Like many other Asian Americans, I have had my eye on the recent TV premiere of “Fresh Off the Boat.” There’s a scene in Episode 2 where Eddie takes out his lunch his mother packed for him, a container of Chinese noodles. When the other non-Asian boys see his lunch, they tease him saying it looks like worms.
If there’s anything that unites Asians and Asian Americans, it’s food. I scroll through the text messages my family members send me as they watch “Fresh Off the Boat” and realize it’s almost all about the authenticity of that food scene. (I’m not one to comment on how closely the show actually represents Eddie Huang’s life, he can tell you for himself.)
My aunt, uncle, mom, and Eddie Huang are around the same generation, so I compared my own experiences with theirs.
I would have loved to eat Chinese food everyday for lunch.
In actuality, Chinese food is one of the most complicated foods to make. My working parents didn’t have the time, or the skill, to make that every morning for me. So I ate the average American lunch: a sandwich (okay, maybe an above average sandwich because my mom bought turkey and roast beef cold cuts). Then I looked around at the other Asians in the cafeteria. Some had homemade kimbap, others had nice bento boxes, and then the rest had regular lunches like me. No one was being made fun of for his or her lunch.
My roommate Leila, a 1.5-generation Chinese in America who grew up in Miami shared her childhood with me.
I sold my lunch back in elementary school when my parents owned a Chinese takeout place. I think I charged $1 per dumpling. For the soup and noodles, either they gave me a container, or I just put it in their hands. Still, $1 per soup and noodle serving. Once I got into middle school, I sold Kasugai gummy candies from the Chinese store. Half of my customers were Asian, half were not.
Why was there such a stark difference between Eddie’s experience at school and mine? Perhaps the value of Asian food in American eyes has changed. We live in a society where sushi is regarded as high class Asian food, while Chinese food is still viewed in its cheap takeout form. People have come up to me saying things like “You’re so lucky to be Chinese, you can eat lo mein every day!” and “I’d love to join the Asian Students Association! I love Chinese food!” Those statements actually make me cringe more than someone making fun of my food. (Remember that awful viral music video 'I Love Chinese Food?')
* “Char Siu Bao Boy” is a children's book about a Chinese boy who bring Chinese pork buns to school for lunch. Initially, his classmates tease him, but then they try some and like Char Siu Baos too.
** Inspiration for this blog post came from reading "A Moveable Feast," and article by Julia Lee in Huffington Post about her Korean American identity, her working class upbringing, and food in response to "Immoveable Feast," an article by Chang Rae Lee in The New Yorker about his experience eating dining hall food at Exeter.