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Beyond The 'Lunchbox Moment' Scenes In Fiction About Immigrants

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

Have you ever had a lunchbox moment? Like, we see it all the time in pop culture, from shows such as "Fresh Off The Boat"...

(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "FRESH OFF THE BOAT")

HUDSON YANG: (As Eddie Huang) Mom, no. I don't want Chinese lunch. I want white people food.

CHANG: ...To movies like "My Big Fat Greek Wedding."

(SOUNDBITE OF FILM, "MY BIG FAT GREEK WEDDING")

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) What's that?

CHRISTINA ELEUSINIOTIS: (As Toula Portokalos - Age 6) It's moussaka.

UNIDENTIFIED ACTOR: (As character) Moose ka-ka (ph)?

(LAUGHTER)

CHANG: Margaret Cho has talked about it in her standup.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

MARGARET CHO: All the other kids would get granola bars and Capri Sun. I would get dried fish.

(LAUGHTER)

CHO: You can't trade that.

CHANG: (Laughter) But what happens when this storyline takes on a life of its own? Jaya Saxena wrote about this for Eater and joins us now to talk all about it.

Hi.

JAYA SAXENA: Hi. Thanks for having me.

CHANG: Well, thanks for being with us. OK, so for those people who have never experienced the so-called lunchbox moment, how would you describe what this moment is?

SAXENA: So the lunchbox moment is something that a lot of children of immigrants, people of color have experienced going to school with a lunch that is essentially non-white food. It is the food of the culture of your family.

CHANG: Yeah. Like, my mom used to make me this shredded, dried pork sandwich.

SAXENA: Right? And that is very different from Lunchables. That's very different from a peanut butter and jelly sandwich. And I think for a lot of people, it can be this moment of realizing, oh, my God, I'm different. other people consider me to be different and also feeling deep shame about your culture and your heritage.

CHANG: Sure. I mean, I relate to the moment, but I can think of so many other moments that can better represent those feelings that you're expressing. So why do you think the lunchbox moment specifically has become, like, the go-to story to represent the immigrant experience in the U.S.?

SAXENA: It's become so common because unfortunately, it is very common. It's a story that's very true for a lot of people. But I also think it's the type of story that - it's very neat. And so I think it's something also from the other side, if you never experience this, that is a really clean-cut way to look at the way discrimination and racism and bullying works.

CHANG: Right, and ignorance. It's a tidy little scene...

SAXENA: Exactly.

CHANG: ...That you can illustrate so many themes with. But that raises the question - like, what happens when a story can be true, can be a common occurrence, but then becomes one of the only stories that we know how to tell about ourselves?

SAXENA: You know, I think it's something that if you experience the lunchbox moment, you are expected to have been completely traumatized by it. And if you didn't experience it, you're still sort of expected to have experienced it.

CHANG: I'll even say, like, when I first heard that I was going to interview you about this, I kind of did this inventory in my head like, wait; yeah. Have I experienced this? Should I have experienced this? It was this weird thing.

SAXENA: Right. And it's that should have I experienced this, you know, almost this idea of, do my experiences count if I don't hit these bars that have become so visible? I interviewed one woman, and she was like, I didn't feel shame. I felt anger because I love this food. And I thought all these other kids were dumb for making fun of me.

CHANG: (Laughter) Well, yeah. I mean, we, as a society, evolve. Our culinary tastes evolve. And those clips that we heard at the top of this interview, they represent earlier decades. This lunchbox moment thing maybe is kind of outdated.

SAXENA: Right. And I think it's something that gets at having somebody like your food is not a stand-in for the actual end of racism, right? It's sort of mistaking visibility for liberation.

CHANG: Right.

SAXENA: Obviously, yes, it's great if people are not made fun of for the food that they bring to school anymore. It's wonderful if white kids are being raised to be curious about cuisines that they don't eat at home and taste new things and have that sort of visceral appreciation for a new culture. But getting white kids to like food from other countries is not going to single-handedly cure racism, right?

CHANG: One hundred percent - Jaya Saxena is a staff writer for Eater. Her most recent book is called "Crystal Clear."

Thank you so much for joining us today.

SAXENA: Thank you so much for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.