These chilly autumn days call for rich, warm soups and stews. Last week, we had oxtail, simmered in a mixture of cardamom, cinnamon and nutmeg spices all day. Eventually, the meat becomes so tender it slips right off the bone.
As a child, I learned that the fragrant spices of this dish and many like it were the reason the Europeans had journeyed for months by ship to reach the Moluccas islands, now part of Indonesia. These ingredients were precious cargo; they also helped shape Southeast Asia’s painful history of exploitation and colonialism. It was also a salutary lesson in the extraordinary lengths Westerners go through to add some excitement to their bland cuisine.
The day after we made stew, I sent my 6-year-old son to school with leftovers for lunch. Later, he shamefacedly confessed he hadn’t finished the oxtail, though it is one of his favorite dishes. His friends called it “stinky.”
I did not grow up in America, hence escaping the all-too common, soul-searing experience of many immigrant children known as lunchbox shaming. In pop culture, the phenomenon was immortalized by the ABC sitcom “Fresh off the Boat,” based on chef Eddie Huang’s memoirs. In the memorable first episode, classmates make fun of the young Eddie’s noodles, calling them “worms” and mocking the smell. “I want white people food!” he winds up telling his mother.
Similarly, NBC Asian America devoted a video segment to the “lunch box moment” in May, with folks on camera recounting their various school-time skirmishes involving kimchi, curry and shame.
I did not grow up in America, hence escaping the soul-searing experience known as lunchbox shaming.
While acute in the school year, the taunts and embarrassment don’t end with grade school. A quick search yields several online forums devoted to discussing the kind of lunches you should, and shouldn’t, bring to the office.
Not surprisingly, a lot of the foods employees are discouraged from bringing to work are dishes beloved by immigrants. While such lists may masquerade as well-meaning etiquette tips, they smack of ethnic prejudice. A Houston Press piece from 2010 titled “The 5 Smelliest Foods You Should Never Bring To the Office” cites as its top pick “Mexican Food.”
“No other cuisine captures as many strong and offensive aromas as Tex-Mex,” the Houston Press writer complains. “Let's just say your coworkers won't be thanking you for either the Taco Cabana platter you brought back to the office or the indelicate scent you left in the bathroom an hour later. If you need a Mexican food fix that badly, stick to table service.”
It’s gotten so bad that some people have taken to calling October 24th “National Take Your Ethnic Food to Work Day,” described in the Huffington Post as “the only day of the year when you can finally bring steamed fish or Thai red curry to work without feeling embarrassed.” Really? Only one day a year?
My first instinct when my son told me his lunchbox story was anger. I wanted to send him back into his classroom armed with pride and an indifference to playground slurs. But I also wanted to shield him. He’s only six! Why should lunch be a battlefield? So, after gently reading him a little lecture on nutrition and the importance of sometimes resisting peer-pressure, I sent him off to school the next day. With a sandwich.
But the incident stuck with me. Although seemingly insignificant, standing up for what you eat, which of course is an extension of who you are, is increasingly important in this Trumpian, polarized climate. Today, symbols of white supremacy are no longer banished to the pages of history books; they show up in our local suburban Maryland schools and colleges.
And a lack of openness about diet may indicate a lack of curiosity about others. Take President Donald Trump’s recent Asian tour, for example, when Trump seemed to largely avoid the local cuisine in favor of his signature steaks and ice cream sundaes.
What to do? I posed this question on Facebook. Some friends advised a more scrappy approach. “Feed him nothing but stanky food until he learns it’s good for him,” advised Jeff Yang, a cultural critic who is also coincidentally the father of “Fresh Off the Boat” star Hudson Yang. Others counseled a gentler course — keep the ethnic meals home, pack less controversial food for school, pick your battles.
The conversation was an eye-opener, and I decided to go the militant route: Go loud, proud and stinky.
For a while, I decided to steer a middle course. But a chance conversation with the mother of one of my son’s bullies changed my perspective. I had been surprised to learn some of the kids tormenting my kid were themselves immigrants, in this case Chinese. (Our neighborhood of Potomac, Maryland, while overwhelmingly white, is attracting a growing number of Asians.) Instead of apologizing for her child’s behavior, this mother seemed unsurprised. “No wonder!” she said. Astounded, I asked her what she packed her kids for lunch. She said she packed wraps, sandwiches, chips, and other typical American fare.
As it turns out, her husband is a first-generation Chinese immigrant who had been teased in school for the lunches his parents — both cooks — had painstakingly packed, lunches filled with delicacies like soft baos, a crescent-shaped potsticker. Instead of attempting to push back, this family had taken painstaking care to assimilate. The bullied had become the bullies.
The conversation was an eye-opener, and I decided to go the militant route: Go loud, proud and stinky. I taught my son comeback phrases such as, “You wish you had my food. Why do you think I’m tallest in class?” and “Worms for you, noodles for me!” I showed him the lunchbox shame video. I read him books like “Sandwich Swap,” “Yoko” and “There’s a Roti in My Lunchbox,” all stories which discuss the problem in ways young children can understand. I lobbied his teachers to discuss the issue in school. And I continue to pack him fried rice, seaweed, dumplings, pita pockets, and even the tempura shrimp that some classmates call “spiders.” (He defiantly eats them anyway.)
Perhaps I’m creating a host of painful memories. I hope not. My aim is to help him cultivate an independent mindset and a healthy respect for a multicultural, diverse world. Little as I want my son to be tormented, I want even less for him to be the tormentor. If lunch is a battlefield, the least I can do is make sure he’s never hungry in battle.
Mei Fong is an author and journalist. The former Wall Street Journal reporter has won a shared Pulitzer reporting on China and has written a book on the country's one-child policy. She is on Foreign Policy's list of Top 50 influencers on US-China relations.