BY ASHLEY HA
I sat unaccompanied at the edge of the lunch table with my fingers intertwining with each other under the table, as I stared at the other kids around me. They were all beaming with smiles. They were all with their friends, sharing laughter. They were all able to indulge in their lunches without a second thought, mocking my vacant stomach that roared at the lack of food. I stared down at the Tupperware before me containing warm rice, sautéed fish, and sauce seeping through empty crevices, that my mom specially prepared for me the night before.
On my way to the cafeteria, elation engulfed me whole, as I walked thrusting my lunch box heedlessly back and forth. Once seated inside, I placed my food on the table, with the anticipation of people telling me “that looks good!” and “I want to try that!” As a mere second grader, it hadn’t occurred to me that what I eat is not what they eat. My normal is not theirs. Once I peeled open the lid, the sweet and garlicky aroma filled the atmosphere with warmth. I was luminous with pride.
A girl from my class brushed past me and abruptly halted, asking, “Is that fish?”
I hastily gleamed at her and replied, “Yes.”
“Oh, the scent is kinda stinky,” she said, as she started walking the opposite path, pinching her nose at the odor, her face scrunched and full of disgust.
Immediately, I put the lid over my food, my arms hastily flailing to fan away the smell that was familiar only to my nose. Sweat soaked my forehead, and deep crimson stained my cheeks. I could feel a warmth rising up my face, and my fingernails dug deeply into my palms. I constantly swallowed, fighting back to prevent my eyes from pouring currents. I hid inside my hoodie, stretching the fabric over to cover my face, praying my other classmates had not witnessed the piercing conversation. One. Two. Three. The scene before me ceased to change.
I want to cry.
I want to cry.
You can’t cry.
Aching thoughts ran amok in my head. I was submerged in this strange, new feeling. Shame. I felt shame. I never thought I would be looked down upon because of the food I ate. I never imagined receiving repulsive looks from others because I was simply trying to enjoy my lunch.
As my mortification dissolved away and lunch was over, I dumped out all the contents of the Tupperware, repeating my apologies for wasting the grains of rice and fillets of fish. My head repeated I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to. I’m sorry. Please forgive me. As a Vietnamese person, food wastage is bad luck, disrespectful even, and yet, I brazenly defied a piece of my culture to feel worthy to my peers. I pushed away my identity. Threw away what made me distinguishable. I disowned the culture I once whole-heartedly loved just to feel accepted. Because to them, being Asian was decidedly not.
During class, I contemplated what I would say to my mom, afraid of disappointing her with the shame I felt from eating food of our heritage. Afraid that she would feel the burden of having a daughter unproud of her identity. Did she know that her child felt that she was less than others because of her descent? Did she know her daughter was assimilating to be “more American” right in front of her eyes?
As I grew up and surrounded myself with other Asians facing a similar dilemma, I recognized that I was not in the wrong; I had every humanly right to consume my lunch. A second-grader should not have to question, Am I American enough? Is American culture the better choice? To the present-day me, it is a fact that appropriation has been embedded in American culture. The U.S. was built to profit off of BIPOC and our “exoticness,” yet we have never been completely welcomed into society. They will nitpick and filter out the parts of us that they deem as trendy or allowable, make it mainstream, pretend to be diverse, and capitalize on it without remorse or acknowledgment. And then we are reduced to being foreign characters: slender-eyed, rice-eating, soy sauce-loving, weird-smelling foreigners living on White man’s land. The rest of our traditions and nuanced experiences are discarded and forgotten as easily as we are.
When I think back to that day in the lunchroom, I wonder, If my Tupperware had been filled with Sushi, would I have been asked to share? I think the answer is a definite yes. And if I could go back, I would have utterly devoured my lunch, because they don’t get to judge the food I eat or claim superiority over me. I would have never distanced myself from my identity because being Asian is beautiful. Being Asian is wonderful. Being Asian is powerful. Being Asian is a gift my ancestors presented to me, and my parents did not struggle in this country for their child to hide from her history.
Never again will I confine myself to fit the social norm. Never again will I question my validness. Never again will I succumb to those who tell me I am less. I am unashamedly Asian American. I am unashamedly a million other things, but I am not the character you tried to groom me to be.