The School Lunch Counter (Counternarrative)

(Photo source: my late mother, who liked to send me random photos of Filipino-ness)

This is my response to the counternarrative of Asian adults embracing their food and complicated food memories.

Which has rather become the centered narrative of love, family, resistance, acceptance, pride.

 

For me, it is also the bitter taste of assimilation (see article by Joseph Hernandez)

But perhaps not the way you think.

 

This is not a piece about the pale kids shaming

Stinky Filipino baon from home

Stinky foods

That were better left at home.

The strong pungent smells of Lola’s cooking

so powerful and virile

That you could feel them permanently seeping into the walls

And you swore that your white friends could also smell it on you,

A combination of vinegar, fish sauce, and fear.

 

This is not another article about calling out my racist asshole classmates or overcoming stinky food shame.

You know, those articles that have titles like “20 Signs You Grew Up with Asian Mom” or “Asian Lunch Sagas” or “The Stinky Tofu Story?”

The general idea that these stories talk about the pain and shame of bringing “foreign” lunches to school and classmates making fun of your lunch, and you. 

And how we as resilient immigrants or children of immigrants figure out a way

To resist, and embrace our culture, food, and family.

 

I don’t have a problem with essays like these

Stories that aim to reinforce relatability and solidarity

In a shared immigrant experience.

 

Except

I cannot relate

And I don’t see myself reflected in these stories.

 

My story is about my unabashed,

Yet complicated,

Love for the school lunches at my private K-8 school in the suburbs.

I loved school lunches.

I never brought a home lunch because I went to a school where you didn’t have to.

And for me, I didn’t want to.

 

Decades later, I still remember cold cut day where I asked for salami, bologna and cheese–no ham, just give me all the processed stuff that I could pile on my processed white bread. I remember the beef tacos in their crunchy shell. I remember the roast beef with gravy and mashed potatoes that I liked to mix up all in a pile instead of eating compartmentally–which i never liked doing, and I used to make fun of my husband for eating that way, white boy–and I remember one time a boy–who I had a crush on at some point–made fun of me for doing that, which made me feel embarrassed and ashamed, but another kid at our table defended it and said “it tastes good that way!” and I think my crush shut up. I remember the tuna salad, and the chicken salad, and the white pita bread on the side. Hamburger day. Chicken burger day. There had to be some school lunch that I never ate, or thought was gross? Maybe the fish sandwiches but I probably ate those too.

 

Filipino food rarely shamed me

Because I rarely ate it.

 

So maybe this piece is about

Getting over my shame

Of loving white people food

Of being able to eat fast-food with abandon growing up

And not eating rice every day

And not eating Filipino dinner every night with my family

And not eating bagoong and loving it until well into my 30s

And never eating balut (still! ay naku don’t side eye me hah?)

And my parents never forcing us to eat Filipino food when we were kids

 

But my lack of experience with eating the food of my people

Is a source of shame for me

 

Immersing myself in a Filipino community

When I was finally ready to

And pretending to know all about patis and palabok

When really I felt like an imposter.

 

When I read those articles about food shame

I wonder what it would have been like

To grow up in a family

That ate Filipino food every night around the dinner table

(My parents and lola did, while my brother and I subsisted on…

well, you get the idea).

Talked about our days, ate with spoons and forks

Or our hands like my Lola.

That Filipino food something I secretly loved and ate at home

Where it was actually a source of shame for me that I had to overcome.

 

Instead, I rejected Filipino food

And my Filipina self.

I didn’t like Filipino food because I didn’t want to be Filipino.

 

“Food was how I experienced the world.”

And for me, I wanted that world to be white and tight.

But no amount of colonial cold cuts and other school lunches

Would de-melanize me.

 

I wonder who out there in the diaspora

Would actually raise their hand

And say

Finally! This is my story too.

A story of de-colonizing

My white people food fetish.

Of embracing the stinky deliciousness

That seeps into my skin.

And I am not ashamed.

 

Postscript:

What is my relationship to Filipino food now?

I love it. My family loves it.

You had me at halo halo.

 

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