This article originally appeared on MUNCHIES.
Many moons ago, when I was temping at a pager service company—yeah, that far back—I recall a lunch break when an Indian colleague reheated his curry leftovers in the break room's microwave. During the five minutes his Tupperware rotated on the oven's carousel, he left the room to take a call. Meanwhile, his food began to emanate the special scents of South Asian cuisine. The spicy-pungent aromas elicited comments from a few non-Asian co-workers, and not kind words either. Brutal, Yelp-like critiques rolled freely off offended tongues: Ugh! How could anyone eat something that smells like that?! Odors are all over my clothes now! If it smells this bad going in, I'd hate to be in the bathroom with him later.
This scenario instantly transported me back to my elementary school days, when I brown-bagged to school all kinds of strange foreign fare that was ripe for targeting by bullies. I was new to the US, fresh off the plane from Taiwan, where I was born. My mom, the person responsible for my lunches, packed mostly grub from the prior night's dinner and Chinese-Taiwanese snacks like pork floss or Haw flakes into my sack lunch.
Mama was a new immigrant and clueless of the social pitfalls in revealing the wrong lunch contents at the cafeteria of a mainly white school in the Los Angeles suburbs. On top of that, I was her eldest kid, and this was her first go-around at packing a lunch, let alone an "American" lunch—or what Eddie Huang would call "white people lunch."
In Huang's memoir Fresh Off the Boat, the BaoHaus chef recounts food-shaming and bullying at his Florida grade school: "Every day, I got sent to school with Chinese lunch. Some days it was tomato and eggs over fried rice, others it was braised beef and carrots with Chinese broccoli, but every day it smelled like shit." He concludes, "I didn't care about the smell, since it was all I knew, but no one wanted to sit with the stinky kid. Even if they didn't sit with me, they'd stand across the room pointing at me with their noses pinched, eyes pulled back, telling ching-chong jokes."
Some of the kids asked me if I had a dog sandwich. I thought they meant hot dog.
When I read that passage, it was like Huang and I had unpacked an identical lunchbox. The struggle was more real than I thought. All the food, smells, self-consciousness, teasing, racism, and shame came surging back like a punch in the nose by a steamy plate of stinky tofu.
We weren't the only ones, however. Far from it.
Celebrity chef Jet Tila, judge of Cutthroat Kitchen and owner of several restaurant concepts, recalls his malodorous school lunch. Tila, who is of Thai and Chinese ancestry, remembers: "Being young and always bringing Thai pork jerky and sticky rice to school. My grandma would always roll the rice into a log and place the strips of pork inside, then wrap it in cello. Some mean kids would look at my lunch and first say, 'Ewww, your lunch smells.' It was the garlic in the pork. Then they would say, 'It looks like you are eating poo.' But I'd always have some kind of rice and protein and just wished [my parents would] make me a PBJ or tuna sandwich."
My clearest memory of an embarrassing Chinese lunch that I unleashed onto John Foster Dulles Elementary was a sandwich. This was home-cooked beef tendon and brisket braised in soy sauce, anise, and Shaoxing wine, punctuated with cilantro on untoasted Roman Meal wheat bread—straight outta Shandong.
The tendon was hard and the beef was tough, marbled by waxy swirls of fat. The worst part, though, was the untoasted Roman Meal. By lunch time, the bread had become fused with the tendon—molded into the connective tissue like a memory foam pillow to someone's head.
During lunch, I sat by myself out of self-preservation; I didn't want to get punked over my braised and fermented comestibles. I tried to eat really fast too, but I was running out of saliva, and there was no way to swallow this big spitball of bread and beef. I discreetly unloaded it into a napkin, wadded the whole thing up, and tossed it.
When I was hungry, a buddy of mine would occasionally share his cheese puffs. My orange-powdered fingertips temporarily made me feel like a white kid.
The nadir of my lunch life was when the main school bully told everyone that he heard Chinese people ate dogs. Some of the kids asked me if I had a dog sandwich. I thought they meant hot dog. The teasing was relentless.
I pilfered lunches from my classmates. Not just any classmate, but the white kids who were famous for having good shit in their KISS and Evel Knieval lunchboxes.
From that point forward, I asked my parents for lunch money. Sometimes they gave it to me, but mostly I washed dishes in the cafeteria to get a free lunch. Sloppy Joe days were the best.
The other thing about a school lunch is that you can barter with it—that is, if you have the right stuff. Margaret Cho understands this concept. "All the other kids would get granola bars and Capri Sun. I would get dried fish," the comic once explained. "All the other kids got Ho Hos and Ding Dongs. I got squid and peanuts. You can't trade that shit."
My lunch was rarely trade-worthy. What's a kid to do when he desperately wants to ditch his ching-chong Chinese lunch and delight in gently seasoned ham slices matched with plasticky American cheese in between pillowy soft white bread?
He steals, that's what.
At my school, every kid's lunch was stored in training lockers that had no locks. Because of this lack of security, I pilfered lunches from my classmates. Not just any classmate, but the white kids who were famous for having good shit in their KISS and Evel Knieval lunchboxes.
Opening a stolen lunch box was like opening up a treasure chest of edible ingots. My eyes lit up with every Hostess pastry I scored—Suzy Qs were my favorite. I never ate so much baloney with mayo and mustard in my life, and I loved every bite. Any kid who had a bottle of punch I silently thanked.
I could have ripped off lunches forever, but it didn't take long to deduce which Asian kid was stealing them. There were only four of us in my grade. The other Asian kids were analogous to Twinkies—white as cream on the inside but yellow on the outside. Their lunches were just like everyone else's. Only Eddie Lin eats the stinky, weird shit. Busted!
Viewed through the lens of today's culinary scene, I would've never have thought food like Taiwanese beef noodle soup or dim sum would be considered cool.
The odd thing was that I actually loved Chinese food, especially my mom's cooking. I just wanted to fit in, like any other kid. I couldn't stand anything Asian—my appearance, my FOB clothes that smelled of moth balls, my parents' broken English, Bruce Lee, Lieutenant Sulu, you name it. If it was Asian, it wasn't cool.
With experience and wisdom, my self-loathing eventually melted away. I embraced my culture, its food in particular. I asked my mom more questions about her dishes as she slaved away in the kitchen each night, cooking five- to seven-course meals for a family of six.
Ultimately, my crippling distress about Chinese food was replaced with pride. Viewed through the lens of today's culinary scene, I would've never have thought food like Taiwanese beef noodle soup or dim sum would be considered cool. I never dreamed dudes like Anthony Bourdain or Andrew Zimmern would feature the cuisine of Asia and glamorize the stuff I ate as a kid as if it was the next breakout indie band. At last, it was cool to be me, and I couldn't believe it.
Personally, I've transformed this past ignominy into an identity and career. I'm now a food writer who enthusiastically seeks out the "weird" foods from all cultures and shares them to anyone willing to read my words. I'm the weird food guy—I'm totally out and proud about it.
My perspective on my childhood food has had such a complete transformation that now when I come across someone who is really picky and won't try new or adventurous food, I feel sorry for them, if not a little judgy.
In my 20s, I instantly fell for a girl at a dim sum meal who was willing to put a chicken foot in her mouth. She was a white girl from Texas. It was lust at first bite.