The “lunchbox moment” is a defining moment for most Asian American children. This is the moment when reality comes crashing down around their tiny little ears and they start to question what “normal” actually is. It’s nothing short of a public shaming session in which the entire class takes turns telling them how gross the food in their lunchbox is. I, however, never had this moment.
I never had this moment because my parents predicted it would happen and so, like the protective guardian angels that they were, they never let me bring my own food in elementary school. I ended up eating American school lunch for 10 years. In high school, I remember strategically eating in empty places or with people I trusted when I brought my own lunch. It was my way of avoiding questions and prying eyes because I felt protective of my food. People had a habit of asking what it was with their words, yet already calling it disgusting or weird with their thoughts. There is nothing worse than already feeling the judgment before you can even begin to explain yourself. Sadly, I kind of took this as everyday life and never gave myself the chance to acknowledge what was happening or how I felt. It wasn’t until college that I finally reflected on my feelings and why my parents did what they did all those years ago.
Because 5-year-old An never had her lunchbox moment, 19-year-old An decided to recreate a purely hypothetical one. In many Asian cultures, food is a way of showing love—it’s a bonding rite. And yet this child [me] has to choose between bonding with her mother and fitting in. In the end, she chooses to fit in on an empty stomach. It really isn’t her fault, but she blames herself for not being brave enough to eat her mother’s cooking with the simple question of “Mommy … what have I done”? I displayed my mother’s home-cooked meal in the most ironically American (but also Asian) thing that I could find — tin Spam lunchbox. It was a dig at the American culture and myself. I’d feel more comfortable eating Spam at school than I would eating my mother’s noodles with egg rolls. One meal is fresh and filled with love. The other is full of preservatives and chemicals that as a 19-year-old, I still can’t even pronounce.
In the end, I can’t turn back time to change the moments where I conformed because I was embarrassed. What I can do is spark a conversation here in the present with my art. No one should ever have to feel ashamed of who they are.