How Anthony Bourdain Changed My Life
Becoming a storyteller, with no reservations
BY CECILIA LEI
I’ve always wanted to be a storyteller, even though it’s taken me a little while to take the leap and commit to the dream. Stories have always been important to me. As a little girl growing up with immigrant parents and a challenging household, stories were critical to my survival. They opened up the world for me, stretched the corners of my imagination and allowed me to travel the distances I wasn’t able to — it was my way out, and it made me want to write.
When I learned of Anthony Bourdain’s death, I had no idea that it would nudge and surface all the emotions of how storytelling has shaped me. I knew I was a fan of his work, but I didn’t realize how personally influential he also was to my life, and the professional and personal pivots I’ve made.
In 2012, after a five-year advertising career, I decided to quit my job to solo travel. At the time, the decision confused everyone: my parents (who were worried about what it meant for my career), my partner (who was worried about my safety traveling alone as a woman), and my friends (who never quite saw me as a risk-taker). People joked, calling it my quarter-life “Eat, Pray, Love” crisis. But, all I knew was that I was hungry for something else, something Bourdain always seemed to have available to him: this grandiose feast of traveling, eating, meeting new people and telling stories.
There are details from that solo trip that I’ll always remember: how intimidating it felt to wear my pack for the first time, how liberating it was to strike up conversations with locals and the inspiring kindness of strangers who helped navigate me along the way. As a young Chinese American woman who was raised to take the safe routes in life, Bourdain inspired me in a way no one else had ever done before. Even as a straight white male, with all the privileges afforded to him, he taught me how to move through new, unknown places: simply be quiet and humble. That’s what I loved most about Bourdain’s stories; he zoomed in close in order to provide a picture about the world as a whole. He saw new cultures as they’re meant to be seen; that they’re shaped by both its history and the aspirations of its people. Especially as Americans, he reminded us to not make assumptions and to question everything. He was unapologetic about his perspective, and he managed to gain the trust of everyone he came across, from locals of the places he visited to avid viewers who watched his travels from home.
Another five years passed after my solo trip -- I had pivoted to doing audience development with public media -- when I recognized that familiar pull: that feeling of being not quite satiated. I applied to UC Berkeley’s Graduate School of Journalism, a dream that I’ve held from the very beginning. I thought my application was a long shot but when I got in, I became overwhelmed with joy and nerves: this felt right.
I’ve always understood that being a journalist is not a glamorous way of life, even though Bourdain made it appear so. It’s privileged, difficult work – an occupation that is composed of equal parts self-awareness and self-doubt. Did I do this story justice? Am I good enough? Bourdain, and his sumptuous and sensory writing, made storytelling seem like a luxurious experience. And though so many of us knew it was a fantasy in many ways, wasn’t that what so many of us wanted in life? That kind of platform and the ability to saunter into a new country, walking with the confidence of someone who seemed to really know himself?
It’s hard to reckon that persona with the demise of Bourdain. It’s difficult to negotiate the man who seemed to have it all with the fallen hero we are now learning he was. Maybe in that moment, when he made that fateful decision, he knew where he wanted to go next and he headed there with the same cool confidence that we’ve always associated him with.
But I’m not convinced. Because even a well-traveled person, someone who inspired and provoked critical thought from people all over the world, can still get lost.
Bourdain’s death – not just the death itself, but the way he left us – was a heartbreaking reminder for seasoned and aspiring storytellers alike. The work is terribly messy and requires us to take care of ourselves, to understand when to ask for help, to unload burdens if they ever become too heavy. It’s a critical component of what we do because how can we continue telling stories if we aren’t also nurturing our own appetites and curiosities for life itself?
Bourdain and I couldn’t have been more different, but I’m thankful for what he’s taught me: that compassion, empathy and humility are the most important tools we have as journalists.
In his famed “Hanoi” episode, there’s an early scene. It’s before the now-famous scene in which he shares a meal of bun cha with President Obama. He sits down with one of his guides for the show on a rainy sidewalk. A woman asks him whether he’d like his beer in the bottle or in the glass. “How would you do it, if I wasn’t here?” he asked.
That was Tony, in that simple question. He’s taught all of us storytellers how to “do it” – how to be consummate observers and lead with a quiet confidence, even when he’s no longer here.