“I know you’re poor, but you don’t have to eat carpet and wallpaper”

There’s a lovely little Jamaican restaurant in Pensacola. I can’t remember the name, and I’m not sure if it’s authentic Jamaican food, but I do know that the few meals I had there were full of yummy greatness. This one particular dish though, was out of this world. I had never (to the best of my memory) had lamb before, so I thought to try it out. I think it was a curried lamb over rice. Oh. My. God. That shit was good. One day I brought some in to work with me (at the time, I was working at a Mexican restaurant), and everyone who saw it inquired what I was eating. When I said lamb and they took a look at the dish, the reaction was-without exception-disdainful. People were like “you’re eating that?”, and I said “yep, and I’m loving it”. I didn’t let their scorn for the meal affect my enjoyment of it.

Unfortunately, not everyone is in a position to simply “let things roll off their back”. Especially people who experience such derision on a regular basis. People like the Asian-Americans who experienced ‘Lunch Box Moments‘ while growing up:

Jubilee Project: Voices is a five-episode digital series collaboration between The Jubilee Project and NBC Asian America. In each installment, they gather Asian Americans to answer a single question, with the hopes of sparking conversation and encouraging others to share their stories too.

The first video asks, have you ever had a “lunch box” moment? Asian kids, you know what I’m talking about:

I don’t blame the [presumably] white children. It’s not their fault that they were born into a culture that shows such contempt for cultural dishes they are not accustomed to. I place the blame on society at large for othering Asians, and Asian dishes, as well as on the parents who reinforce such negative views. It really sucks to experience microaggressions at all, but it kinda sucks doubly for kids to experience them before they even know what a microaggression is (or even spell the word).

“I know you’re poor, but you don’t have to eat carpet and wallpaper”

10 thoughts on ““I know you’re poor, but you don’t have to eat carpet and wallpaper”

  1. 1

    You mention Jamaican food, and now I want a chicken patty right the fuck now.

    I got similar reactions from people when I ordered and started eating – get this – a medium rare steak at a Longhorns. Comments like “You need to send that back so they can finish cooking it”, to which I replied “Nope, this is perfect.”

    People treat the new (to them) as weird all the damn time.

  2. 2

    USA is an immigrant nation that is pretty famous not for its “white” coocking, but for its world cuisine – creole food, Italian food (far superior to real Italian pizza), Mexican food, Chinese food, you name it. I haven’t heard of a single tourist arriving to NY and saying “I must try those world-famous pancakes I’ve heard so much about. Or eggs and ham – the queen of all delicacies.”
    It’s a testament to how much racism and internal segregation there is in everyday life that children aren’t aware of the richness of the various cooking cultures.
    I’ve been lucky enough never to encounter anything like this (or much bullying after middle school for that matter), and most people I know haven’t encountered that either. Perhaps it’s because immigration is still more ingrained into people’s family history that no “default” cooking culture exists. Or the fact that this place isn’t large enough to live in entirely walled neighborhoods. Or maybe it’s because of a stronger shared identity that the Jewish population has that helps avoid such bullying (Arabic food has the stamp of “true authentic local food” which makes that part of their culture respected and emulated by Jews).
    The only exception is with non-kosher food. It’s a topic that still comes during breaks at work. But even that isn’t particularly fervent.

    I still don’t know what kind of food would be considered “carpet and wallpaper”. Seaweed? Pressed noodles?

    Sorry for the long rant.

  3. 3

    I was incredibly fortunate to grow up in a household in which we regularly had people in our home from all over the world. My parents rented out an extra room to international students from the nearby University and we lived with women from Japan, Thailand, Ethiopia (briefly), South Africa, and I think a few other places, but those are the 4 I remember best. Also, my mother has a serious hobby for cooking and wanted to learn how to cook foods from all over the world. Even though I was a picky eater as a child, I learned how to use chopsticks young, and developed at least a reasonable understanding that people eat different things in different ways in different places, and that’s okay.

    I think parents have a responsibility to teach this. Not everyone has the ability to do what my parents did, and few have the excitement for new foods Mom has, but teaching diversity is important and food is actually a great way to do it. Parents showing curiosity and humility helps a ton too – my Mom didn’t pretend to know everything about food, but I saw her have a desire to LEARN about it and that was cool.

  4. 4

    My parents were English ex-pats, and I could have easily had a “lunch box moment” myself, if I weren’t such a picky eater. Head cheese? Cow tongue? Blood sausage? Tripe and onions? Fried liver? Steak and kidney pie? Cooked cow hearts? I wouldn’t touch that stuff under any circumstances, and it was in my own home.

    Consequently, I never had any “What is THAT?” moments in school when I saw other kids’ lunches. But I had plenty of “Thanks but no thanks” moments after I started travelling to other countries….

  5. 5

    I don’t blame the [presumably] white children.

    I blame their parents. I would probably have gone off stealing those kids’ lunch.
    I know not everybody can afford to take their kids out to eat (I will never understand my kids’ fascination with that hipster Korean restaurant…), but there’s a lot of things you can make at home without much effort or even convenience food you can get.

    Oh, and I totally blame the white kids for having been assholes to their fellow students. You don’t have to get excited every time somebody brings some new food, but one of the important rules is that you don’t mock people for what they eat.

  6. 6

    I had a classmate in 3rd grade whose mom was Japanese. She avoided the lunchbox moment with me, at least, because we both enjoyed the supposedly weird food she brought. I didn’t like the little packets of nori seaweed, but I ate her surume (squid jerky) for her and would beg her for some of her haw flakes (which are actually hawthorne candy from China, but they were sold at the same markets where her mom got the Japanese foods).

    I still managed to be a racist little shit in other ways, though. Like when I made a story about flying to Japan in a hot air balloon and illustrated myself being greeted by a Japanese person with narrow and slanted cartoon eyes saying “ching chang chong.” Even though I could have drawn my friend’s mom and asked her what a Japanese person would say.

    Now I eat Japanese public school lunch almost every day and strain my students’ credulity by telling them about what American school lunch is like and how ingredients such as burdock root and fried tofu skins and roe-filled whole smelt would never show up on the menu. But might appear in someone’s lunchbox.

  7. 7

    One of the lessons my parents taught me that I carry is to never, ever say “ew!” to food. If you don’t want to eat it, then politely pass on it, and if it wasn’t offered to you, you’re not in any place to remark on it in the first place unless you’re saying something positive.

  8. 8

    I wish my aunt had learned that lesson. Last night, I made some buttermilk, herb, and jalapeno mashed potatoes. I left the last bit of them in the oven, bc I planned to have them today. When my aunt saw them, she made some disparaging remarks about them. I didn’t say anything, bc I know her well enough to know that going down that road isn’t worth it, but damn, my first thought was “these aren’t for you, and I didn’t ask for your opinion!”

  9. rq

    One of the lessons my parents taught me that I carry is to never, ever say “ew!” to food.

    The kids are learning this one fast. “Oh, you don’t like this yet haven’t even tried it and are making gross sounds about it? You can go make yourself some toast.” But they usually try things and admit that maybe it’s not so bad after all, so hopefully that will carry over into all their future experiences with international cuisine.

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