Nikolai Stern, 129 TESS
Anthony Bourdain’s unexpected death seemed to shake the world, or at least on social media; everybody was a fan. His fame began after he wrote Kitchen Confidential, an irreverent first-hand experience about the underbelly of the restaurant world, but his legacy extends way beyond the kitchen. Through his books and TV shows, he inspired a generation to travel into the Parts Unknown, eat bizarre food, and learn about different cultures through their own perspectives. Bourdain told you how it was with No Reservations, no strings attached. He humanized people by sitting down, breaking bread with them, and opening an ear about their culture and country. During an episode the viewer not only learned about the food, but the history, economics, social structures and cultures of a country, as well— and mostly through the food. His genuine connection to a country while filming a TV show made viewers feel like they were traveling with him— zipping through Chiang Mai on a Tuk Tuk or eating Bun Cha with President Obama on little plastic chairs in Hanoi. I’ve done both things (unfortunately, sans President Obama), but Anthony Bourdain did it better. He was my inspiration and sole celebrity role model, and one of the reasons I love food and experiencing the unknown. As an ode to Anthony Bourdain, here are snippets of my thoughts and Peace Corps experience through the lens of his quotes:
“The way you make an omelet reveals your character.”
― Anthony Bourdain
If you asked me two years ago how to make an omelet, I would have said with smoked salmon, avocado, and if I was feeling special that day, some goat cheese, all cooked in olive oil or butter. Basic, yet delicious, right? My character has grown and developed, and thus I have changed how I make an omelette. The Thai omelette, kai jiao, is the best form of cooked egg around and is better than any typical French omelette loaded on with fancy ingredients (see above). A few eggs, a generous splash of fish sauce, some lime juice, and seasoning (yes, MSG included— gasps) all mixed and thrown into a vat of boiling palm oil and already crispy, mashed up garlic. Preferably served on a communal plate eaten with your hands and sticky rice. Nothing fancy, all basic Thai ingredients. While being here, I’ve learned how to enjoy the simple things.
“If I’m an advocate for anything, it’s to move. As far as you can, as much as you can. Across the ocean, or simply across the river. The extent to which you can walk in someone else’s shoes or at least eat their food, it’s a plus for everybody. Open your mind, get up off the couch, move.”
― Anthony Bourdain
Moved across the ocean— check.
Have Thai shoes— check (Also, learned Thai and about Thai culture, and live and work in my community— check, check, check)
Eat Thai food (at least two, if not three, four or five times a day. Everyone is continuously eating here)— check.
I have established a routine since creating a home within the comforts of my host family’s house and my incredibly welcoming school and community. Even though I have moved as far as I can, across the ocean, my routine at points has become mundane and has felt sedentary. It includes but isn’t limited to coffee in the morning; breakfast at my house or school depending if I have digested the rice from the night before (oatmeal and peanut butter or boiled chicken with rice); teach 3 to 4 hours, make materials, and lesson plan with my counterpart at school; buy a snack on my way back from school from my family’s store and then hang with my host mom; afternoon and evening activities include reading in my hammock, hanging with students on my porch, yoga, and writing in my journal; bed at 10pm by the latest. I needed to create this routine in order to have control over little aspects of my life and feel comfortable with my life here— typically, I have little-to-no control, and I have accepted that, going with the flow every day— but at the same time it is easy to forget to step outside of what I know and do everyday. There has been a period of ten days where I have not been out of the 1 kilometer circumference between my house and school, biking back and forth, back and forth. I keep reminding myself to look up at the stars at night, walk a minute to a beautiful mountain view that is not on my route to school, go to school in the evening to play sports with students or bike on an unexplored back road to the next village. Our two-year service is long, but if I get up off my new couch when I notice myself falling into a monotonous routine, I might thank myself and Anthony Bourdain.
“If you’re twenty-two, physically fit, hungry to learn and be better, I urge you to travel – as far and as widely as possible. Sleep on floors if you have to. Find out how other people live and eat and cook. Learn from them – wherever you go.”
― Anthony Bourdain, Medium Raw: A Bloody Valentine to the World of Food and the People Who Cook
Like most graduates, I graduated college having no idea what I wanted to do. I fell in love with Vietnam three years ago, and longed to go back to this side of the world to explore and learn about other Southeast Asian cultures. Seeing Thailand listed as one of the Peace Corps countries and knowing Thai people are enthusiastic about learning English, along with being lost, I decided to apply to Peace Corps. After Vietnam, there was no medicine to cure my travel bug, I was and still am hungry to learn (and to eat different foods).
Each day here comes with unexpected turns, ups and downs, learning experiences— some more significant than others. Since being here, I have been learning how to cook Thai food. It’s more like observing and I eyeball everything, as a result. I can never seem to replicate the taste of my Mae’s pat gra prow (stir-fried holy basil) or the mashed up peppers from the mortar and pestle while making a chili paste for the same dish, even if she’s hovering over my shoulder telling me every little step. I will never perfect her unwritten recipes, but more time over the mortar and pestle and stove will get my dishes close to how she cooks them. Until my last day here, I will learn something from my family, community members, students and my fellow volunteers and friends (Today: put fabric softener to prevent your clothes from molding while they are drying during the rainy season. I’ll let you know how that one turns out).
I left for Thailand at twenty-two, I am twenty-three, and I will close my service at twenty-four. I am still young and the lessons I learned from Thailand and this experience will forever be with me.
“Travel changes you. 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.”
― Anthony Bourdain, The Nasty Bits: Collected Varietal Cuts, Usable Trim, Scraps, and Bones
I soon realized after arriving here that Thailand is going to change me more than I am going to change it. I have learned to trust complete strangers, love people I can only have surface conversations with, and live with not knowing or understanding what weird turn the day is going to take next. I would not be here today without the unwavering love of my students and their willingness to accept me as a teacher and role model. After two years, I can hope that I gave my students English skills and the confidence to speak English with foreigners, however, I may never see my impact, it is not tangible at the moment. That is where it hurts. What I am doing here?; Am I really helping my community?; Where would I be in America right now?” cross my mind more frequently than I like to admit because all the results aren’t at my fingertips. But those thoughts or a bad day can instantly be fixed by having a conversation with one of my students or a successful class. I knew I wasn’t going to change Thailand, but I hope to change one of my students, and in turn they have a greater chance of changing our community or Thailand.
“Do we really want to travel in hermetically sealed popemobiles through the rural provinces of France, Mexico and the Far East, eating only in Hard Rock Cafes and McDonalds? Or do we want to eat without fear, tearing into the local stew, the humble taqueria’s mystery meat, the sincerely offered gift of a lightly grilled fish head? I know what I want. I want it all. I want to try everything once.”
― Anthony Bourdain, Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly
“Oh, you went to Phuket and Bangkok? Please, tell me about how much you love Thailand.”- Me in America, probably (Phuket and Bangkok both have a Hard Rock Cafe and McDonalds).
All jokes aside, there is only so much time and so many experiences one can have in two years. As result, I like to say yes to invitations, trips, meals, and trying new local dishes (excluding the raw pork and chicken laap– minced salad) 95% of the time, within the realm of my safety and health.
Say yes to fishing or going to pick longan with your students after school; say yes to playing snooker even though you’ve never played and you suck at pool; say yes to going to your host sister’s family farm to help pick a vegetable you don’t know the translation yet for– it’s cilantro and it wasn’t ready to harvest yet so we ended up just eating; say yes to going to pick corn on your host family’s farm; say yes to unloading the corn into a storage house for 3 weeks after; say yes to many overnight bus rides for cultural experiences with your teachers and school; say yes to eating in the back of a parked pickup-truck with a family you don’t know on your walk back from school even though you just want to relax; say yes to the lizard and snake soups or ant eggs; say yes to trying Blaa Raa, the fermented fish sauce, and then falling in love with the taste; say yes to going to the market with your Mae and Paw at 2:30am in the morning.
It’s those unexpected events that have made my service and made me fall in love with Thailand.
ขอบคุณครับ, Anthony Bourdain.
“Your body is not a temple, it’s an amusement park. Enjoy the ride.”
If you or someone you know is considering suicide or self-harm, please call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255 (US) or Samaritans Thailand at 02-713-6791 (Thailand- English provided).