A typical lunch box for students in Australia usually consists of a kind of sandwich, Shapes biscuits or Vegemite snackabouts, an apple or watermelon cubes with juice or cordial.
In an episode of Fresh off the boat, an Asian-American sitcom on ABC, when the protagonist Eddie Huang took out his “unorthodox” lunch box, a noodle dish prepared by his mum, he was immediately criticised by his school mates.
“Ugh what is that? Get it out of here! Ying Ming is eating worms! (1:02-1:06).” The kids were covering their noses because of its pungent scent and Eddie had to finish his lunch outside of the cafeteria (not shown in the trailer). He became embarrassed by his food and his heritage which led to him throw out his packed lunch the following days and demanded to have “white people lunch” instead.
American writer of the book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and Yale University professor Amy Chua shared on New York Times writers’ Jenna Wortham and Wesley Morris’ Still Processing podcast about her experience growing up as one of the only Chinese-American kids in West Lafayette, Indiana.
“We had funny haircuts, funny glasses, we had Chinese accents. My mum packed Chinese food into little Thermoses that we brought to school,” she said.
“I just desperately wanted to eat a Bolognese sandwich like everybody else.”
Back in Melbourne, 21-year-old Rebecca Chau from Melbourne University recalled her own lunch time scenario that sometimes made her embarrassed about her Vietnamese-Chinese culture.
“In high school I would bring my own food because it’s cheaper and sometimes I think about what other people would think if I brought fish or something like that,” she said.
“I think it’s happen that one time when I brought something to eat, it was what I had for dinner last night and thought was really nice but other people went ‘Oh my God, what’s that smell?’ instead. After that, I had to think before I bring foods that smell to school for lunch.”
Food has always been a form of commonality, especially for Australians who takes pride in their country’s multiculturalism. However, lunch food ironically could still be a persisting issue of cultural acceptance in the current Australian school environment.
24-year-old Joey Yang, who is an Australian born Chinese and a recent Monash University graduate did not have any issues with what was in his lunch box but always felt like it was the right thing to do to act “more white”.
“I felt kind of embarrassed for being Asian or Chinese. I wanted to be white, act like a white person, do things like white people, just be normal,” he said.
Source: Jacklyn Yeong
“In high school, there was a diversity but it felt like an unspoken thing that you had to act in a certain way in order to fit in and if you didn’t, well you just didn’t fit in. Sometimes your heritage and culture will just go against that.”
Comedian Ronny Chieng who starred in the recent movie Crazy Rich Asians also appeared in an episode of It’s not a race, an ABC podcast hosted by Beverley Wang. He brought up the difference between Western-Asians and Asian-Asians trying to fight the idea of acceptance and belonging where they are by exemplifying the difference between himself, a Malaysian born Chinese, and Beverley, who identifies as a Taiwanese-Canadian.
“There’s the wanting to not associate with the fresh immigrant (image), because you spend your whole life fighting the idea,” he said.
“You are from here, and then someone comes in and you are associated with them.”
There are also people like Yvonne Lo, who identifies as Australian-Chinese and attended Southport High School on the Goldcoast but refused to conform to the predominant culture.
“I did feel like I had to compromise my heritage and culture in order to fit in,” she said.
“However, I choose not to do that. Although I think that could be because of my personality, I just want to do what I want.”
In an episode of It’s Not a Race, Beverley expressed her viewpoint about the persisting racism in Australia.
“We all interpret ourselves according to our history, we all locate ourselves somewhere in Australia within that broad idea of the Australian identity and occasionally we can see that our history, our geography, our politics rub up against our personal experiences,” she said.
Primary school to high school are critical stages in developing a student’s cognitive growth. Ronny also thought it was a stage where people are most likely to reject and resent their ethnicity and heritage in order to avoid racism and small mindedness.
He also mentioned that Australian born Asians, including his Australian-Vietnamese wife tends to re-evaluate the importance of their culture and heritage when they’ve reached adulthood.
“Then they hit their 20s, in university for some reason everyone goes through this growth of trying to reconnect and then they come out of university more in tune with that,” he said.
“That’s like the graph that happens.”
After graduating from university, Joey found that high school “felt so fake as a place to be” and learned to appreciate his heritage and history.
“Now that I’m past high school and university, I think it is really nice to have a background,” he said.
“It’s like a family beyond the family, it’s a key that unlocks a community to you.”
He also thought that Australia is getting more diverse and open in terms of embracing Asian food and culture.
“Melbourne is not allowed to be discriminatory because it’s just such a blend of culture and they embrace it,” he said.
“There’s so many food places from all over the world and they all have their own little fads that they ride in a wave of trendiness – bubble tea, Korean fried chicken – it’s everywhere, that kind of stuff really opens people up to be more aware of how it is.”
For Yvonne, there are much lesser cases of discrimination happening in university now but the problem with stereotyping still exists.
“Everyone presumes that you’re from Asia and you don’t speak English,” she said.
In contrast to Yvonne’s experience, Rebecca had always found herself to be very “westernised” although she lived and attended school in West Melbourne where Asians are a big population. She had not encountered any discrimination even in university and believed it could be because of her Australian accent.
The best thing about living in 2018 is that we are capable of changing the perception towards certain representations – a prime example was the recent marriage equality achieved in Australia with more than 60 per cent in favour. It is the year of Crazy Rich Asians where we celebrate an all Asian cast since The Joy Luck Club in 1993, podcasts such as Still Processing and It’s Not a Race directed at race discrimination and articles criticising and exposing the unfair treatment against Asians – such as the recent article on Harvard University’s bias against Asian-American applicants. Social media as well has provided a platform to amplify the voices of the unheard and bring people together.
Just a few days ago, a Vietnamese-American woman’s tweet went viral when she recounted her experience of convincing bullies that she was royalty from Vietnam by showing them a picture of her in royal garb. Subsequently many people from the Twitter community shared pictures of themselves in royal garb using the same tactics as she did. The tweet received 44,000 retweets, 200 comments and over 180,000 likes.
I remember when i was bullied a lot in elementary school for not rlly speaking english i lied for a week abt how i was actually royalty from vietnam and used this picture for show and tell. got these american hoes to shut up real quick and asked if i rlly came from famous ppl pic.twitter.com/nN5vey2ryL
— tina⚔️ (@babyvietcong) September 4, 2018
Ligaya Mishan wrote in her New York Times article responding to Asian-American chefs who have had the foods of their childhood mocked and rejected by their non-Asian peers. “There was a new attitude reflecting ‘a new cockiness’ in Asian-American cuisine” she revealed, that I felt could potentially shed a little light on students who bring lunch boxes filled with wok-fried noodles or steamed mince pork with rice prepared by their mums.
“It’s food that celebrates crunchy cartilage and gelatinous ooze, that openly stinks,” she wrote.
“That declares: This is what I like to eat. What about you? Do you dare?”
However, there is still a long way to go to changing the perception of Asians in Australia and the world. For starters, I think we should consider a change in visualisation from ‘what should be in our lunch boxes’ to ‘what is in our lunch boxes’ instead.