Last year, NBC Asian America released a five-episode series titled "Jubilee Project: Voices." The series is a part of a larger project called "NBC Asian America Presents...," which is a video channel that sheds light on common themes and experiences within Asian American and Pacific Islander communities. A while ago, I stumbled across a video in this project called "Lunch Box Moment."
In these 2 minutes and 50 seconds, Asian Americans share their experiences of being shamed for the food they ate as kids, just because it looked different from the American standard. Suddenly, memories from my own childhood made so much more sense. For the first time, I realized that the feelings I had while eating Asian foods as a kid in grade school were not unique to me, and I haven't stopped thinking about it since.
My first "Lunch Box Moment"
Growing up in the midwest, I was one of very few Asian kids in my elementary school. I usually bought school lunch, but one night, my mom had made some extra sushi and asked if I wanted to bring some for lunch the next day. I was beyond thrilled—I loved sushi, and I couldn't wait to introduce my friends to one of my favorite foods.
When lunchtime rolled around the next day, I unpacked my Hello Kitty lunch box and pulled out my tupperware filled with my awesome meal. Excited, I opened the lid and popped the first piece of sushi into my mouth when I heard, "Ew, what is that?"
I was so startled by the comment and felt absolutely mortified. What was wrong with my sushi? Why were people staring at me? Why would they say something like that? I quickly closed the lid and tried to hide the rest of my food, while sneaking bites when I could so that I wouldn't be hungry. I never brought sushi to elementary school again.
My second "Lunch Box Moment"
During 8th grade, I had a really late lunch period, but in the class before it, we were allowed to bring food. Naturally, as a future Spoon foodie, I would take full advantage of that opportunity. Usually, I'd settle for bringing a bag of grapes or chips to class, but my family had made dumplings by hand one night, and cold, next-day dumplings were my favorite. I packed myself a tupperware container full of dumplings, and felt excited about my special snack.
When I got to the classroom, I took my food out and opened the box. The aroma of my dumplings filled the room, and I was so happy. That was, until someone said, "Oh my god, what's that smell?" Another classmate joined in by saying, "Ugh, it smells like butt." I was so confused. Everyone loves dumplings—it's not like it was a bizarre or rare food, so why was everyone reacting this way?
I realized that my handmade dumplings had leeks in them, which was an ingredient not typically included in Americanized versions of the dish. Having grown up around this ingredient, I loved the smell—it smelled to me like home and happy memories of my family making these dumplings from scratch together. But to others who weren't used to it, it was just a weird alien smell. I pretended to be confused like my other classmates, and claimed to not know where the smell came from either. On the inside, I was dying of shame and embarrassment.
So what's the big deal?
You might be thinking, it's just food, why should I care? Well, this is why. Being an Asian American, I've never been ashamed of my culture or where I came from until my first "Lunch Box Moment" happened. And the reason I felt this way was because my food, of all things, was different from the food of my classmates. To me, it didn't feel like they were just attacking the things that I ate. It felt like they were attacking my family, my heritage, my culture, and above all, they were attacking me. There was no way I couldn't take their comments personally.
Over the years, I have grappled with my identity and my confidence, as most adolescents do. I have become more sure of myself and what it means to me to be an Asian American. Today, if someone were to criticize something I ate, I wouldn't even bat an eye before replying with something along the lines of, "Well, sucks for you. It's great, and you're missing out." But the point is, it took me years to get to this stage, and honestly, it was pretty damn hard.
So, the "don't judge a book by its cover" saying applies to food, too. Food is a wonderful, wonderful thing that keeps us alive, brings people together, and brings everyone joy. If you're weirded out or disgusted by some food item, at the very least, don't be mean about it. You may not think much about your food commentary in the moment, but being on the receiving end of those thoughtless jibes leaves a permanent impact.
So, just let the little elementary school girl enjoy her sushi in peace.