I Have Cerebral Palsy, and Anthony Bourdain Pushed Me to See the World
A few weeks ago, a Parts Unknown episode brought me to tears. An emotional reaction isn't all that surprising when it comes to a production led by Anthony Bourdain—be it curiosity, elation, or, most understandably, envy. But those feelings weren't what I was experiencing when I finished the episode on West Virginia. I was crying out of empathy.
For as long as I can remember, I have wanted to see the world, and I was fortunate enough to be in a position where such a dream was not too distant. My father is Jamaican, and my mother is Filipina and Irish; they met in the travel industry. To get the family together meant moving in some way, and my parents raised my siblings and me to think that such mobility should come with ease. But there's something about how a child can interpret a parent's wishes. Even when my mum and dad did all that they could to show me the world, I still grew up restless to see it on my own terms.
I didn't know exactly what that feeling meant until I was a college sophomore who caught an episode of No Reservations.
Like in all of Anthony's shows, rebellion is a running undercurrent—it's the type of viewpoint that a 19-year-old would gravitate to. No, Uncle Tony wasn't going to see the pyramids of Egypt, and he sure as hell wasn't going to hold his hands up for a photo at the Tower of Pisa. It's not that travel isn't about these so-called tourist traps; it can be. It's that getting out there is mostly about finding more than what you've come to expect.
The world feels smaller with fewer undiscovered locales, but Anthony showed that a little-known restaurant or a completely unknown home can be exotic. It's the unfamiliar that makes for the adventure, and for better or worse, improvisation is a part of travel.
Not long after I first saw No Reservations, I decided to study abroad in Prague. To say that my parents were nervous about this choice is an understatement. They wanted me to explore on my own, of course. But I should mention that I have cerebral palsy, so watching travel and travelling are two different things. I can't do everything an able-bodied person can do. I have to think on my feet, and I have to depend on others. I went anyway—so terrified that I cried all the way to the airport—and it turned out to be one of the best decisions of my life. A few years later, I moved to London for grad school, watching every episode of The Layover before I went.
I've had the opportunity to travel throughout the world, either with family, friends, or alone. It's been good, and it's been tough, and I'd be lying if I didn't admit that there was pain along the way. But travel has helped me find more of the person I want to be. It's pushed me to see beyond what I envision for myself and what others tend to envision for me. And that's all due, in part, to the fact that Anthony showed me that curiosity always pays off, whether you hit the road nearby or the one far from home.
Rebellion may be a familiar theme in Anthony's shows, but connection is too. He seemed to understand the intrusion his lenses had on the homes and restaurants he filmed, so he practiced humility in those settings. There are dozens of instances when you can see the chef's pride on camera because of his politeness, whether he was eating in Southern Italy, or Laos, or West Virginia. Anthony made the world feel exotic but then made that exoticism intimate over the universal pleasure of a shared meal. It's that respect between dinner host and TV host, that unspoken understanding between strangers, that stays with me.
I cried at the end of the West Virginia episode because of how proud the parents were of their children and how proud my parents are of me. I cried because I am still trying to make them proud and because I still feel like a teenager who is optimistic but trying to figure it all out.
I can't figure out why Anthony died by suicide. I'm still trying to reckon with the overwhelming, and eerily timely, CDC report that suicides have risen in nearly every state in the U.S, half of them by more than 30%, since 1999. I wish I knew the answers, or that his penchant for hopeful conclusions could work here. I'm not sure it could.
What I do know is that Anthony's shows made the world seem fun, although nuanced, and cool, albeit complicated. That perspective was heightened with breathtaking imagery, and he seemed to know just when to be silent so that the visuals could speak for themselves. Through that view, Anthony instilled lessons that almost feel second nature to me. Put a place within its context. Go to the market, accept the invitation, observe what others are doing. You'll find something in common, especially over beers. You're probably not going to catch a fish. Be open, ask questions, listen to the answers. Let people surprise you.
Who are we if we don't try to understand, and what might we become? That was a theme Anthony posed in the West Virginia episode, and in a way, it's a stance his shows often take in general. It's also a question that applies to his life, and to his death.
If Anthony's life taught me to go, then his death has taught me to show up. I still need to learn what depression really is and how it feels. It deserves context and considered questions because if the world is nuanced, then the people in it are, too. And if I can feel empathy through a screen about those experiences, then I can undoubtedly connect to it in person.