Goodbye, Mr. Anthony Bourdain

I think it’s really something when one of your idols falls…How a complete stranger, can have such a curious impact on your actual being.

When I was younger, my dad used to drive trucks. My parents divorced early in my life and I ended up staying with him for about two or three years. He didn’t know how to take care of me well, and he was gone a lot on the road. Instead of staying in unwelcome places…I frequently went along with him. The end of third grade, fourth grade and fifth grade I traveled around the country in a tractor trailer – missing a ton of school. I met so many kind people and immersed myself in so many different cultures. It was a very unhappy period in my life, but that is the one experience I treasure out of that time in my life.

I watched the Travel Channel a lot growing up. I felt nostalgic about my experiences and in 2005 I stumbled upon a TV show called Anthony Bourdain: No Reservations. And I think the sun came out for the first time. Here on TV was this brash, funny, absolutely authentic man talking about food, its relation to culture and traveling. I started thinking…maybe, just maybe I could actually achieve my goals. Maybe I would someday travel the world.

I had an old world map that I stuck thumbtacks in. I used to just sit and stare at it for hours, imagining what my life could be like once I was able to explore.

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After High School I didn’t magically have the opportunities to just take off, but in college I started small. I started roaming the streets of New York City – every back alley, little coffee spot, off the cuff specialty store – and started seeing the city for the first time.

Graduating College, at the ceremony in our gowns, I joked with a friend about wanting to travel and maybe create a show later in life. She remarked that I could be like the next Anthony Bourdain.  I laughed and shrugged it off, but how do you tell someone that you had a picture of a middle-aged chef on your wall for inspiration?

You don’t. With these things, I think it’s deeply personal. I eventually stopped watching the Travel Channel because it had gone to hell, and was delighted to see Tony back in action on CNN’s Parts Unknown. Years later, the same authentic voice that I trusted was back. I thought about all of the experiences that really stuck out to me – Mardi Gras in New Orleans, Missing the talking statues in Caesar’s Palace, Tall rides at Jazzland (is that still a thing?), Seeing rams butt heads going across the Hoover Dam, searching for black bears in the countryside, deciding not to stay at a hotel in a bad storm and on the way back seeing it was destroyed by a tornado…and I felt reaffirmed to make my dreams come true.

Two days ago I took a very long walk to a place I often go to clear my head. I sat down and stared at the ocean for hours; taking stock of my life and reaffirming what I would like to accomplish. Now, this morning I’m awoken to my mom’s voice telling me a stranger – someone I would never meet but knowingly (dare I say) loved – was gone from this world. It may sound cruel, but ‘celebrity’ deaths usually do not impact me. I think it’s sad for a moment and then go about my day as usual. However this time, I jumped out of bed and stayed where I currently am now – in front of the TV waiting to see a tribute assembled. It feels like a small part of me, something that has become a part of my collective, has died. One of the few determining factors of inspiration that I keep buried deep in my heart.

May Mr. Tony Bourdain find whatever he was searching for in this life, in the next one. I hope he knew how many people his work truly touched. I hope to see the Vietnam he loved. I hope we realize just how important it is to live and accomplish our goals. Our dreams. Our aspirations. I hope we never feel the fear of jumping out of our comfort zone to try something new. And I hope we all continue to travel. Best wishes, and stay safe everyone.

Convenience Stores Are Calling Me

There is one Korean convenience store I know of in New York. It’s called H Mart, and I swear to you there have been many a times I have tried to find it to realize a block later I simply walked past it. I don’t know what it is, but Asian convenience stores are so easy to miss. There are no flashy signs, no markers that it is a store…hell now that I think about it the Sunrise Mart location downtown actually has this creepy (somewhat) marked elevator you have to jump in to get to the goods on the second floor. But what if I told you that I found a Korean convenience store, but I’m not sure I know anything else about it…Read on.

As I mentioned, I only know of one Korean grocer. I usually frequent Japanese grocers and convenience stores mainly because I know more about those foods and can read most labels. Thinking back, I’m not even sure if M2M is considered a general Asian convenience store. I’ve visited three different locations and each had a good amount of Japanese goods (i.e. an aisle of Pocky), one or two things in Chinese and tons of ramyeon.

Last night, I had a dream that I was in Korea. This was strange off the bat, since that country is fairly low on Asian countries I’d like to visit. Japan, Hong Kong, Singapore, Macau, Cambodia, and Vietnam are a few places that rank highly on my mental list. I’ve studied Japanese language, history, and customs nearly half my life and it’s something I’m very passionate about. I appreciate traditional Chinese culture and took half a year of Mandarin – something that luckily has still stuck with me. I also learned simplified Chinese characters before studying formal Japanese, so it helped a lot with understanding Kanji.

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That being said, I would have a degree of language survival skills in Japan, Hong Kong, and Singapore. I know HK’s main language is Cantonese, but there is some crossover from what I’ve heard. Singapore has four official languages, English and standardized Mandarin being two of them. (Tamil and Malay being the others)

Macau is Portuguese, but I studied Spanish and Italian for a few years. I once heard Portuguese referred to as “drowning Spanish” by an old HS teacher which, unfortunately, has become my mental associate for it.  The last two countries don’t bother me language-wise, and I just feel like it’d be okay since I would most likely go by tour with guides. Aside from what I’ve picked up from watching Kdrama, Hangul eludes me.

The language barrier aside, I also don’t know much about the culture or its food. I’ve never had good experiences when I tried making Korean friends in the past so I’ve never really bothered to learn. That is to say, I didn’t really meet many Japanese people until I started work at the cultural center – but my (unsavory) encounters with Koreans over the years have stained my perception of their country. It’s terrible to have a forlorn attitude toward a country, but I do.  Just typing this is bringing back memories of a high school friend I had who was half Korean.

Her mom spoke the language but never taught her and I just thought that was really cool at the time. I wasn’t exposed to much diversity when I attended private schools, but when I went to a public high school I relished the opportunity to talk to anyone. I went over her house with a group of friends and the next day during the lunch period she told me I probably shouldn’t come back over. I asked why and she told me that her mom didn’t know everyone’s names. I sympathized, as I have a hard time remembering names myself. I’m much better with faces.  She continued to say that her mom called her best friends buddies (the entire group) Tiger’s friends and that she just called me “that black girl, the black one…” you get the idea. Obviously his name wasn’t Tiger, but you can infer my meaning.

That really hurt me and after that I told her I couldn’t be her friend anymore and never spoke to her again. It wasn’t her fault her mom felt that way, but she did nothing to stand up for me and why should I be involved in a situation like that? Why put myself in a situation like that, when there are so many more people in this world who won’t be complete idiots? I’ve tried making Korean friends all those years later, and similar things have always happened so I stopped trying.

So again, South Korea is very low on places I would willingly visit. I’ve never encountered such hostility with other Asian groups, and I usually get along with everyone. It just hasn’t happen yet with them.

In the dream, for some reason I was staying with a friend I’d never met at her apartment. I’d only been in the country one or two days. I realized I hadn’t visited a convenience store and I was leaving back to the states soon. The friend called a cab for me and gave instructions to the driver to bring me to the airport in Hangul. I wanted to ask if there was a shop on the way to the airport, and took out my phone and tried to use a translation app. He read it and then started speaking in English. I told him I wasn’t sure he spoke English and explained where I wanted to go. He agreed to wait for me and I went into this blue-green building that seemed to be under construction. When I walked inside there was a place for hot foods and the counter you could normally sit at by the window was covered due to construction.

There was a spot in the corner that sold these novelty items, some sort of cutesy characters on mirrors and other similar things. They were a brand but I couldn’t read the characters. The store also had snacks around and a lot of baked goods. I grabbed cream puffs and a variety of other similar pastries – one of each. I knew the brand when I was asleep, but upon waking I can’t for the life of me remember what I saw. It was an English name.  I struggled to pay but I got the goods and took a last look around before leaving. People were eating in a corner and other people were just doing their own thing paying me absolutely no mind. No foreigner stares. It was nice. I went back to the taxi driver and he drove me another ten minutes (maybe a thirty-minute walk) to the airport. Then I woke up.

I felt strange after that dream. It made me want to visit Korea even if for a day to try convenience store foods. There are also some really beautiful neighborhoods and I am a sucker for historical building.  I felt comfortable there, and that is what is really messing with me. Maybe I should keep an open mind regarding things like this?

I didn’t plan on writing about some of the things I did. I guess writing is magical in that way, you go in with one idea and it evolves into something else. I graduated high school in 2010, and the incident I spoke of happened when I was in 10th grade, so 2008. Almost ten years ago. Literally something I hadn’t thought about in years just randomly came out and fit itself into a blog post. It was cathartic to pen it out to all of you reading.

I probably won’t post about these situations much, as I thankfully don’t have many bad experiences to share. But if I do, know that I hesitated greatly before posting it. I never want to dissuade anyone from visiting a place based on my experiences. I’m sure South Korea is a really great place to visit, but I’ve just never had good experiences with its people in America.

That was years ago, and things can always change. This blog is also named “In Asian Spaces” because I enjoy all Asian cultures, even if I mainly focus on Japan. If you’ve visited South Korea before, what was your favorite food you tried while there? Do you have an experience you would like to share – good or bad?

Leave it in the comments, I would love to hear from you! Be sure to follow us for more stories and coming conversations about snacks!

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