My "lunch box moment" anxiety followed me from childhood to motherhood
As an Asian American woman from Texas, I have had the lunch box moment, an experience of cultural dissonance where food is involved as an object of fascination or derision. Until I was old enough to pack my own bag, my lunches garnered stares for myriad reasons each time I opened them. My mother, who went through little health phases from time to time, would pack lumpy hummus made from chickpeas she sprouted herself or homemade wheat pita "chips" she baked in the oven. Her dietary choices were certainly not mainstream for conservative, mid-90s Texas. When these things landed in my lunch, I never once thought about the time and effort it must have taken for her to make them. Instead, I tried to hide them under my lunch box and sneak quick bites when I thought nobody was looking.
When she didn't pack homemade health foods, she packed Chinese food—leftovers or anything that could easily be transported. My lunch box contained halves of buns filled with pork floss, or hot dogs from the local Chinese bakery, or tea eggs from the Asian grocery store, stained brown from its marinade. While I loved these foods at home, they were gawked at when they arrived to the lunch table. Even in grade school, a child can understand "Why does it smell like that?" to mean my food, and by extension me, did not belong. I didn't want to have to explain the smell of brown boiled eggs or justify the contents of my lunch to have a seat at the table. At a young age, I became curious, mildly obsessed even, with what others ate at home. I remember asking my white friends, little girls toting homemade lunches replete with handwritten notes, what they had for dinner the night before. In turn, they'd ask if I'd had fried rice. I once traded something, likely part of a dinner leftover, for a peanut butter sandwich, only to be greatly disappointed by the dry wheat bread. "Why would anybody want this?" I thought. I vowed to never pack one of these flavorless wedges for my future children.
But now, as a mother of two young daughters who are starting school, I am given this ordinary task of feeding them. Each time I pack my older daughter's lunch I worry about the common issues of nutritional value and if she'll eat and enjoy what I make. But I also worry about whether things may smell bad or look strange to her classmates. My husband, who is white, tells me not to worry when I ask him if things "look" or "smell" funny. Despite his casual optimism, I have trouble forgetting the isolation and anxiety I felt as I unzipped my lunch box each day in elementary school.
This is only the beginning of how vastly different our cultural experiences are. We live in Maine, one of the whitest states in the nation, and we both understand our daughters' experiences will be wholly different from ours. They are neither going to experience acceptance in whiteness nor be singularly Asian or Chinese. We discuss the importance of having my parents speak Chinese to them and the time I spent living in Hong Kong. We talk about differences in race, gender, and ability. I fill our bookshelves with literature and children's books written by and for people of color. These conscious efforts aside, I understand that when she looks out into the majority, at the faces of others where we live, she will soon learn that she is different. I often wonder what this difference will mean to her, how it will shape her. While we have conversations about race and try to raise our daughters to be aware and proud of their multiracial heritage, this education happens inside our home. What happens when they leave the house?
My older daughter is currently in a Waldorf-inspired early education program, which we like to call her rich hippie school. There is little diversity in terms of economic class or race; she is one of very few children who are of color and mixed in her cohort. Although we are middle class and privileged in many ways, we struggle, financially, to send her there. At drop-off and pick-up, I feel diminished by brand name winter gear, new cars, and moms who air-kiss and make lunch plans with indeterminate dates.
Unlike most parents there, I work in the restaurant industry at an Asian restaurant that serves pho. On morning drop-offs after I've worked the night before, I smell the wok fire in my hair and the cilantro and scallions I've scrubbed and sliced on my hands. Once, another mother asked if I was Vietnamese when I told her where I worked and in what capacity. I replied no and the conversation stalled, the question hanging in the air. She stared blankly, a smile frozen on her face. Neither of us knew what to do so we moved on. It often feels like this. I walk in and struggle, my baby hanging off me, to put my daughter's lunch in her cubby and send her off for the day.
The founder of Waldorf education, Rudolf Steiner, was a proponent of biodynamic farming, spirituality, and community building. His educational model was an extension of his views while also touting simplicity and natural body rhythms. And he had strong opinions on the type of food children should eat. He encouraged whole dairy, milk, and raw vegetables. Food and nutrition has an important role in Waldorf education, placing emphasis on honoring Earth and all on it. In Waldorf, there is reverence for what we eat, how we eat it, and who we eat with. Rather than simply addressing the days of the week by their names, my daughter knows the days of the week by the snack she will be having that day: Tuesday is Soup Day, Wednesday is Porridge Day. The day they roll the dough is on Thursday, which is Bread Day, her favorite. Once, at drop-off, I watched as the teachers shook cold jars of milk to make butter to have with the homemade bread. I was in awe at their dedication and grateful a school like this exists for my daughter.
At snack, each child has a job: pass out apples, set out little cloth napkins, place table settings. They are all involved in the ritual of dining and communing together. My daughter comes home reciting the blessings they say over the food to cultivate mindfulness and gratitude for what Earth provides, and raises one finger quietly, her "quiet candle," when she wants seconds. Some of this has crossed over into our home life. These values align themselves with what we believe as we try to instill the beautiful habit of conscious eating and simple, wholesome foods to our children.
Yet this is, in many ways, very different from the Chinese way of eating. We don't eat much dairy (many Asians are reported to have some sort of lactose restriction). And unlike Steiner's belief, we have a tendency to cook our produce to make sure, as my mother explains it, we don't shock our warm bodies with cold food. In Chinese medicine, warm foods are the most nourishing; my mother even recently sent me two thermoses for my daughter so she can have a nice, warm meal at school. And I agree: I don't want my daughter eating and becoming accustomed to a cold sandwich for lunch. At her school we are one of the few families where both parents work traditional hours outside the home, which means her lunches are often reheated leftovers from the night before. (While simplicity and honoring foods like homemade dairy is lovely, I don't have time to make our own butter.) At the end of the night, I usually pack her fruit, cheese, and some main of Chinese leftovers. Food that I grew up eating, food that I make now.
In a sea of little lunch tins filled with sandwiches and tubed yogurts, her box is often a combination of things I ate growing up, like reheated tomato and eggs with rice or, per her request, canned sardines (something my mother used to buy for me), and things her friends are familiar with. Her love of stinky, tinned seafood runs as deep as her father's, who comes from a fishing and lobstering town in Maine. They eat canned oysters together, and he sees nothing wrong with adding them to her lunch rotation. When it's my turn, the lunches I pack for her to bring are an effort to have our culture and home life crossover into her school life. It's a two-way street, this thing: my daughter brings home beautiful blessings to share with us and I pack rice and bok choy so she—and her peers—understand and see that we are not all the same and neither is the food we eat. She knows there are people out there who look like her mother, who eat like her mother, and in her lunch she sees this too. This is okay. It should be seen, and maybe even smelled.
That said, I still lay in wait for my daughter's lunch box moment and don't know how I will address it. My husband views my anxiety when I pack her lunch as part of who I am, but I feel its true weight. These fears stem from the discomfort of dissonance: while I want to make sure she feels acceptance from her peers, I also want for her to know and take pride in where she comes from. I paradoxically want both for her to eat lunch without ever knowing the feeling of shame or difference but to also know she is exceptional, special in who she is. Her lunch tin may be an overpriced tiffin box I bought at Whole Foods, to match the ones her classmates have, but what's on the inside counts: her fried rice, left over from the night before, made with love.
Her lunch is my way to try and make sure she feels my presence, my culture. It is my attempt to stay close to her when she is away. Despite my anxiety, I enjoy packing her lunch. I usually volunteer to do it in our house: concentrating on fitting everything just so in her bag, relishing her asking me what I will pack in her "tiny tin," where I usually hide a small treat.
I wonder if we can shift lunch box moments from an experience of embarrassment to one of empowerment for our children. Perhaps I can see packing my daughter's lunch as a little rebellion of sorts, in which we respect healthful, delicious foods but also show what healthful and delicious means to each of us, individually and culturally. As I tenderly place a raisin box in her tiny tin, next to her leftover tofu and rice noodles, I hope at once she doesn't get made fun of and that she will continue to want to eat these things with fervor. I also hope that her lunch, mixed with local, seasonal food, and the food I was raised on, will push her and her peers toward a better understanding of the intricacies and interconnectedness of food and culture. Packing my daughter's lunch can be my liberation from the tropey confines of embarrassing lunch box moments. I hope her lunch box may become a time capsule in memory, where she can see the food I packed for her as a reflection of her difference, her beauty, her mother's love.