Anthony Bourdain: Patron Saint of Third Culture Kids by Savannah Hughes
Media teaches us how the world works and our place in it; it can be a reflection of our actual and our aspirational circumstances. When your experience is portrayed in media, with respect and authenticity, it has the power to show us our own potential and assuage big, scary questions like Is my experience valid and Do I belong.
But when your sense of belonging is terminally nebulous and you exist in the cultural in-between; neither here, nor there, then who do you turn to? Who can you relate to? Enter: Anthony Bourdain, patron saint of bohemes, vagabonds and third culture kids. His latest CNN television show, Parts Unknown, delves into the intersections of food, politics, culture. Bourdain has travelled to around countless countries and has filmed eighty-nine Parts Unknown episodes, each a distinct exploration of the food and culture of a place.
Frequently dubbed with idiotic misnomers like “the bad boy of travel television”, he and his show are more than that to us culturally conflicted. Much like me and my fellow Third Culture Kids, he is the perpetual odd one out looking in. The New Yorker aptly describes the intoxicating effects of Parts Unknown, “A ride-along with Bourdain promises the sidekick an experience that, in this era of homogenized tourism, is all too rare: communion with a foreign culture so unmitigated that it feels practically intravenous.” He provides a 47 minute sneak peak into our world filled with rampaging curiosity, clashing cuisines and cultures; and never quite assimilating, but doing your best to blend in.
Bourdain rarely to ever “fits in” in the traditional sense. He’s 6 foot 3, leathery, grisled and tattooed. Notably, he’s absolutely ripped from daily jiu-jitsu practice. A former addict and veteran chef, his body has been worn to the grindstone by years of hard living. Given his towering, hard living identity, it’s fair to ask: what in the world is he doing hunched over a plastic table in a sweaty, Singaporean night market devouring chicken and rice and sipping on a Tsing-tao? It prompts the perennial question for him and all third culture kids alike: What are you, of all people, doing here, in all places?
Sociologist David C. Pollock neatly sums up the Third Culture Kid experience. “Third Culture Kids build relationships to all of the cultures, while not having full ownership in any.” We don’t have hometowns, so much as we have passport countries. Third Culture Kid is an umbrella term for foreign service brats, missionary kids, expats, military brats and so many other children who are forced to move internationally with their parents’ jobs.
While our stories differ in geography, there are some universal commonalities. When I was first introduced to my friend Jean in front of the Freemason’s Lodge in Boston, I was overjoyed. He’s an absolute skyscraper of a black guy with pop bottle glasses, a French name, Haitian family and childhood and a Rhode Island hometown. Another nerd with a background that made absolutely no sense! Here was someone that I could relate to. Over the years of us getting through college together and bonding over a shared obsession of Michelle Obama, his immigrant story would slowly leak out. When I asked him if he’d have preferred a cookie-cutter, traditional American upbringing, his answer was measured and thoughtful, “Not really. I’ve very proud of my upbringing. As an immigrant being raised by immigrant parents and having to experience the American culture and other cultures alike has shaped my views of America and the world. It has allowed me to view the American culture through an entirely different sense.”
You see, if we’re being honest, all of our origin stories should start with a disclaimer. Are you asking where I was raised? Are you asking where I live? Are you asking where my parents are from? Because, sometimes, all three of those questions have different answers. There is an omnipresent anxiety about being on the receiving end of that relatively innocuous question: Where are you from? Our upbringing was fraught with social landmines. One of my oldest friends in the world, Kait, has South African parents, a British accent, an American education, a Indonesian childhood, and a recently acquired Australian citizenship. She is also trilingual, if struggling French counts for something. And after year of tough conversations, we’ve all come to the same conclusion: most of the time the story is too complicated for polite conversation. And as Gretchen Weiners reminds us, “Oh my god, Karen, you can’t just ask people why they’re white.” So, we get by on little white lies. It’s easier that way.
With this lifestyle, we’re always the ones leaving and the first to say goodbye. As we hopscotch around the world, it’s only when we’re lucky that it’s a see you later. While I’ve had the good fortune to only have to say “see you later” to Kait in the past 15 years, we’ve had to adapt. We’ve been accustomed to Facebook messenger, skype calls, and airport drop offs. After all, the average overseas contract lasts two to three years and we were lucky to stay together for five.
Third Culture Kids tend to suffer from similar ailments, whether it’s itchy feet or heartache. There’s an omnipresent thought in many of our relationships: there’s always the option to leave and start again somewhere else for us. A life of cultural discontinuity tends to lend itself to heartbreak and grief. Third Culture Kids are said to be in a constant state of mourning for the places we’ve lost and those that had the gall to move on when we’ve flown away, off to our next adventure.
Bourdain plays with these themes of otherness and saudade in travel. A common Brazilian phrase, a particularly poignant definition of saudade comes from Portuguese writer Manuel de Melo: "a pleasure you suffer, an ailment you enjoy”. It is an enormous privilege to travel and grow up as Third Culture Kids and experience an in depth look at the foreign and the extraordinary. Nevertheless, that doesn’t remove the pangs of homesickness and jetlag and the inherent exhaustion that comes with never feeling at home. Bourdain touches on this gentle bruising a rolling stone lifestyle can have on you in his book, The Nasty Bits. He says, "as you move through this life and this world you change things slightly, you leave marks behind, however small. And in return, life -- and travel -- leaves marks on you. Most of the time, those marks -- on your body or on your heart -- are beautiful. Often, though, they hurt."
Today, I’ve done something extraordinary. I’ve lived in California for exactly 2 years and 1 day. I haven’t lived anywhere so long since I was 12 years old, leaving Jakarta, Indonesia, my first home of many. On my passport, it says I am from California, but was raised in a space in between neither and nor. It is neither fully the world of my parents culture (1980s Orange County) nor fully the world of the cultures in which I was raised (Southern California, Southeast Asia, Eastern Europe, New England, France, the American South). The concept of home doesn’t mean the same thing to everyone everywhere, so I’ve had to construct my own definitions.
When I cannot itch that insatiable craving to hop on a plane and go anywhere and everywhere, Bourdain offers a quick fix that a desperate junkie like me needs. His work alleviates the wanderlust, the grief and the sweet, sickly saudade that permeates the experience of being home. Anthony Bourdain trail blazed the way for us vagabonds to speak openly and proudly about the weird, wild, and wonderful outside of our hometown borders. And for that, I say gracias, 谢谢, merci, terima kasih, Спасибо, and thank you.
If I am going to evolve from self-described “American-ish” Third Culture Kid to a full blown Levi-wearing, Coke-drinking, flag-waving American, then there has to be space for all of my wild, beautiful, bohemian adventures to come too.