My "Lunchbox Moment" and the lessons I learned
In 2018, when I wrote about my“lunchbox moment”for a few graduate school personal statements, I had no idea that it had become an unofficial term that described a universal Asian-American experience. For those of you unfamiliar, a "lunchbox moment" is an experience of being judged for bringing cultural food, in particular Asian food, to school. I now know that my moment was not unique; but, being the only Chinese-American student in a class of 95% white or white-passing students from the ages of 5-13 really blinded me to the possibility of there being other Chinese-Americans out there.
I vividly recall my “lunchbox moment” sitting next to my best friend at a long, plastic table embellished with wood-like vinyl. We were in the second grade, and my dad usually packed me a sandwich. But the previous night, my dad had made his famous steamed spareribs with black bean sauce (a popular dim sum dish). This was one of my favorite foods growing up, so I begged him to pack me some rice and ribs for lunch the next day. He was so ecstatic to know that I enjoyed his cooking that he woke up a little earlier to re-steam the ribs and pack my lunchbox before leaving for work.
As I pulled out my bright pink thermos adorned with colorful flowers, my friends asked if I brought soup. I shook my head and proudly opened my thermos to show off my dad’s impeccable dish. Some girls held their nose, and my best friend exclaimed “OMG, that smells SO WEIRD. Can you, like, put that away and bring normal food next time?”with a look of disgust. (Btw, I don't remember it smelling bad at all, but maybe that's just me.) I was confused, and for the first time, ashamed of being Chinese. I think that may have been the the first time I realized that I was different from everyone else at school. I quickly closed my thermos, placed it back in my lunchbox, and explained "I wasn't hungry anyway". My heart hurt not only for myself, but for my dad who had put so much love and energy into preparing, cooking, and packing my lunch. I went home hungry that day, and when my mom asked me why I didn’t eat my lunch, I explained I wasn’t hungry at school and offered to eat it for dinner. When my dad returned from work, I told him that he can just pack me sandwiches because it would be easier for him. I never told my parents what happened that day because I didn’t want them to hurt for me, to be confused for me, and to feel guilt for putting me in that situation, even though it was not their fault.
When I think back to that afternoon, I still get emotional. I feel betrayed by my best friend (we’re still best friends now, all is forgiven), and I feel guilt for not speaking up for my culture and my family. Was it the responsibility of an 8-year old to defend her culture? No, of course not. I didn’t even comprehend what it meant to grow up with a different culture at the time, much less defend it. As I’ve grappled with this guilt, I’ve slowly recognized that I was lucky to have grown up with weekly family gatherings, delicious home-cooked Chinese food (not the takeout kind), and fantastical stories about moon rabbits and magpie bridges. And I don’t think I’ll ever stop feeling guilty, but that guilt reminds me to be less apologetic for how I was raised. Plus, I have awesome Asian-American friends who know exactly how it felt growing up trapped in a purgatory of cultures as we like to call it.