Posted by: Kristen Hicks | June 5, 2010

Bourdain on Travel and Perspective

If I could have any job in the world, I would do what Anthony Bourdain does on No Reservations.  I can imagine nothing better than making a living by traveling to all parts of the world, meeting people who live there, eating the local food and learning a little bit more about yourself and the world with every trip.

Even though he has a tendency to talk mad trash about myself and my fellow vegetarians, there’s a lot about how he lives his life and interacts with the world and people around him that seems very aligned to my own world view.  He shows a great amount of perspective and open mindedness in his recent interview with Slate:

http://www.slate.com/blogs/blogs/thewrongstuff/archive/2010/05/31/eat-your-words-anthony-bourdain-on-being-wrong.aspx

To draw attention to some of my favorite exchanges:

After a whole lot of years in New York kitchens, you’re suddenly traveling almost all the time, largely overseas. In my experience, that’s an incredibly good way to be wrong pretty much hourly.

It’s the most exciting thing about travel to me. You’re constantly wrong. You’re constantly challenged by your own preconceptions. You’re forced to relearn such basic, basic things. Words you thought you knew the definition for become completely changed: the word work, the word hunger, the word generosity. Or you think an entire country’s going to be one way and then it’s another way. I like being wrong in that respect.

There’s a part of me that thinks that everybody should be required to spend some time living in a different culture for just this sort of reason.  It’s humbling, it teaches you that the way your personal background introduced the world to you is not the only possible way of understanding it and it drives home just how much of our understanding of reality is determined by the personal perceptions that are culturally influenced.

Do you think that travel has made you kinder?

Yeah, I do. It’s made me more tolerant, for sure. Anything that introduces doubt is a good thing. I doubt everything. Certainty to me is rarely a good thing, so anything that makes anybody more willing to question their own beliefs is almost always good in my view.

Don’t know much to add to that except “Amen”.  It’s pretty much the same thing Socrates said hundreds of years ago that never managed to really sink in for much of human culture, the more willing you are to admit your own ignorance, the more likely you are to gain actual wisdom.

That’s for sure. I should have said, uncertainty and doubt and confusion and moral ambiguity.

Right. One place where I’m struggling with it, though, is—I’m a relativist, mostly. But racism is just wrong, right? I believe that absolutely. And yet many of the places that I love most in the world—Southeast Asia, Japan—are deeply racist in ways so engrained in their culture as to put the Jim Crow era to shame. There’s a loathing of dark skin, an aversion, a phobia, that’s extraordinary. Why is that acceptable to me? Why don’t I have a problem with that, or not much of a problem?

And yet in Africa—I was just in Liberia recently, and although I find certain tribal practices personally deeply repellant, I’d always felt uncomfortable with the idea of these “enlightened humanitarians” going to Africa and lecturing people who don’t have clean water and have been living with these systems for centuries about how to behave. And yet I gotta tell you, Liberia made me ask myself: Are some things just wrong? Genital mutilation would be one. Some of the practices of some of the traditional tribal elders—witch doctors, basically—are another. I really wonder whether there are absolutes in some cases. It’s something I’m wrestling with, clearly.

This is a big one.  There’s a lot of arrogance in supposing you know how to live better than someone who comes from a culture different from your own, but when issues like gender inequality and racism enter into the discussion, it thoroughly complicates things.  Honestly, it’s a topic that would require a full post or more sometime when I can devote a little more time and thought to it, so I’ll leave it at that for now.

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