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The Limits of the Lunchbox Moment

Not all children of immigrants grew up embarrassed about their food, but pop culture convinced them they should be.


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“Booger-gi” is what the kids call Justin’s bulgogi in The Invisible Boy by Trudy Ludwig, a picture book published in 2013. Justin is new, and when the other kids make fun of his food and his chopsticks, Brian, a shy, lonely white boy who longs to be included by his classmates, decides to leave him a note, telling him he isn’t like those kids; he’d love to try bulgogi. Justin, whose food has not kept him from making other friends in the class, starts including Brian in activities based on this act of kindness, and all ends well, all because Brian said he’d be willing to eat bulgogi, objectively an incredibly flavorful and popular meal.

As a plot device in The Invisible Boy, the cafeteria scene works because the structure is familiar — Brian’s kindness is only noticed as kindness if the standard response is disgust. That’s because the story of that interaction has been told, in fiction, memoir, and across food media, by first-generation Americans, children of immigrants, and members of various diasporas hundreds of times. The image of a child opening their lunchbox to reveal an “ethnic” lunch and immediately being bullied for that lunch is everywhere, whether it’s Toula in My Big Fat Greek Wedding getting teased for her moussaka, Eddie Huang recalling how “no one wanted to sit with the stinky kid” when his mom sent him to school with Chinese food, or Margaret Cho joking, “All the other kids got Ho Hos and Ding Dongs. I got squid and peanuts. You can’t trade that shit.” It gained its own name around 2016, “the lunchbox moment,” and has become the subject of endless personal essays. Even in the video launching the “new era” at Bon Appétit, editor-in-chief Dawn Davis said this anecdote was part of “every memoir” she ever published by an immigrant, and she has stated plans to launch a column around the concept of “the painful experience that was lunch.”

The lunchbox moment has become such a touchstone both because it’s recognizable for many and because it’s an editor’s dream. It cleanly illustrates, in personal essays, children’s books, or standup routines, how food that’s delicious in the context of the home becomes disgusting in public, the moment a brown child recognizes this divide, and the heartbreak of the child (usually) choosing to perform whiteness rather than get bullied again. “The odd thing was that I actually loved Chinese food, especially my mom’s cooking,” wrote Eddie Lin about his lunchbox moment. “I just wanted to fit in, like any other kid. … If it was Asian, it wasn’t cool.” And while rejecting tradition, religion, or language in favor of white, American culture is all part of that struggle, you can’t find a neater, easier-to-digest example than being told your lunch looks gross.

The story of being bullied in the cafeteria for one’s lunch is so ubiquitous that it’s attained a gloss of fictionality.

The story of being bullied in the cafeteria for one’s lunch is so ubiquitous that it’s attained a gloss of fictionality. It’s become metonymy for the entire diaspora experience; to be a young immigrant or child of immigrants is to be bullied for your lunch, and vice versa. Other food experiences have become almost as common in immigrant literature — the realization that your cuisine has become “trendy”; the moment when a white friend tries to explain your favorite food back to you; the decision to recreate your family’s signature dish, thereby shedding the shame you’ve carried over your culture’s cuisine — and can be sources of bonding across immigrant communities. If “you can’t be what you can’t see,” an oft-repeated phrase about the importance of representation in media, then these stories are allowing more people than ever to be seen. But the “lunchbox moment” is the anecdote that’s probably the most widely employed, the background assumption at the base of these other stories.

This story, in which the bullied children age into a world clamoring for the flavors they grew up with and come to embrace the cuisine they tried to reject, is true for many. But in its retelling and fictionalization, it’s been filed down to its most obvious and recognizable parts. There is no nuance to the “lunchbox moment,” and while the trope-ification of these real-life experiences conveys trauma and discrimination to often white readers or viewers, it leaves no room for the people whose lives did not fit that template. Yes, we can’t be what we can’t see. But what are we seeing? And what do we lose when we reduce our culinary experiences to one story?

“As a kid, when I started reading Asian-American stories, [the lunchbox moment] was always the part that struck me as bizarre,” said Zen Ren, who was born in China but moved with their family to Dallas when they were 3 years old. Much of that is because Ren grew up surrounded by other Asians, immigrants, and people of color. “In elementary [school] my closest friends were all Chinese American … so of course they weren’t going to make fun of our food,” they said, and as they grew up, they made other friends from different backgrounds who were accustomed to trying new cuisines. “People were curious about what I ate or didn’t notice at all.”

The lunchbox moment is a story about norms, with the assumption that the person of color is the odd one out — which it’s easy to be. According to the United States Census Bureau, 76.3 percent of Americans identify as White (with 60.1 percent identifying as both White and not Hispanic or Latino). But that doesn’t account for non-white people who grew up around others of their background, or in diverse neighborhoods where no one race is in the majority. And while most people of color have some moment of feeling othered or different, it doesn’t always happen around food, nor does it happen with the same intensity. “I absolutely never [felt shame],” said Ren. “I felt bad for my white, American friends and the boring-ass food they ate.”

“I felt bad for my white, American friends and the boring-ass food they ate.”

Annu Subramanian seems like the archetypal protagonist in a lunchbox-moment story. She was born in Nebraska to Indian parents, and for about 10 years she and her parents lived in a small town in South Dakota, before moving to San Diego. “My skin is brown and my name is 21 letters long. I clearly stuck out in South Dakota,” she said. And yet, stories about children of color being belittled for their food never resonated with her, because they never resembled her experience. Her parents sent her to school with both Indian and non-Indian food, and her classmates responded to her Indian lunches with either genuine curiosity or “at worst boredom,” not derision. They even asked for it when they came over to her house. “I never ran into that ‘Indian people smell’ [stereotype],” she said.

She admits she was free to pack what she wanted for lunch, so she only brought Indian food when she was in the mood for it. “I think if I had been forced to take it, it might have been different,” she said, and it’s not as though she didn’t feel different from her peers at times. But she loved Indian food. What was more alienating were the books she read in middle school about brown people feeling embarrassment and pain around what they ate, with the assumption that this feeling was shared by all children of immigrants. “I always believed it to be universal, even though it hadn’t happened to me,” she said. “I’m still trying to find the words around it, but I became aware of the lunchbox moment as archetype, so I think I was always waiting for something like that to happen.”

The expectation that being brown or an immigrant in America inherently meant suffering and shame was frustrating to both Ren and Subramanian. “[It was alienating] as a kid because I just thought that’s how I was supposed to be and feel, because activists [and] progressives were positioned as good and insightful, and if I didn’t agree, it meant I was a bad and clueless person about my own experiences,” said Ren. They recalled reading Yell-oh Girls, a collection of essays by young Asian-American women, and feeling like none of it spoke to them. Ren was annoyed that the experiences of a certain group of Asian Americans were packaged as if they represented everybody. “I don’t know a single person in real life who felt bad about their Asian immigrant food growing up, just online stories,” they said.

Subramanian recognizes it may have been unusual that her white peers responded to her family’s Indian cooking with curiosity and joy, but even if her experience wasn’t typical, it was still hard to see media that basically didn’t acknowledge her experience could exist. The lunchbox moment’s prevalence “narrows the frames we can use to tell our stories,” she said. “I would hate to see someone who doesn’t have any shame around their food see yet another story of bullying because of it, and then believe they should be ashamed!”

Even for people whose lunch experiences did resemble the archetype, certain details were flattened by the trope. Krutika Mallikarjuna, who moved to the U.S. from the state of Karnataka in India as a toddler, remembers her first lunchbox moment. “I would sit down at lunch and I would open up the lunchbox, [and kids would say], ‘What is that weird goopy thing that looks like poop in your Tupperware?’” Instead of being ashamed, she was angry. “I was like, ‘How dare you? This is okra saaru. This is the most delicious meal in the world.’” However, in the interest of having a less dramatic cafeteria experience, she recognized she had to start bringing a more American lunch, which led to a different kind of lunchbox moment.

By middle school, Mallikarjuna’s mom began making her sandwiches, but sandwiches that in no way resembled anything her white friends recognized. “I’d open up my sandwich and on one slice of bread would just be plain unsalted butter, and on the other side would be orange marmalade with the skin in it, which I fucking hate,” she said. Even when her lunches consisted of “Western” food, there was something different about them. But Mallikarjuna’s sandwiches turned into a running joke with her friends, a joke inspired by love, not discrimination. After all, they all clamored for Indian snacks whenever they went to her house. “I’m sure in retrospect there was a little bit of, like, ‘Oh, she’s foreign,’ which is a little gross,” she said. “But at the same time, we were 11 or 12, so I think I can let my middle school friends slide on that.” They were clumsily curious and not at all interested in ostracizing her, and instead of being a moment of exclusion, lunch became a site of fun and connection.

Others confronted feelings of shame about their family’s food derived from media and culture, even if they found support (or indifference) among their peers. Food writer Karon Liu, whose parents moved to Toronto from Hong Kong when he was a baby, said he can’t remember anyone getting teased for their lunch in his school full of Chinese and other immigrant kids. But it didn’t take bullying to make him feel ashamed of Chinese cuisine anyway. “So much of my feelings toward food were shaped by television and pop culture,” he said. The movies and TV shows he watched positioned Chinese food as “weird,” full of “gross” ingredients and prone to making people sick. He began throwing out the lunches his parents packed him, even though many of the kids at school ate the same things, and asked them to cook him more Western food. But he still enjoyed himself at Chinese restaurants. Even with the discomfort, his relationship with Chinese food wasn’t black and white.

Stories about white people finding unfamiliar food off-putting, like the scene in A Christmas Story where the family is shocked and disgusted at the head on a Peking duck, and immigrants feeling shame about their food resonated with Liu as a child, but he thinks they may have limited his understanding of the breadth of the immigrant experience. During an interview, he recalls asking Elaine Lui, of Lainey Gossip, if she felt ashamed of Chinese food growing up. “I was expecting the answer where it’s like, ‘Oh, yeah, I was made fun of all the time, blah, blah, blah, blah, blah.’ And then Lainey was like, ‘No, I never resented Chinese food — it’s delicious and my family made me proud of it, so no.’” Shocked, Liu realized that while his feelings of shame were very real, they were also enforced by cultural narratives implying that mortification and bullying are the only experiences an immigrant can have. “Now I’m kind of wondering if I rebuilt my childhood memories in order to fit that narrative.”

In 2016, I wrote an essay about struggle and Pizza Hut’s stuffed crust. In 1995, I was a half-white, half-Indian child living in Manhattan, with grandparents across the river in New Jersey and a taste for cheese. In the essay, I am ashamed of many things: of liking Pizza Hut (a chain, even though I was from the pizza capital of New York City), of the Indian food my grandma cooked, but also of not liking Indian food even though it was the food of my family. I wrote about the things that caused that shame, too, like seeing my classmates mocked in the cafeteria for eating “anything other than standard American food.” It painted a familiar arc to anyone who has read a personal essay by a child of immigrants — childhood frustration, navigating the space between two cultures, American prejudice, all bending toward the acceptance and unity of adulthood. And upon rereading it earlier this year, I realized a lot of it wasn’t really true.

The truth is I wasn’t ashamed of Indian food or my Indian-ness. I was curious about that part of my culture sometimes, but mostly indifferent. I was pretty content in my racial identity, the way one is content with most facts. And I never saw anyone being mocked for their lunch. It wasn’t like I was consciously lying through the process of writing the Pizza Hut essay. Instead, not being a good enough writer or deep enough thinker to identify what, exactly, had caused me such distress as a child, I resorted to illustrating my feelings with a more common narrative: the lunchbox moment. I didn’t know how to write about being a mixed-race child of immigrants in a way that didn’t involve shame or bullying, and the familiar cafeteria scene offered the structure I needed to help my story land. Regardless of whether or not it actually rang true for me, this trope felt familiar enough, and if it was true for people like me, some deep part of my brain assumed it must have been true for me as well.

Reading the essay now, it’s clear to me I was after a sense of belonging — and so much of belonging for people in marginalized groups has to do with shared struggle. Which sucks! We are more than that! But that common experience means being able to say, to people who share parts of your identity, that yes, the white people, the rich people, the colonizers hurt me too. Here is what they did. Here is what they said. This is when the kids bullied me for my lunch. This is when my boyfriend turned his nose at the food my parents served him. This is when they knocked on my door and told me the smells of my cooking were making them sick. And after the description of pain comes the eye-rolling, and then the laughter, the kind that says I know what you know and I’ve been where you’ve been and we.

“Belonging” doesn’t mean one thing. Beyond the imperative to fit in with one’s white American peers and their white American food, there’s the desire to belong with other immigrants, with one’s classmates, or with one’s family. For many, though, part of the desire to share their lunchbox moment isn’t just to commiserate with other members of the diaspora, but to tell a story that white people can sympathize with. In some ways, being bullied for your food is universal — who can’t relate to the feeling of being taunted for something completely outside of your control?

For many, though, part of the desire to share their lunchbox moment isn’t just to commiserate with other members of the diaspora, but to tell a story that white people can sympathize with.

And most of the time, the lunchroom drama is a story with a satisfying ending for both parties. The food in question is often now more widely beloved, so the immigrant narrator is no longer directly bullied; at the least, they’ve grown stronger and more self-assured. And white readers can pat themselves on the back, knowing they’re too open-minded to totally dismiss another culture’s cuisine. Confronting racism becomes as easy as “try new food,” and they get to be the Brian who shows Justin that not all non-immigrant Americans are so prejudiced. White people, essentially, get to be the hero.

These stories are “sellable to an editor,” Mallikarjuna says. She jokes that white editors love it when a brown person writes about their trauma, whether in a children’s book, a personal essay, or an op-ed for a food magazine. If mainstream culture continues to downplay immigrant and POC voices, when these writers do have the chance to tell a story, it has to be a clear, compelling one. Being bullied for your lunch only to grow up and find white people putting chile crisp on everything is a trajectory that’s easy to understand — and easy to sell to a white editor. What’s more, it often operates on a personal scale that makes these issues manageable. The lunchbox moment doesn’t require the reader to think about how class, religion, or caste could all change an immigrant’s experience. It doesn’t point out all the invisible ways immigrants and people of color are made to feel unwelcome. It doesn’t allow for muted or shifting feelings, or the complications of systemic racism. It’s just the hard clarity of Us v. Them, Shame v. Triumph, a white boy telling you you’re gross and a different white boy telling you he actually likes lumpia. The white gaze expects brown suffering, and even if these stories of shame and bullying are true, they can also serve to enforce that suffering. Suddenly, belonging means catering to the stories white people assume we carry.

With the Pizza Hut essay, I wanted to configure my feelings into a recognizable shape to become part of that we. Part of that is just what writing is — highlighting certain things and ignoring others, shepherding the reader to see what you want them to see. But it was so easy to guide myself into an imagined past where I felt things like shame over my heritage, fear of ridicule, and pressure to be a version of Indian I didn’t want to be. There are true things in there: my reluctance to try a lot of Indian food because I only ate it when visiting my grandparents, my frustration with the idea that any one of my identity labels was incompatible with the others, my deep love of cheese. But mostly, I gave in to the lunchbox narrative, and I didn’t notice, and of course no one else did either. Indian and non-Indian friends told me how relatable it was, because it is, because I made it into a story for other people. And in doing so, I trampled over an opportunity to expand what we could mean.

While researching this piece, I finally experienced a sense of belonging. I felt the fluttering energy, the urge to shout “me too!” when someone names an experience, but backwards — it was the excitement over not experiencing the thing I thought was universal. And while it is incredibly important to acknowledge the suffering, there are so many more ways to connect, to belong. “A lot of this is just solved by sharing more voices, more honesty, more of the shitty experiences, and more opportunities to demonstrate pride,” said Subramanian. Our relationship with food can be shameful, but also joyful, confusing, ambivalent, and antagonistic. And there should be room for all of it, and all of us. “I never felt shame around my food and never thought to. That story should fit somewhere, too.”

Emily Chu is an award winning illustrator based in Edmonton, Canada.

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This post originally appeared on Eater and was published February 8, 2021. This article is republished here with permission.

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