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why the name smelly lunchbox?

I started cooking over 14 years ago during high school, but had no interest cooking anything Asian, let alone Chinese. Here’s my story about why.

You can tell so much about a culture through its food. Imagine eating at an expensive, fine dining restaurant — try to picture it in your head — what does it look like? What does it sound like? Whatever you just pictured, Chinese restaurants are the exact opposite. They’re loud, with chopsticks clanging on porcelain bowls and relatives relentlessly fighting over the bill. There’s always more food on the table than you can possibly eat, and food service is probably the reason their Yelp score is 3 stars. Overall, it’s a very communal experience: instead of everyone ordering their own dish, everything is placed on a round turntable in the center, and shared family style.

So many of my favorite and most comforting Chinese foods, like dumplings and green onion pancakes, came together from very humble beginnings, and most likely as a way to stretch a very small amount of food to feed a large amount of people. This reflected how my parents lived: they grew up poor in small villages in southern China where they had no electricity. Where they had to cook over an actual fire. Where every day, they made multiple trips down to the river to carry buckets of water home just to shower or wash the dishes, because running water didn’t exist. White rice, often with not much else, was sometimes the only sustenance my parents had growing up.

And that’s why, when they immigrated to San Francisco in their early 20’s, they didn’t complain when they had to live in a studio with 7 other relatives, or when they only knew about a dozen words in English, and had to navigate the city and bus routes by themselves. My mom never complained about her first job here, where she would work until midnight and get paid several cents for each floral piece she sewed onto garments. For 7 days and nights a week, they’d work endlessly to sustain themselves, and ultimately to start a family. 

My upbringing was influenced by their experiences, and the culture they brought with them. One of my earliest memories was from kindergarten (I believe many immigrants and children of immigrants have a similar story) where I was sitting with my classmates during lunchtime. Most kids would bring sandwiches from home, lunchables, or other things I’d soon deem as “normal” food. When I unlatched my lunchbox, which was this multi-layered, bulky thermos, the strong whiff of potstickers made my classmates eyes instantly turn toward me. I remember how alienating it felt when my classmate asked me “What is that smell?” I immediately felt ashamed and embarrassed about this food my parents made for me. 

This adverse reaction to our smelly lunchboxes symbolized something deeper — not just aversion to our food, but to our culture and identity. It told me that I didn’t belong.

As a kid, I became conditioned to hide parts of myself that were different, and that embarrassment soon turned into resentment. Later that night, I asked my dad to never make me potstickers ever again, and to make me something “normal”, like a ham and cheese sandwich. 

As I grew up, I continued to reject other parts of my identity and traditions of my culture. I refused to join my parents to pray to my ancestors. I questioned the effectiveness of any eastern medicine because I believed that western medicine was superior. When I started cooking in high school, I only learned how to cook American dishes. Instead of being excited around Christmas, I got sad, because all our neighbors houses would be decorated with bright lights and Christmas trees — meanwhile my parents didn’t know what the holiday was, and we wouldn’t get any presents. 

It wasn’t until my mom got really sick with end stage kidney disease, which was likely brought on and worsened by sustained high blood pressure and stress, that I realized what she had sacrificed to give me a comfortable life. It wasn’t until those difficult times that I finally understood that my parents’ love didn’t come through gifts, physical touch, or words of affirmation — “I love you” was never part of my childhood. Instead, they came through acts of service, and often through food. A bowl of perfectly cut fruit while I was doing homework during high school. Driving down 4 hours to visit me in college, and dropping off more food than me and my 3 roommates could finish. And just yesterday, making extra pork buns and warm soup as an excuse to see me. 

Through these realizations, I’ve come to respect and take pride in Chinese culture. When it’s the time of year, I’ll pay respects to my ancestors — not because I believe they’ll hear me — but because it makes my parents happy. I value the holistic health approach of eastern medicine, and its years of history. I’ve also started reconnecting with my roots through our cuisine, by asking my mom — who, after receiving a kidney transplant a few years ago, is the healthiest she’s ever been — to teach me family recipes, and by working on smelly lunchbox, which is dedicated to recreating and sharing nostalgic meals that I grew up with.

My smelly lunchbox, and all that it represents, is no longer something I’m ashamed of, but something that I’m proud to talk about and share. I know that I’m not alone or unique in my experience, and I hope that smelly lunchbox inspires you to reconnect with and embrace your own culture, or to explore some recipes from ours.  

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