new Things I Ate in Cambodia: food writing: WASTING MY LIFE

Wednesday, February 06, 2008

food writing: WASTING MY LIFE

I want to be a food writer, a travel writer. I want to be a dealer in pleasantness and frivolity. I want to write about things that are of no importance to anyone at all.

A professor at my old college liked my work and complimented me on it often, reading my writing in the college newspaper. "You could go far," he said in a thick Iraqi accent, "You write very well." I nodded, appreciative. "I want to write about food and travel," I replied, fidgety. He looked horrified. "What a waste - you could write about politics, muckrake, change the world! Why would you write about something as silly as food?"

I thought about it. The professor had come from Iraq to here, he had not had an easy life, he did not understand why I would want to write about frivolity. I thought. I didn't quite know why I did either - was I just too scared to write about matters of Import? Did it truly affect the universe when I hashed out the Best Pho In Sacramento, tracked down a quality purveyor of tacos and obscenities in a midtown taqueria? I am throwing my life away, describing Beijing hotels and mixed drinks served out of tiki huts. Maybe I should write about presidents and president makers.

But I lost my capacity for import long ago, my interest in being important. When I was very very young I wanted to be famous and matter, like everyone else does, some sort of literary rockstar with adherents and people teaching classes on how much my work mattered to future generations. But I got over it. I came to terms with my own insignfigance.

My faculty advisor, who I respect deeply, said the same thing when I mentioned I was doing restaurant reviews for a local magazine. "I guess that's nice. It might not your greatest desire but it's something to do."

That made me uncomfortable, his inference that somehow writing restaurant reviews was lower work then writing, I don't know, ruminative naturist treatises on the nature of the universe. But I am perfectly content with restaurant reviews. I am not an artiste. I am not an auteur. I like eating food and writing about it and I'm not entirely sure why that shouldn't be enough.

Of course, travel writing can, I guess, be Important. When we travel we tend to find ourselves walking in and out of bizarre situations, situations that often recall the political winds of change or whatever. I walked across Tiananmen Square four times a day this summer. I couldn't ignore the army's morning exercises on the big pavement desert; I couldn't ignore the man with no eyes who played the erhu and drank Orange Squirt on the sidewalk every day, couldn't ignore the jangling Tibetan tourists or the ever-more elaborate Olympic preparations springing up beside Mao's portrait. They were all there and reflected matters of great import indeed, China's political situation and its changes, where it had been and where it was going and hoped to go. I can't ignore matters of import and I can't help reporting on them; maybe I'll fall into writing about politics and things with more gravity then noodle bars and rice wine after all, because I can't help it.

But it will not be intentional, I do not intend to make myself important. I will stumble into things and say what I see, and if what I want to see and what I want to do involves seeking out curry and beer (and not suffering and political maneuvering), then so be it. There are enough pundits in the world; I prefer to get plastered and eat snacks. Hopefully there is room enough for me too.

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