“Ugh, what is that? Gross!”
About seven minutes into the pilot episode of ABC’s new comedy series Fresh Off the Boat, eleven-year-old Eddie, the new kid in school, is invited to sit at the cool kids’ table during lunchtime. He’s conscious of making friends, especially the right kind who will ease his entrance into the local social structure. But Eddie quickly blows his first impression when he pulls out a Tupperware container of homemade noodles.
“It’s Chinese food. My mom makes it,” Eddie explains.
“Get it out of here!” the table’s alpha boy yells. “Oh my god, Ying Ming is eating worms! Dude, that smells nasty!”
Fresh Off the Boat adapts the memoir of Eddie Huang, chef and owner of Baohaus, a Taiwanese restaurant in New York. Though his recollections were turned into “a cornstarch sitcom,” as Huang claims in an angry Vulture op-ed about his own show, Fresh still highlights an experience that hasn’t been visited on network television in decades: life as an Asian American. Huang spoke with comedian Margaret Cho—whose All-American Girl twenty years ago was the last sitcom to depict an Asian American family—about his doubts whether Hollywood would do justice to his story. “I believe in you,” she told him, “and to be honest, we need this.”
Indeed we do. But I hadn’t realized how much “we” needed this cathartic mainstream exposure until I started watching the show. The scene brought back surprisingly vivid memories of elementary school, its lunchroom hierarchy, and my mom’s cooking. I had accepted these memories as amusing anecdotes, dinner-party fodder. But Huang’s show elevated to comedy an important experience all-too-familiar to many Asian American (and other) kids: the search for a seat in the cafeteria.
My own search began as a fifth-grader in suburban Maryland. As in many school cafeterias, the cool kids sat together. They always seemed to bring brown paper bags with ham or turkey sandwiches on thin, crustless Wonder Bread. They drank out of juice boxes. They snacked on Doritos, Fritos, or treats like Gushers or Fruit by the Foot. The most envied kids had boxes of Lunchables and Mondos (artificially flavored drinks heavy in high-fructose corn syrup), the ultimate beverage of choice.
I found my place lower down the totem pole with a more marginalized and diverse crowd. My best friend Julia, a Jewish girl, had in her packed lunch healthy items like fruit, Yoplait yogurt, pita, hummus, and Ziploc bags of carrot or celery sticks. Rachel usually either brought a lunch in a recycled paper bag or bought from the cafeteria a tray of chocolate milk, soggy canned green beans, tater tots, and chicken nuggets. Another Jewish girl, Aviva, ate latkes and other foods unrecognizable to me. And Shobi’s mom made her incredible pocket sandwiches stuffed with a deliciously aromatic mixture of soft spiced potatoes, onions, and peas. Like a grilled cheese sandwich, these were gently fried with a nice brown crust. I would later learn they were samosas.
One day, my mom packed a doshirak (Korean for a compartmentalized lunchbox) of rice, bulgogi (marinated beef), and kimchi (spicy fermented cabbage) in an insulated cooler with a mottled neon green-and-orange pattern. The aroma of the kimchi assaulted the noses of my dining companions as soon as I unzipped my lunchbox.
“Ugh, what is that?!”
“It’s Korean food,” I said apologetically.
Mortified, I confronted my mother as soon as I arrived home after school.
“Why did you pack kimchi in my lunch, Mom?” I cried.
“Because I was out of other banchan,” she replied nonchalantly, as though the lack of other Korean side dishes served with every meal was sufficient explanation for her egregious error.
“Why can’t you pack me a normal lunch like the other kids’?”
I was angry with my mother’s lack of understanding. All I wanted was one of those brown paper bags or a box of Lunchables. Not a cooler box of pungent foreign food.
And I wanted better clothes. As in the opening scene of Fresh, my mother also rejected my sartorial choices. Her final judgment: too expensive. I went to school every day in no-brand T-shirts and ill-fitting Mom Jeans, while the most popular girls—Kristen, Ashleigh, and Julie —had closets filled with Limited Too, the preferred retailer of ten-year-old girls. What I would have given to sit with the cool kids in a new Limited Too outfit and laugh while flicking my shiny ponytail.
In retrospect, I wanted to be popular as much as I wanted to belong.
The day after his humiliation in the cafeteria, Eddie dumps his homemade lunch in the trash. When his mother finds out she is upset and baffled. “But you love my food!”
Eddie attempts to articulate the gravity of the situation in a monologue far more effective than my childhood protests. “I need white people lunch!” he tells his mom. “That gets me a seat at the table. And then, you get to change the rules. Represent. Like Nas says . . . I got big plans. First, get a seat at the table. Second, meet Shaq. Third, change the game. Possibly with the help of Shaq.”
In its inaugural episode, Fresh hit the nail on the end: Eddie does love his mother’s food. That is a part of who he is, his heritage. But he is also mindful of where he is going and who he is expected to be. Despite the difference in details, I related to Eddie’s balancing act and his constant negotiation between how much of his culture to bring to his evolving identity and how much to leave behind.
When I was ten, I didn’t realize that this experience would add to the richness of two of the many ways I identify myself—Asian and American. I didn’t think about how lucky I was to experience the cultural complexity of American society, laid out on the table every lunchtime in our virtual ethnic-food fair, where I tasted my first samosa thanks to Shobi’s mom. And I didn’t know how fortunate I was to have eaten fresh homemade meals without artificial, processed ingredients.
My mom’s love came packed every day, in a brightly colored cooler.
Sandra Hong is a staff blogger for In The Fray.
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