The Most Humble Badass

The Most Humble Badass

Anthony Bourdain eats with fishermen in Hue, Vietnam, in 2014, while filming an episode for CNN's "Parts Unknown."

Photo: David Holloway/CNN.


At 44, I still want to be Anthony Bourdain when I grow up. The travel. The food. The culture. The food. The people. The food. To quote Crowded House, Hey now, hey now/Don't dream it's over.

Even Bourdain admits that his career is a fantasy profession. But, as a television man—first for Travel Channel's "No Reservations," now for CNN's "Parts Unknown"—he mediates the beautiful and painful complexity of place on our behalf. And I am thankful for his mediation. I am reminded of Eudora Welty's famous quotation:

"One place understood helps us understand all places better."

Of course, Bourdain's brashness and irreverence are not exactly suitable to everyone's taste. Nor is his candor. Or his tattoos. Or his politics. Or...

However, as I read Patrick Radden Keefe's profile in The New Yorker (February 13 & 20, 2017), the feature about Bourdain that most intrigued me was the one that most surprised me: his humility. For a badass, he certainly is humble—in the sort of way that seems genuinely reflective of age and experience but is obviously not always true of age and experience.

Here is one example, among several, within the piece:

[Bourdain] has never eaten dog. When I pointed out the dog-hawker in our midst, he said, “I’m not doing it just because it’s there anymore.” Now, when he’s presented with such offerings, his first question is whether it is a regular feature of the culture. “Had I found myself as the unwitting guest of honor in a farmhouse on the Mekong Delta where a family, unbeknownst to me, has prepared their very best, and I’m the guest of honor, and all of the neighbors are watching . . . I’m going to eat the fucking dog,” he said. “On the hierarchy of offenses, offending my host—often a very poor one, who is giving me the very best, and for whom face is very important in the community—for me to refuse would be embarrassing. So I will eat the dog.”

I love the multiple facets of humility on display in this scenario: the cultural intelligence and understanding; the sincere, learned respect for the other; the art of dignifying and, in fact, honoring the other; the significance of using one's power to serve the other.

In times and seasons characterized by increased fear of the other, and even willful xenophobia, would that more Americans could be this bad-ass.


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