My “Little Kimbap” Story

At work, my Asian colleagues affectionately call me “Little Kimbap.”

This nickname stems from a story I recently shared that defined a good portion of my life. I want to share it publicly because I’ve become more aware of the offenses that are being hurled against my fellow Asian Americans. For instance, Steve Harvey’s derogatory comments against Asian men, this NYTimes editor’s shocking experience in supposedly one of the most diverse cities in the U.S. and this ongoing movement for more Asian-American representation in Hollywood. Every time I read about these injustices, it makes my heart physically ache. Because I know what it’s like to feel slightly rejected by society all the time. So, without further ado, here’s my “Little Kimbap” story:

In 1999, my family moved from Chicago, IL to Palo Alto, CA. We lived in a quaint area where nearly all our neighbors were fellow Koreans. I have fond memories of mothers sharing delicious pots of jjigae with each other and of running to the building next door to hang out with my best friend, Rachael, so we could suck on Ring Pops and talk about which dogs we wanted to own when we were older (we were only seven years old at the time, hence the simplistic activities).

One of my absolute favorite memories, however, was my mother packing me kimbap to take to school. For those who don’t know, kimbap is a Korean rice roll that is wrapped in seaweed and filled with an assortment of seasoned veggies and meats — it’s delicious. Anyway, my mother would frequently and painstakingly make me several rolls of kimbap so I could take them to school and share with my friends and teachers, who were obsessed with my mom’s food. Life was good.

Fast forward two years. My dad received a job offer in Florida, so we moved again, and I started the 5th grade. The first time my mom packed me kimbap, I happily took it to school, eager to share my food with new friends. However, when I opened my lunchbox, their reactions were far from excited.

“Ewww what is Sophia eating?! Is that SEAWEED? Ugh it smells so gross, how can you eat that?”

I, being the overly sensitive child that I was, immediately shut the container and felt my face burn hot with embarrassment as all my classmates gathered around me to gag at my food. I shoved the lunchbox into my backpack and didn’t eat anything for the rest of the day. And that was my first taste of feeling like an outcast.

When I went home that day, my mom was surprised to find my lunch untouched. When she asked me why I didn’t eat, I felt the shame from earlier rise in me again: “Don’t ever make me Korean food to bring to school again! I hate it!” My mom was surprised and hurt, but she acquiesced.

From that point on, I ate greasy pizza and PB&J sandwiches in the cafeteria like the rest of the American girls. I longed to bring Korean food for lunch, but I would have rather died than experience that humiliation and rejection again. This self-loathing carried on throughout high school and college. I never talked about or tried to share my culture with anyone — not even my closest friends or the boys I dated. In short, since that kimbap incident, I never stopped being deeply ashamed of my identity as a Korean-American woman.

Fortunately, the tides turned. After college, I met my current boyfriend, who re-ignited my enthusiasm for Korean culture by showing genuine curiosity and love for my people, language and cuisine. In fact, we’re taking a trip to Korea together in a few months and I couldn’t be more thrilled to show him the beauty of Seoul! I also made the move to San Francisco, where I currently reside, and am surrounded by intelligent people who have a deep appreciation for other cultures and have been able to discuss these issues with — such as my work colleagues. Slowly, but surely, I’m becoming comfortable with who I am.

Perhaps you find my kimbap incident to be trivial, and I would be inclined to agree with you now. If I could travel back in time, I would advise my younger self to ignore my silly classmates and continue bringing Korean food to school — because I’m not the one who should have been ashamed by their reactions. However, that’s not how the world works. For a very introspective and self-conscious 10-year-old, that experience was jarring to my sense of identity. That’s why I think it’s important that we, as Asian Americans, continue to share these experiences and have open conversations around how they’ve impacted us so we know we’re not alone and can gather strength as a community.

So, regardless of your ethnicity, if reading my story made you uncomfortable or angry, here’s what you can do to ensure my experience doesn’t continue to trickle down: Expose yourself to various cultures and cuisines. It’s a fucking disgrace to call America a “melting pot” and only eat chicken fingers and fries your entire life. Travel the world and recognize that America is far from being the end all be all. Read books so you can understand the perspectives that exist outside of your own narrow mind. Talk to people who are different from you — not only in appearance — but in life experiences. Most importantly, pass these practices along to any future children you may have. Let’s raise a smarter and more open-minded generation than ours has proven to be.