IIRY Podcast: 9. “The child of Korean immigrants, living in the in-between space”: An excerpt from my work-in-progress, LUNCH BOX, about food, mothers and daughters, identity, microagressions, representation, and one kind of Asian American experience.

I saw a bag of Gochujang Potato Chips from Whole Foods and I was thrown back in time to my childhood, when my mother made me impeccable Korean meals that I took to school in my Hello Kitty lunch box with my Little Twin Stars chopsticks. Here is a piece of writing I am working on, which I also recently read at the Asian American Writers’ Workshop in NYC :

  Subscribe to the podcast here!

From LUNCH BOX by Tricia Park

Once when I was in fourth grade, Tally McMasters came up to me and asked:

“Are you Chinese?”

 I was waiting for my turn at double dutch. “No,” I said, eyeing the line. 

“Are you Japanese?” she asked, peering at me intently.        

“No,” I said, again. The line was getting shorter. I glanced at her face and saw confusion. She’d run out of options.

Tally jammed her hands against her hips.“Well, then….Are you Norwegian?”

I was one of two Asian kids at Sacred Heart Elementary School. Sally Wu was Chinese. Everyone knew what that was. Everyone liked chop suey and sweet and sour pork. And everyone liked that joke: ‘my mother is Chinese, my father is Japanese and I’m in-between.” Pulling the corners of their round blue eyes up, then down, then one of each, making a diagonal slant across their faces.

My mother made me beautiful lunches then, packed in a Hello Kitty doshirak box. A puffy heap of white rice, surrounded by tiny mounds of side dishes that glistened like jewels. Glossy anchovies, candied in soy sauce and sugar, freckled with toasted sesame seeds; crisp bean sprouts with vibrant, yellow heads; grassy watercress, steamed bright green; a perfect stack of roasted seaweed, shiny with sesame oil and sprinkled with salt; a juicy Asian pear, cut into precise quarters.

“What’s that?” Suzy Lawson stood, pointing.

“It’s my lunch,” I said, covering it with my right arm, like I’d covered my math test earlier.

“It looks weird,” she said. Suzy was mean and popular and never talked to me. Everyone was either afraid of her or envied her or some combination of both. Lacy Stevens and Jennifer Lewis dressed just like her in Guess jeans with zippered ankles and they wore glittery, jelly bracelets but they weren’t as pretty. You always knew that Suzy was the best girl.

“Hey, guys.” Suzy’s voice got loud and the din of the lunchroom stopped to listen. “Look at the new girl’s weird lunch.” 

The scraping of chairs against linoleum and the squeaking of sneakers as a crowd gathered around my table in the corner.

“Ew, look, you can see their eyes! Disgusting! What are those things, worms? Look, they have yellow heads! Seaweed? Oh, ew, seaweed feels like alien slime on your legs! Oh my god, the smell. C’mere, smell this!

Fingers poked and prodded at my lunch, over my protecting arms. The tiny, perfect compartments were extracted as they crowded in, spilling and grabbing. I tried to get away but the table was surrounded, the laughing and jeering continuing until nothing was left. The rice was smashed onto the table, anchovies dumped on the floor, seaweed scattered like a deck of cards. Through a blur of tears, I packed up the doshirak, the small, geometric containers empty now. One of my Twin Stars chopsticks was missing.

Over the weekend, I asked my mother to pack me SpaghettiO’s and Oreo cookies for my school lunch. Puzzled, she asked, “don’t you like your bahp? I saw your doshirak was empty.” I pulled away from her stroking hand on my hair. 

“No,” I said, a new note of irritation in my voice. “I hate it. I want a normal lunch.”

I’d never spoken to my mother that way. On Monday morning, I opened my book bag at the bottom of the stairs. My SpaghettiO’s were in a plaid Thermos and a stack of six Oreos was nestled in Saran Wrap. There was also, hidden under a napkin, a small container of anchovies. I crumpled the plain brown bag closed, slung my bag on my back and walked to the bus stop.

Learn more about the stuff in this episode:

Tricia Park

Hello Kitty

Little Twin Stars

Margaret Cho

“What are micro aggressions?” Dr. Derald Wing Sue explains how unintentional but insidious bias can be the most harmful.

“What kind of Asian are you?” A hilarious take on being a perpetual foreigner.

Dominic Cheli, pianist

César Franck Violin Sonata

MusicIC, “Where Music and Literature Meet”

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *