New ‘Lunchbox Moments’ Zine Offers One Antidote to Anti-Asian Racism
If you run in first- and second-generation immigrant circles, youâve probably heard your share of âstinky lunchboxâ storiesâabout the time someoneâs mother packed them dumplings or curry, and the other elementary school kids acted like it was the grossest thing ever. Deep shame ensues, followed eventually by acceptance.
Or so the narrative goes. For many Asian Americans, in particular, the âlunchbox momentâ anecdote has become a stand-in for the broad range of microaggressions they suffer in this country. Itâs fitting, then, that a new Bay Area-based zine called Lunchbox Moments would use these types of memories as a vehicle for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders to share personal stories about food and identity on the heels of AAPI Heritage Monthâand to do so during a time when violent attacks against Asian Americans have dominated the headlines.
Starting on Monday, June 7, the zine will be available for purchase online for $30 a copy. All proceeds will benefit San Franciscoâs Chinatown Community Development Center (CCDC), which has run two iterations of its Feed + Fuel Chinatown Fund, a COVID relief program that pays Chinatown restaurants to provide free meals for the low-income residents of the neighborhoodâs Single Resident Occupancy hotels (SROs).Â
The zine is the brainchild of Shirley Huey, Diann Leo-Omine and Anthony Shu, Bay Area food writers who met at the Food Media Lab workshop in San Francisco in 2019. The three had been talking about collaborating on some kind of project when the double whammy of 2020 hitâthe pandemic, of course, but also the wave of anti-Chinese, anti-Asian sentiment that accompanied its arrival in the U.S.
âEven before the government shutdowns, we all saw that restaurants in Chinatowns were completely deserted of customers,â Huey says. âAnd we saw, also, the rhetoric that was happening all around. We wanted to do something that would respond to what we were seeing.â
Despite an initial blitz of media coverage on some of the most egregious attacks on Asian elders, Shu says he felt there werenât a lot of platforms for stories about the racism that Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders experience in this country. A collection of stories about these often fraught lunchbox memories seemed like one way to respond to the current wave of hatred.
âIt was a project that satisfied our passion for food but also storytelling,â Shu says. âWe didnât want to do a pure fundraiser or a bake sale.â
The lunchbox moment theme seemed apt. For many Asian Americans, memories of those so-called âstinky lunchboxâ moments became the impetus, years later, for their own political awakening: They saw that Asian food had suddenly become trendyâthat the same type of person who may have bullied them for their dumpling/curry/kimchi lunch as a kid might now own the hip, $40-an-entree Asian-inspired restaurant that just got a photo spread in Bon Appetit.
In fact, this type of story is now so commonplace that it has become something of a cliche. âBeing bullied for your lunch only to grow up and find white people putting chile crisp on everything is a trajectory thatâs easy to understandâand easy to sell to a white editor,â Eaterâs Jaya Saxena writes in âThe Limits of the Lunchbox Moment.â Among the tropeâs other shortcomings, including the fact that not all immigrants experience it, Saxena argues that these lunchbox stories let white readers off the hook too easilyâas though they couldnât possibly be racist if theyâre willing to try new foods.
The creators of the Lunchbox Moments zine say theyâre well aware of the pitfalls of leaning too heavily into the trope. âWe realized we didnât want 30 pieces on how ashamed people were of their food,â Shu says. âItâs not just this simple narrative: I brought food, I was ashamed, and now Iâm proud.â
Instead, Shu says, they aimed to collect a wide variety of different lunchbox stories. Yes, there is a story about a Chinese American girl who secretly threw away her motherâs oxtail stew, or the Taiwanese American whose long string of white boyfriends treated the food she grew up eating as either unpalatable or exotic. But thereâs also an essay about the way the Betty Crocker Cookbook and the sitcom Father Knows Best complicated a Japanese American girlâs relationship with her own mother during the 1950s. The Bay Area writer Grace Hwang Lynch writes about her love of picture menus, as an Asian American who canât read the Chinese characters on the menus of her favorite restaurants. There are stories by Asian Americans who were always proud of their food.Â
âOften, [the lunchbox moment is] in relation to white supremacy and white culture,â Leo-Omine explains. âBut in many of these stories, itâs actually notâitâs in relation to our families and to ourselves.â
“American Chinese Restaurant” by Daisy Lee.
All told, the zine collects essays and artwork from 28 contributors from around the country, with colorful illustrationsâlike from a childrenâs picture bookâby designers Haylie Chan and Jeffrey Liu interspersed throughout. On the heels of this very, very difficult year for Asian Americans, the Lunchbox Moments curators say they hope the zine will help show the broad diversity of the AAPI experience.
âThereâs a kind of stereotype about silence or lack of voice or lack of presence of Asians that isnât true,â Huey says. âPeople have been telling their stories and speaking their stories for a long time. Itâs just this larger world has started paying attention.â
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