in the language by pure passion. I was spending my summer studying abroad in Nice and working as an environmental education entrepreneur’s intern in London, all while contrasting the wine cultures in the two cities for my newly designed thesis. And most importantly, I was forgoing the stacks of med school applications for a newly realigned focus on global health. My immediate future was bright and my smile was confidently beaming for the first time in months. Yet I was at a loss of words when a fellow cross country team runner caught me off-guard, mid-endorphins fix with the dreaded question, “So… what are you going to do with French and wine and Global Health?”
My typical cover to avoid others’ certain look of disdain in the career switch was a white lie along the lines of, “Oh, I’ll get my Masters first, and maybe I can apply for med school afterwards. Global Health can really round out a medical career.” Whether it was the runner’s high or the fact that I had a first inkling to become unapologetic about my life choices, this time I answered honestly, stating, “I mean… If I could just be Anthony Bourdain, that would be pretty amazing… With less meat of course, and more desserts.”
I don’t know how this career aspiration popped into my head at that moment, nor where it arose from, nor what the specifics of that statement would play out to be. I don’t even remember watching a full episode of Bourdain’s Parts Unknown or No Reservations before that fateful conversation, nor do I recall in what context I had seen him before, nor what first impression he had made in my conscious mind. Yet as soon as I made that spur-of-the-moment remark, I realized its significance. I wanted to live fully, to travel, to indulge in cuisines around the world, to meet the locals, to learn their stories, to accessibly and intriguingly package my experiences to a wide audience, and to speak my mind candidly in order to inspire connection through the universal art of eating.
I have moved through varying degrees in (un)certainty in this career option, largely because – as any well-meaning guidance counselor or family member will tell you not-so-delicately – being Anthony Bourdain isn’t exactly the most realistic professional move. Yet his influence has seeped deeply into each morsel of my global health work. In my best and worst of times in my professional life, I’ve returned to his work to become re-elevated.
During my Master’s thesis on human rights conditions of Roma women in Marseille, I was inspired of his depiction of the city before leaving for fieldwork… and I cried relentlessly re-watching the episode after my trip, returning to all the feels of the familiar city streets while doubting my ability to wrap the voices of these women succinctly into a research article.
Additionally, Anthony’s journey through the Punjabi region of India allowed me to re-live vivid sights, smells, and tongue-numbing spices after my global health tour of the motherland. He guided my tour through Thailand last summer, filling my eyes with glistening (and slightly shocked) wonder for the tattoo parlors, the hard liquor, and the “Lady Boys” of Bangkok. His dilapidated scenes of impoverishment made me second-guess my three-month trip to Myanmar, while simultaneously giving me the first hint of certainty that the stay would surely be an unprecedented adventure. Furthermore, as I began consulting for global health DRC-based work, the pages upon pages of inhumane destitution that I read within the study’s interview transcripts gained vivid animation through his episode on the poverty-stricken country.
Anthony’s work structured my sightseeing through a weekend getaway to Provicetown – the sunny city in Cape Cod where he had his humble start as a dishwasher. I walked the seashell-scattered cobbled streets alongside my boyfriend with one part enthusiasm and two parts dread for the impending doom of my 3-year sentence overseas. With great heart-wrench, Anthony also provided me with a first look at Austria just days before my relocation. Two months into life in my new village home, I couldn’t help but empathize with his sarcastic dissatisfaction of the unequivocal joviality of the signature Christmas markets that seemed “annoying” when contrasted with the wild and untamed loneliness I was experiencing on the inside. Moreover, I once heard him declare in an interview that he didn’t wish to slow down his frenetic pace of work and travel because he was afraid of what he would feel when he was forced to spend time with himself. This chilling statement resonated loudly and frighteningly in my ears during this period of slowed silence in the Austrian village.
Nonetheless, Anthony was also an extreme motivator in both my rejection from my NYC-based dream PhD program and my failure in my chosen Austrian PhD program. In both scenarios, when all else was beginning to crumble around my professional life, I found myself falling back on the same well-worn phrase that I stumbled upon several years ago: “If I could just be Anthony Bourdain…”
Today, as I sit writing from a London café – just the channel away from beginning research in Paris for my first book on global perspectives of eating consciously – I recall the country manor scenes and the diverse city sights of the Parts Unknown episode that I watched on this very city three nights prior. Unlike the shows I had watched in the past, this time, I did not search for insider city tips or career inspiration. Rather, within Anthony’s final series, I couldn’t help but seek out signs that may have foreshadowed his suicide. A tightly-woven knot grew tighter in the pit of my abdomen as I realized that yes, in fact, there were plenty of subtle cues – dark humor, supreme perception of impeding doom, speech without filter, and other comments that chilled the hollowest spaces of my bones. No, in this rare context, I did not in fact want to be Anthony Bourdain.
Anthony epitomized the least romantic side of travel – that it can be frighteningly lonely. By placing myself into vividly new contexts for extended periods of time, I’ve felt as though I had been looking into funhouse mirrors in which my unquestioned views of reality have been reshaped dramatically, my understanding of social norms of humanity has left me disheartened, the noise that my own mind has made in attempt to process the world around me has made me feel ashamed, and my understanding of my own privilege has made me weep nauseated tears of guilt. Yet in processing these sensations associated with the journeys, I have always (eventually, thanks to my advantage of a strong support system back home) peeled through the layers of emotion and the superficial sensations of difference to acknowledge that all cultures, countries, and communities are deeply connected. This notion of interrelatedness through the lens of food was the statement that resounded most clearly from Anthony’s lifelong legacy, even if perhaps he did not always feel this connection himself.
Anthony’s untimely death is a harrowing loss, especially at a time of global division through political lines. His suicide is an act to learn from rather than one to be celebrated, but his legacy of inspiring interconnectedness lives on. The millions who he has inspired can no longer aspire to adopt every ounce of the statement “If I could just be Anthony Bourdain…”. Yet we can continue to strive toward the strongest significance of this phrase: inspiring understanding, motivating connection, and revealing the true worth of the vast realm of people in our planet.
Resources from CNN: "How to get help: In the US, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255. The International Association for Suicide Prevention and Befrienders Worldwide also can provide contact information for crisis centers around the world."