Before this week I had not seen Parts Unknown. I had a faint awareness the program involved travel and food, two of my favorite pastimes. However, I imagined the show would portray other cultures through a lens of superiority, like issues of National Geographic where the natives are objects to be gazed upon, or like the Fear Factor episode when the contestants gagged down half-formed half-cooked duck embryos.
(Not that I myself have ever eaten balut.)
I figured Anthony Bourdain’s message would be something on the lines of: Come one, come all! Step right up and see the wonders of the freaks who dress, act, and speak in a manner that is nearly-but-not-quite civilized. Marvel at the disgusting dishes they dine upon. As your intrepid explorer, watch from the comfort of your armchair as each week I venture into bizarre places, and hold your gullet as I consume what passes for cuisine.
It turns out that I had prejudged him unfairly. Yes, the first episode I watched, about Pittsburgh, paints the city in broad strokes, with an overemphasis on sausages and pierogies, and on pro wrestling and demolition derby. Despite this, I appreciated his attempts to describe the mixed blessings of historical and contemporary gentrification in neighborhoods like East Liberty, the Hill District, and Braddock.
The second episode I watched, about Manila, is spot on target. The episode focused on overseas Filipino workers, who labor across the globe for decades in order to send money and balikbayan boxes to families back home. This emphasis on OFWs created a bridge for Western viewers to empathize with Filipinos, to more fully understand the people who serve them as maintenance and musicians on cruise ships, as nurses and doctors in hospitals, as maids and nannies in their own homes. He illustrated how the generosity and joy of Filipinos intermingles with a broad faith in Catholicism, extended family, extreme poverty, and a history of colonialism and violence — although he glossed over the atrocities the United States committed in the Philippines barely a century ago.
He showed the importance of food in everyday life and during celebrations, instead of attempting to gross out viewers with balut and dinuguan. While I would have liked to see some personal favorites like pancit, lumpia, and leche flan as well as a greater emphasis on seafood, I understand that he must have wanted to downplay foods that resemble the noodles, egg rolls, and desserts in Chinese and Hispanic restaurants and that his travel to coastal areas was restricted by monsoon season. He did push on the boundaries of typical American viewers, showing the traditional method for making lechon by roasting whole pigs, the colorful mixing of halo-halo from syrupy jars of fruits and beans, the pungency of adobo, the elevation of sisig beyond the necessity of entire-animal cooking, the use of peanut butter with meat in kare-kare.
Rice is so important to Filipinos that the word for rice (kanin) is cognate with the word for eating (kain). I wanted to see him talk about rice, which I myself enjoyed for every meal at home for the first seventeen years of my life but only rarely now. Parts Unknown reminded me I am both American and Filipino, yet I sometimes feel an outsider in America, and always an outsider in the Philippines.
I would like to travel there a third time; it has been 32 years since my last visit. I do not know how comfortable I will feel in my own skin, as someone who understands but can barely speak the language, whose diet keeps me from the most common foods, who is unsure what to do when I travel to the islands where my parents were born, to a land where I look like I should know what I am doing.