How Anthony Bourdain Revealed Korea — and Los Angeles’s Koreatown

“Anthony Bourdain.” “Anthony Bourdain Osaka Bar.” “Anthony Bourdain Osaka Hanshin Tigers Bar.” “アンソニーボーディン大阪阪神タイガース居酒屋.” I Googled all these search terms, and no small number of variations on them, one afternoon in a coffee shop at Gimpo International Airport. Soon to catch a flight to Osaka, my favorite city in Japan, I’d just found out that Toracy, my baseball bar of choice there, had shut down since last I visited. Searching for another Tigers-supporting watering hole, I learned that no less exacting a foreign experience-seeker than Anthony Bourdain began an episode of his travel show No Reservations in one. Considerably rowdier than Toracy, from what I gathered, it somehow also turned out to be all but secret: all the Googling I could do before takeoff time produced no positive identification.

Later that evening, having arrived in Osaka and needing directions to a restaurant, I turned on my phone to a notice that Bourdain had died. Sheer unexpectedness had made the death top-story notification material, but so had the high esteem in which the dead was widely held. As with the passing of every celebrity in the age of social media, seemingly all who could claim even the most tenuous connection with Bourdain stepped forward to tell their stories in tribute. Not only did I have no stories, I never even got to know the man’s body of work, apart from reading here and there in his books. I always meant to catch up on his writings and television programs, but never did.

I found myself reminded of that intention whenever I heard Bourdain had traveled to and appreciated one of my own places of interest in the world. He first made it to Korea in 2006, on his Travel Channel show No Reservations. I didn’t see it then, but I’d been harboring slow-burning Korea-related interests of my own: the following year I fell into studying the Korean language, a pursuit that played a part in my move, a few years thereafter, to Los Angeles’s Koreatown. In the middle of my time there, Bourdain turned up and made the neighborhood the subject of an episode of Parts Unknown, his CNN successor to No Reservations. Just a few months before I relocated from Los Angeles to Seoul, Bourdain returned to Korea to give it the Parts Unknown treatment, a hard-drinking, hard-eating, backwards-told travelogue that surely qualifies as avant-garde by the standards of mainstream cable television.

Part of me took this pseudo-pattern as a sign that Bourdain’s work might have something important to teach me. But another, larger part of me figured that someone who gets around as much as Bourdain does would sooner or later hit all the places in which I myself happened to have landed. The more travelers I meet, the more I realize we each have our own traveling style: not in terms of how we plan, what we pack, or what we do at our destinations, but how we conceive of the enterprise of traveling itself. Some of us, like LARB editor-in-chief Tom Lutz, have a mission to visit every country in the world (as evidenced by his recent memoirs Drinking Mare’s Milk on the Roof of the World and And the Monkey Learned Nothing). Some of us, like Bourdain, have travel shows to do, and their mandates to go to a totally different place each week to fulfill. And some of us, like your Korea Blogger, pick a few cities around the world and return to them, almost obsessively, over and over again.

I think of what Lawrence Osborne, a writer of place who has recently found literary fame as a Graham Greene-esque novelist of Britons and Americans abroad, said to me when I interviewed him years ago:

Sometimes our relationship to cities is very much like our relationships to a person. It’s almost like a love affair or a friendship. If you think about the way in which you get to know a human being in all their complexity, it’s something that happens over many, many years. You don’t meet somebody in one period of time and decide that they’re a friend or a lover. You do in some ways, but what you really do is drop in over and over again, you get to know that person over a very, very long period of time. And when that happens — 10, 15, 20, 25 years — the accumulation of those visits, the accumulation of that time spent, produces in you complex feelings.

Bourdain, too, had places he returned to over long periods of time: in Asia alone, not just Korea and Japan (a first trip to which, in his restaurant-industry days, turned him on to travel itself) but also Vietnam, which exerted such a draw on him that, for a time, he seriously considered moving there. These countries and others must have produced in him those complex feelings, feelings that his television programs, no matter how high he raised their bar over the years, no doubt forced him to simplify. A friend highly experienced in writing and travel once advised me that, on the page, one has no choice but to render oneself as a caricature; the best one can hope for is to draw that caricature oneself. Bourdain, on page and screen alike, drew himself as the wisecracking yet open-minded, aged yet youthful, grumpy yet eager figure who drew the admiration of millions.

A particularly broad version of the caricature Bourdain stars in the 2006 Korea episode of No Reservations, his first trip here. Having submitted to constant importuning by his Korean-American produce Nari Kye to take the show to her ancestral homeland, he keeps the gripes flowing while never quite adjusting to his surroundings, or even to the time difference. Only when food hits table does Bourdain break character and show his enthusiasm — which still doesn’t match Nari’s, which starts out heightened and only rises from there. Having emigrated with her family to the United States at the age of five, she had the chance to acquire not just native-level English but native-level inarticulacy: “I mean, Koreans are a brave people,” she declares while tucking into a plate of still-wriggling octopus tentacles. “I mean, who else would eat this, right? I mean…” Bourdain cuts in: “Me?” 

No Reservations‘ portrayal of Korea plays to the image, gaining traction at the time through the  marketing of movies like Park Chan-wook’s (Japanese comic book-based) Oldboy, as Asia’s capital of extremity: hyperactive streets, cutting-edge technology, teeth-grittingly hard work and play, all accompanied by copious food and drink of singular potency. Bourdain’s narration relates his difficulty processing “the neon lights and madcap nighttime pace of Korea’s ultramodern capital,” and his meals move him to use the both the words “hellbrew” and “hellbroth.” But the segments focused on Nari’s family tell a different Korean story, one of long struggle, filial duty, and han, that overwhelming feeling of oppression and resentment and that is said to burn deep within the Korean soul.

Here a highly apropos Korean saying comes to mind: “압뒤가 맞지 않다,” or “The front and the back don’t match.” The foreign observer’s task of squaring Korea’s history with its present sometimes has the feeling of the physicist’s task of squaring classical and quantum mechanics. Whenever I talk to a Westerner who’s only staying in Korea a short time — no longer, say, than the week or so a show like Bourdain’s might have to tape — I give them two questions to bear in mind at all times during their stay. First, to what extent is this an Asian country, and to what extent is this a country in Asia trying to connect itself directly to the West? Second, to what extent is this a society with “5,000 years of unbroken history” (as a visitor is often reminded), and to what extent is this a 70-year-old society trying to connect itself directly to its own distant past? 

In different proportions at different times and in different contexts, Korea is all of those at once. Bourdain’s work got that across as well as anyone’s does, though it also betrayed the difficulty of doing so. “When the No Reservations Seoul episode came out, a lot of Koreans and expats were disappointed, angry about it,” writes Joe McPherson, a longtime American expatriate here and one with a great deal of experience in food. “I liked it. I defended it. The focus of the show was Nari and her idea of what Korea is. It’s not everyone’s, and that’s okay. People are very passionate about this place. A thousand shows can be done about Korea, and people would still say it hasn’t been shown right.” When Bourdain returned, nearly a decade later, to shoot an episode of Parts Unknown, his final and most high-minded series, McPherson worked on the production as a local consultant.

The resulting half-hour presents Seoul as even more of a place of chaotic indulgence than before, and if it remains shot through with han, it’s also enlivened by the communal spirit known as jeong. It follows its host, in reverse, through a session with a hard-scrubbing spa masseur, an all-night binge with a group of middle-aged office workers (contra the conventions of reality-TV production, genuinely encountered by chance); a guest appearance on a popular meokbang, or internet-streamed amateur food show; and a bowl of silkworm-larva soup. Neither No Reservations nor Parts Unknown ever sits Bourdain down in front of a bowl of dog stew, maybe because of potential hypersensitivity on the part of American viewers, maybe because of a desire to steer clear whenever possible of the standard Korea clichés. (Nor did I hear any Seoul puns in Bourdain’s narration, though at this point I tend to tune them out automatically.) Parts Unkown‘s 2013 Los Angeles episode also manages to avoid the clichés about that city by basing itself in Koreatown, a neighborhood heard of by many but well understood by very few indeed.

That choice also gave Bourdain an excuse to follow the lead of such entertaining Los Angeles Korean-American personalities as chef Roy Choi, inventor of the Kogi truck, and David Choe, unfiltered painter and Facebook-stock multimillionaire. Both of them project casualness to an almost aggressive degree, as well as a willingness and ability to take, and even make, jokes about being “bad Koreans,” who despite their success nevertheless strayed from the paths of parental expectation. (Still, as Jay Caspian Kang writes in a 2014 California Sunday profile, “Choi’s resentments toward the hierarchies and constraints of Korean culture are so familiar, they almost read rote. Every Korean man I know who’s under 40 listens exclusively to rap and identifies, at least in part, with black and Mexican American culture. Roy Choi, then, is not unique — he is the ggangpae, the street kid, in all our families.”)

Choi takes Bourdain to all the Kogi truck as well as to all his restaurants. Choe, for his part, takes Bourdain to Sizzler. That sounds like a stunt, or at least a gag, but for Choe that particular Sizzler, on Western Avenue in Koreatown, holds real meaning. While Bourdain consumes, and even enjoys, his salad-bar meatball tacos and cheese bread, he listens to Choe tell his stories of coming with his family, who “never ate out,” on only the most special of occasions growing up. This scene, Bourdain’s first visit to a Sizzler, brings to mind the final scene of Bourdain’s first visit to Korea on No Reservations. In it Nari brings him to her aunt’s home to share in a big family dinner, prompting a closing monologue in his narration: “The best times are when it’s impossible to be cynical about anything, when you find yourself letting go of the past and your preconceptions, and feel yourself and your basic nature — the snarkiness and suspicion, the irony and doubt — disappear, at least for a time.”

Bourdain spoke those words a dozen years ago, and many a traveler following in his footsteps has reflected on their truth since then. Korea remains, for the most part, an irony-free zone (as does much of Koreatown, if an ever-shrinking share). That counts as one of the standard complaints among the Western expatriates who have left this country, but I would draw a distinction between two kinds of irony: the kind opposed to gullibility, of which Korea has plenty, and the kind opposed to sincerity, to which it doesn’t seem to have fallen victim. (Those in search of the latter can find it in England, and in debilitating daily doses at that.) And whatever the variety, I suspect I’d gladly trade all the irony in the West just for the clean restrooms present in every Seoul subway station. And as for the food here, considering the work Bourdain has left behind, you certainly don’t need me to convince you of its appeal.

 

Related Korea Blog posts:

When Conan Came to Korea

Eating Korea: an Anthony Bourdain-Approved Search for the Culinary Soul of an Ever-Changing Country

Why Has Korea Hired Gordon Ramsay to Be Its Big Brother?

Western Avenue: How Korean Cinema Portrayed the 1992 Los Angeles Riots

Why I Left Los Angeles for Seoul

 

Based in Seoul, Colin Marshall hosts the Korean-language podcast 콜린의 한국 (Colin’s Korea) and is at work on a book called The Stateless City: a Walk through 21st-Century Los Angeles. You can follow him at his web site, on Twitter @colinmarshall, or on Facebook.

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