My Stinky Lunch Story That I Never Had
For years I told the story. Then I talked to my mom and realized I’d made it up.
Dig if you will the picture of a seven-year-old me. A recent immigrant to the United States. Not being able to speak English. On the school bus in the morning. I can’t understand what the students are saying. But their scrunched-up faces combined with the universal hand waving gesture in front of their noses signals to me that they find something to be stinky.
Then suddenly the kid sitting next to me shouts out “Ewwwww!”, points to my lunch box, and pretends to throw up. All the kids point at me while pinching their nostrils. Ewwwwwwwww. I turn to face the window and lean my forehead against it, pushing as hard as I can, hoping that the window will give in so that I can fall out of the moving bus.
When I get to school, I toss my lunch box into the trash. At lunchtime, a fellow immigrant student shares half their peanut butter and jelly sandwich and chips with me.
When I get home, I yell at mom. I cry and tell her that she ruined my life, forever, by putting disgusting kimchi in my lunchbox, that all the kids laughed at me, and that we are not in Korea anymore so I only want pb&j sandwiches from now on like all the normal kids. I storm off to my room and slam the door. The next day, I find out I’d made her cry.
The first time I heard it referred to as the “stinky lunch box story” was from Jay Caspian Kang’s podcast, Time to Say Goodbye. But it wasn’t the first time I’d heard those stories.
It’s part of a long list of collective traumatic moments that Asian immigrants and children of Asian immigrants share and love to share when telling tales of our early struggles in a foreign land. Usually, there’s some mention of shame, confusion of identity, rejecting of our cultures, and how the same white kids who mocked us for eating such stinky foods now claim to love them. And maybe even a “teaching moment” for a parent and their child.
Sprinkle in some perseverance, overcoming, redemption, and a moving bonding moment eating stinky foods with our parents as adults where every little detail of the cooking process is broken down in longing prose (because almost nothing will be said to…