The immigrant kid’s school lunch (Part 1)

Like every good Korean boy, I played the violin. Please notice the Jordan VIIIs on my feet. (1)

Every Asian immigrant kid who came to the United States during elementary school has had the experience of bringing a smelly lunch to school. The lunch usually consists of rice, some meat and some pickled vegetable that turns heads by the nose in a 3rd grade cafeteria. Even if it’s packed in an inch thick tupperware with five layers of saran wrap, the smell is inescapable.

Example Korean lunch (2)

As you open your lunch, immediately, heads turn to reveal scrunched noses as eyes dart and lock in on you and your neatly packed, but pungent lunch your mom made in the morning. And those looks. Those looks from eyes that inspect you and your lunch instantly shrink you down with embarrassment and shame. It’s not that it smells bad, but the smell is foreign and you’re foreign.

Inevitably, you’re asked, “What is that?”

You respond, “Kimchi…”

“What is that?”

It’s this spicy cabbage and radish…”


Eventually, you give up trying to explain and you quickly eat half of your lunch and throw the rest away. You’re already the foreign kid, but now you’re also the smelly lunch kid. When you get home, you demand your mom now pack you a normal lunch, a sandwich.

So now you get a sandwich for lunch every day. But you realize, packed sandwiches for lunch in elementary school taste horrible. You start with white bread, because wheat bread doesn’t taste good until you’re at least 25 years old, that eventually gets crushed flat en route to school because your brown bag is stuffed under books at the bottom of your Jansport backpack. Your processed deli meat ends up glued to your Kraft single “cheese” and if mom feels bad that she’s feeding you all that high fructose corn syrup in the white bread, she adds a tomato and a piece of lettuce that eventually soaks through the bread by the time lunch rolls around.

You start complaining about your sandwich and no matter what mom does, it always ends up in the same sad, crushed, and soggy state, it’s the fourth law of thermodynamics. Also, peanut butter and jelly sandwiches are not an option because no Asians like peanut butter and jelly sandwiches. Finally, your mom gives up and gives you money to buy lunch at school. But, the public school lunch is even more terrible. So you spend all of the five bucks your mom gave you on a bag of six Otis Spunkmeyer cookies that are rock hard and gives you a sugar headache.

You start out eating what you actually like eating, but in an effort to fit in, you end up with a shitty sandwich.

Example shitty sandwich (3)

The thing is, it’s not easy to grow out of shitty sandwiches, but rather it seems like life pulls us toward shitty sandwiches. It’s really hard to bring your own lunch, your own self, to your career, your relationships, or even your dreams. Years passing have a way of shaping you into what fits in to “normal” society, but when you get that nagging feeling something is off, don’t forget to smell your lunch.

July 5th, 2016 — San Francisco, California

Photo credits

  1. Picture of me taken by my dad during the 1993 Grant Elementary Talent Show in Columbia, Missouri
  2. Example Korean lunch:
  3. Example shitty sandwich: