Perspectives: Lunchbox Moments
Recently, NBC released a video about Asian Americans who brought unusual lunches to school growing up, resulting in varying reactions from their peers. We asked our writers: Have you ever had a “lunch box moment,” and what did you think about people’s reactions to foreign food? Even if you haven’t, what does this say about America as a melting pot? Here’s what they had to say.
While I really appreciated the sentiments of the video, I can’t honestly say that I ever experienced those troubles with lunches myself, growing up as an Asian American. I attribute it mostly to having lived in an area where I was surrounded by other Asians and went to a school where the majority of the students were also Asian American. So if anything, “weird” lunches were actually the norm for me.
But having since moved away from home for college and having met a lot more people who grew up in situations different from mine, I’ve met quite a few people who have had “lunch box moments,” and it kind of shocked me a bit.
I remember a friend of mine describing the shame she felt toward her own culture because of the comments on her lunch from kids at school. She told me she even had to tell her mom to stop putting certain things in her lunches. I had the privilege and good fortune to have grown up in a neighborhood and city that celebrated diversity, encouraging students to explore and be proud of their cultures.
Instances like those shown in the lunch box video were foreign to me, but remind me that I’ve lived in a very gracious and kind “bubble” of acceptance and understanding. I guess the greatest thing I took away from it is that, as a country, we still have a ways to go in terms of understanding and accepting Asian cultures.
Ashley Duong is a first year literary journalism major. She can be reached at email@example.com.
Lunch in elementary school was a game of twenty questions starting with “what is that?” The phrase would come up each time I opened my lunch box and revealed the Armenian dish that my mom had packed me. Is it rice or kofta (Armenian meatballs)? Perashki (bread stuffed with potato or meat)? Imagine my confusion explaining to my peers what dolma was — a mixture of ground beef and rice wrapped in grape leaves. To no surprise, they crinkled their noses and gave my food a disgusted look before returning to their sandwiches, the “traditional lunch.”
Their reactions were expected due to the small Armenian population at my school. After some time of disapproving eyes, I became a follower of the school lunch craze. I ate the cold pizzas, microwaved chicken patties and customary chocolate chip cookies haphazardly thrown on a styrofoam tray. I had given up the one thing that had allowed me to survive the day: my mother’s meticulously crafted food that, now, lay waiting at home.
It wasn’t until high school that I began to eat khachapuri, lamajoon and xorovats for lunch again. The same looks and questions greeted me each time I unwrapped my food, but with the follow-up question of “can I try some?” Each day at 12:20 p.m., we would sit and share the contents of our bags: gyros, steamed pork buns, ube bread, or beze cake. High school and junior high marked the transition into exposing closed-off students to a variety of traditional cuisines from on-campus organizations.
It occurred to me that if ethnic groups didn’t explicitly differentiate themselves within the community, they would sometimes be generalized as a broad racial category. If such cultural traditions went unshared, we, as individuals, would lose a sense of identity that food solidified.
Lilith Martirosyan is a first-year business administration major. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Peanut butter sandwich. A bag of chips. Capri Sun. These three simple items packed in a little brown bag were my ideal lunch in elementary school. Early mornings consisted of my mom helping me pick out which dress I would wear that day, then asking me which flavor of chips or which Capri-Sun I would have for lunch.
But this happy routine did not carry on for long. As I got older, my parents stopped making me lunches, and I was left to pack my own. At first I would pack the usual food I always had, but then sometimes I would find myself packing leftovers instead. Rice with tofu, fried noodles with vegetables, or a hearty banh bao. I list them as if I brought them habitually, but these instances were rare. I can’t remember the first time I brought Vietnamese food to school, but I do remember opening my lunches cautiously whenever I brought them. Whether it was the smell or the appearance, I don’t know, but my American friends would look at me like an alien every time I started to bite into my spoonful of rice instead of a Doritos chip.
Although this has changed over the years, and people now look at me jealously when I have a hearty container of rice to eat rather than an unsatisfying cereal bar, I still feel as if I am different. My lunchbox moments are still lunchbox moments, even if they are not negative ones.
I have realized that America is not a melting pot, simmering together into a warm soup, but a salad, the various parts tossing and turning in bowl, inevitably differentiated when picked up with a fork. And I must say, this is a rather difficult truth to deal with when you are the pickled bok choy alongside some tomatoes and cucumbers.
Michelle Bui is a first year biological sciences major. She can be reached at email@example.com.