RACISM FOR LUNCH
My mother used to make me lovely lunches. My favorite was her homemade dumplings. We would invite our neighborhood friends over to roll the dough, cut vegetables, and hand-form the delicious, iridescent balls. We had two big pots of boiling water into which went batch after batch of pork and Napa, pork and scallions, and plain vegetarian dumplings. The house filled with voices, laughter, and song in a mingling of Chinese, Taiwanese, and English. Most importantly, we stuffed ourselves with dumplings and pickled cucumbers. Afterwards, we’d have many leftovers, which my mother froze. Since I loved her dumplings, she would steam them and pack them for my school lunches.
When I was thirteen, my family moved to a new city, which was challenging to me as the only Taiwanese-American in my new school. I wanted to fit in and I mostly did. The only real differences between my classmates and myself were in our eating habits. I had noticed these differences the first time I was invited to have dinner at a friend’s. Our entire meal was set out on one plate—I was used to having a bowl of rice, which I would eat with a variety of small dishes in tapas style. And for lunch, it looked like my food was alien in comparison to everyone else’s—or exotic anyway.
“Eww, what’s that smell?” someone asked. My friends and I were in sixth grade, sitting in the hallway, and I had just opened my bento box with Hello Kitty painted on it. They all peered in. My mother had packed homemade dumplings. My classmates poked at a dumpling, dissected it with their forks, and deciding that it was not something they had seen before, promptly told me it looked disgusting. Also, it stank they said. I was embarrassed. If they thought my dumplings were was disgusting, did they think I was disgusting, too? Someone handed me half a ham and cheese sandwich. “Have something normal.” I was only too grateful to stash my dumplings away.
Every lunch after, if my mom packed dumplings, I would throw them out before the bell rang and share in my friends’ Pizza Lunchables and chocolate and vanilla puddings.
The problem with pretending that I didn’t have a lunch was that sometimes I would forget to throw out the dumplings and they would sit in my lunchbox for a day or two until my mother asked for it so she could repack it. So one day when she found rotten dumplings, she asked me why I had been letting the food go to waste. I got angry at her. I told her I wanted to trade in my “smelly Asian food” for simple sandwiches.
“Why can’t you just give me what my friends eat? Dumplings are gross. They’re stinky. People make fun of me.”
I saw the hurt on her face. She had handmade these, put love and care into each dumpling, packed them for her daughter because it was her favorite food, and now her daughter was too embarrassed to bring them out for lunch. My anger turned to guilt, but I couldn’t understand why she didn’t see that the food we ate marked us as different, and even worse, sickening.
My mother stopped packing dumplings for me after that, and the pain she felt was more than just about a bratty daughter wanting to eat what was cool for lunch. She questioned her decision to raise me in the States at all. Would I lose my sense of culture? Would I reject the traditions my grandmother had taught her? Would I grow up to be ashamed of being Taiwanese? To my mother, dumplings weren’t just a traditional food item, they were little purses of love. I was only in middle school then, but I wish I’d had the gumption to stand up for myself and my dumplings, to tell my friends to taste them and really try to enjoy them because there was nothing repellent about a single one.
I didn’t, of course. And I regret to say that incident (amongst others: being scolded for slurping soup straight from the bowl in high school; hearing taunts for feasting on udon for breakfast in college)—and my classmates’ prejudices—created distance between me, my mother, my culture, and my entire heritage.
Food is a reflection of identity, personal and cultural. Rejecting and expressing disgust for pickles, say, or sushi, venison, or entire categories of foods is insidious. Too many people classify personal tastes as facts—if salmon roe looks unusual, it must be nauseating. But even when veiled in a more subjective light, statements like, “I just don’t like Indian cuisine,” betray a self-important snobbery that borders on racism.
I’m twenty-four now. I work at a sushi restaurant in a trendy part of town where we serve our miso soup without a spoon and only set the tables with chopsticks. People of all different ethnicities come in to try rolls and sashimi and tempura and soups they’ve never had. Some are timid, some are obnoxious, but in most cases, the abolition of ignorance through the simple act of eating is all that is needed to turn hesitation and even disgust into pleasure.
For myself, I’ve made it a goal to explore as many different kinds of food as I can so that I am never constrained to eating a “normal” lunch again. It’s the best way I know to make amends with my mother.
– Kat Chen