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about smelly lunchbox


Hi, I'm Susanna!

Like many children of immigrants in the US, I grew up being embarrassed by my smelly lunchbox… I wanted nothing more than for my parents to pack me a ham & cheese sandwich or lunchables! Now, my life-long love for food & cooking combined with my desire to reconnect with and celebrate these Chinese & Asian flavors from my heritage bring you this smellylunchbox that I’m excited and proud to share. I hope you enjoy them!

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why the name smelly lunchbox?

 

 

I started cooking over 15 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.  

20 Comments

  1. Carolina N.

    Thank you so much for sharing! I was nodding and smiling as I was reading through your story as our experiences were quite identical! Coming from the Philippines to Canada and going to school, lunch was always a nervous time as I didn’t want my Canadian classmates to notice and comment about what I was eating on any given day. As an adult, I have definitely embraced bringing “our food” to work and I know that my students from different cultural backgrounds esp those that have newly immigrated to Canada find comfort knowing that it is ok to eat something from their culture and not feel embarrassed about it! I love how through food, we spark comversations about our favourite meals growing up and the memories and experiences from back home.

    • Thank you so much for reading, Carolina! I’m glad you could relate — and that you’ve found your own way to reclaim your smelly lunchbox experience :) Thanks for helping make the next generation feel more comfort in embracing their culture!

  2. I also share many of your experiences, particularly about smelly lunch boxes. Now that I have kids, I feel for them when they are conflicted about bringing acceptable lunches rather than a delicious but smelly one. I’m looking forward to seeing more of your videos recipes, and your stories.

    • Thank you for sharing, Cindy. I hope your kids will learn to be proud of their smelly and delicious lunchboxes. When they look back, they’ll be so grateful for these lunches you prepare!

  3. Hi Susanna!

    After reading about your life and how grew during your childhood, gets me to think back about the similar experiences that I had. Zongzi is one of my favorite things to eat as a child and up until now. My parents used to pack one in my lunchbox during elementary school. Similar to you, I got the smelly lunchbox effect. Yes, this gave me feelings of rejecting culture as well. Growing up as Chinese American and going to school where there were one of a few that existed in the school can be intimidating, but eventually I didn’t care and continued to bring zongzi to school for lunch even though it stunk up the cafeteria. LoL

    Thank you for sharing your experience.

    • Aw, thank you for sharing your experience, David! Zongzi is the ultimate labor of love food in our culture — so sweet of your parents to pack you them for lunch. I’m glad that despite the smelly lunchbox experience, you continued to bring one of our most delicious foods to school <3

  4. Hi Susanna – thank you for sharing your story. Your Christmas experiences, no I Love you or Proud of you messages from parents and lots of homemade food during college times sounds exactly like my story too! I’m a jook sing and both my parents have passed now and I too am trying to keep my culture through customs and foods as I know I’m already forgetting my language. I look forward to more of your stories and recipes – all your dishes – are foods I ate regularly with my family! So awesome to have your recipes – thank you for your website!

    • Hi Suzie, thanks so much for taking the time to share your personal experiences! I want to give you a hug!! I’m glad we can relate and that we’re both on this journey of reconnecting with our culture and food. Sending you love <3

  5. Thanks for posting the great suggestion for making jianbing. I cannot find one anywhere in the whole Bay Area that comes close to the real deal in Beijing or frankly, even the food truck up in Portland! Would love any tips if you have any about where to find them in San Francisco or the East Bay.

  6. Hi Susan,

    So glad I came across your IG profile! Proud ABC here and my childhood experiences mirrored a lot of yours. “Older” now, I cherish the food and language – something I force myself to converse in with parents (thanks to living with po po helping me brush up on).

    Looking forward to bringing your recipes to life for parents!

  7. Hi Susanna,

    Thank you for sharing your childhood story. I’m sure it resonated with so many of us. As a kid who grew up in SF’s Chinatown, all I ever wanted back then was a traditional American breakfast with ham and eggs. However, my mother worked two jobs and didn’t have time to make it. She would give me a few bucks to go buy Cha Siu Baos to eat on my public bus ride to school. I was so embarrassed.

    I live in Colorado now and all I want these days are just those amazing fluffy white pillows of deliciousness pork buns.

    Thank you for what you do and keeping our culinary culture alive.

    • Hi Steve,

      Thank you so much for sharing your story, and for your kind words! I find it so interesting that despite growing up in diverse San Francisco, we still felt this way growing up. And that the very things that we felt most embarrassed by as kids, are the most nostalgic things we crave today :) Thanks for taking the time to leave a comment, and I hope you’re doing well in Colorado!

  8. Hi Susanna,

    Thank you for sharing your story and all the recipe videos! I found you on Instagram and really enjoy seeing the food you cook. You probably received similar messages/sentiment from fellow children of immigrant parents so I will try to keep mine specific to me.

    I’m from the SJ area but went to Cal Poly, SLO. Long story short, I had to stop taking Asian food for granted. I’d bring food such as roast duck/goose from my parents. Other times I would be desperate enough to cook bánh xèo.

    So now that I have been back in the Bay for the last 5 years, I am doing everything to find content related to the food I love. Food is a major link to my Viet Canto heritage. I know you focus a lot on Chinese recipes but it still means a lot to me.

    I can’t wait to see what comes next.

    Sincerely,
    Annette

  9. Hi Susanna,

    So lovely to read your words.
    Thank you so much for sharing your migrant experience and stories through your work. There more and more second generation migrants who are able to articulate their experience and it is so important. Thank you

  10. What’s up! Got some suggestion for next recipes:
    1. Steamed pork belly with fermented shrimp paste
    2. String beans with fermented black bean
    3. Any kind of clay pot recipe with shitake and tofu skin

    A few years ago, I started to slowly excavate the old soup recipes from my mother, and begin building the base of my no frills, homey Chinese foods from childhood. Our family came over to SF in the 60s, and I now live in the Portola (where my mom lived as a kid). Keep up the good work. Be safe. Eat your vegetables.

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