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New ‘Lunchbox Moments’ Zine Offers One Antidote to Anti-Asian Racism

If you run in first- and second-generation immigrant circles, you’ve probably heard your share of “stinky lunchbox” stories—about the time someone’s 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 “lunchbox moment” anecdote has become a stand-in for the broad range of microaggressions they suffer in this country. It’s 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 Month—and 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 Francisco’s 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 neighborhood’s Single Resident Occupancy hotels (SROs). 

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 hit—the pandemic, of course, but also the wave of anti-Chinese, anti-Asian sentiment that accompanied its arrival in the U.S.

“Even before the government shutdowns, we all saw that restaurants in Chinatowns were completely deserted of customers,” Huey says. “And we saw, also, the rhetoric that was happening all around. We wanted to do something that would respond to what we were seeing.”

Despite an initial blitz of media coverage on some of the most egregious attacks on Asian elders, Shu says he felt there weren’t 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.

“It was a project that satisfied our passion for food but also storytelling,” Shu says. “We didn’t want to do a pure fundraiser or a bake sale.”

The lunchbox moment theme seemed apt. For many Asian Americans, memories of those so-called “stinky lunchbox” moments became the impetus, years later, for their own political awakening: They saw that Asian food had suddenly become trendy—that 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. “Being bullied for your lunch only to grow up and find white people putting chile crisp on everything is a trajectory that’s easy to understand—and easy to sell to a white editor,” Eater’s Jaya Saxena writes in “The Limits of the Lunchbox Moment.” Among the trope’s other shortcomings, including the fact that not all immigrants experience it, Saxena argues that these lunchbox stories let white readers off the hook too easily—as though they couldn’t possibly be racist if they’re willing to try new foods.

The creators of the Lunchbox Moments zine say they’re well aware of the pitfalls of leaning too heavily into the trope. “We realized we didn’t want 30 pieces on how ashamed people were of their food,” Shu says. “It’s not just this simple narrative: I brought food, I was ashamed, and now I’m proud.”

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 mother’s 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 there’s also an essay about the way the Betty Crocker Cookbook and the sitcom Father Knows Best complicated a Japanese American girl’s 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 can’t read the Chinese characters on the menus of her favorite restaurants. There are stories by Asian Americans who were always proud of their food. 

“Often, [the lunchbox moment is] in relation to white supremacy and white culture,” Leo-Omine explains. “But in many of these stories, it’s actually not—it’s in relation to our families and to ourselves.”

“American Chinese Restaurant” by Daisy Lee.

All told, the zine collects essays and artwork from 28 contributors from around the country, with colorful illustrations—like from a children’s picture book—by 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.

“There’s a kind of stereotype about silence or lack of voice or lack of presence of Asians that isn’t true,” Huey says. “People have been telling their stories and speaking their stories for a long time. It’s just this larger world has started paying attention.”

Copyright 2021 KQED