Anthony Bourdain began his eight-year “Parts Unknown” journey in Myanmar. Less than a minute into the episode he name drops George Orwell. The literary giant spent his formative years serving with the Indian Imperial Police in what was then Burma. Bourdain references him to point out that after its independence, after Orwell’s death, Myanmar would descend into a form of government more Orwellian than Orwell himself could have imagined.
But it is in another way that Orwell is the perfect standard-bearer for what would unfold on “Parts Unknown” for the next decade. Orwell did not fit in with his fellow Imperial Police officers. He avoided the gentlemanly pursuits of his English peers and instead immersed himself in local culture. He learned the language and attended local religious ceremonies. Wherever he went he talked, listened, and learned. Orwell’s experience in Burma changed his worldview, informed his belief system on Imperialism, and influenced his later writing.
Myanmar is an ideal starting point for “Parts Unknown”. Bourdain lets viewers know from Episode 1 what they are in for. He eats street food in Yangon. He attends a street fair and stares aghast as carnival rides run by manpower. He hurtles across the country on a train with a safety record you would not want to hear. And he bemoans the fact that all these activities occur within the “Tourist Triangle” because “quite frankly, there are large areas of this country where they don’t want you to see what is going on.”
Most importantly, Bourdain talks to people. He sits down over food and drinks with chefs, writers, and political activists. He asks a local rock band how it feels to create art in a nation known for stifling its artists before bonding with them on the episode’s greatest moment of cultural connection: hatred of Creed. The formula is laid out. Eat. Drink. Learn. This is how we will explore the globe for the next eight years.
By showcasing Myanmar, the show’s creators also make the conscious decision to spotlight a corner of the globe with which most of Bourdain’s American audience would be unfamiliar. They could have gone with a classic tourist destination such as Paris or Jamaica. Or they could have explored much publicized tensions in Palestine or Cuba. There will be time for these later. But they chose Myanmar, a Southeastern Asian country recovering from (and still facing) atrocities that remain almost completely outside the Western news cycle. The message: there is more to our world than a handful of places that get good or bad press, and there is more to a place than we typically hear. Anthony Bourdain’s philosophy was that the best way for us to learn is to build community, talk to people, and immerse ourselves in other people’s worlds. It’s a timely message for our society to learn from.
So it goes….