I remember being seven years old and sitting at my desk eating lunch. The seating arrangement of our second grade classroom meant I was sitting there noshing on my sandwich with three other sets of eyes watching me. Bite, chew, and swallow. Across from me was a boy that was always smiling, his family had just moved to Canada at the start of the year. He wore a grey turtleneck, a pair of faded black jeans that were just a little too short, and white tube socks that were poking out from underneath. As I sipped on my juice box, I watched curiously as he pulled out his lunch. I had no idea what it was and from the stares and snickers coming from my other two lunch mates, neither did they. They started to make fun of him in the way only school children can, and I remember feeling immensely sad for this boy. The language barrier between us made it hard for him to grasp the meaning of the words the two were hurling at him, but by the end of lunch as I watched his smile fade, I think he understood. I didn’t finish my lunch that day and I’d get in trouble for not eating it all, but watching that boy push his food around hit my seven-year-old heart pretty hard. Ethnic food. He was getting laughed at for eating the lunch his mother packed him.
Looking back it seems ridiculous, but how many times did I beg my mother through tears to not pack me anything remotely Asian for lunch? I wanted to be like everyone else, I didn’t want to open my lunch box and find some ethnic dish no one else could identify and get ridiculed for it. No matter how much I may have loved it, it would have to be eaten behind closed doors at home.
I remember watching everyone trade their snacks at lunch: gushers and dunkaroos went flying across the classroom to the highest bidder. I remember feeling slightly ostracized because who would ever want to trade with the girl whose mother packed her seaweed for lunch? God, I just wanted to fit in. I wanted to share secrets with the girls at the next table next to me, I wanted to be accepted by my peers, I wanted to be picked first for a change, and most of all I wanted to trade my god damn snacks.
I went to an elementary school that was in an immigrant neighborhood and my school was pretty multicultural. When I look back at my junior high and high school career, it was pretty much the opposite of that and the colour of my skin definitely made me stick out like a sore thumb. I struggled to figure out where I belonged for most of those years, and in hindsight when was it ever okay for my peers to define me by my race? Why wasn’t anyone defining me by my sparking personality (this is a joke, my personality has always been more abrasive than anything)? I remember being told by my peers that those good marks on my test or assignment was because I was Asian, or that I was someone’s favourite Asian – like I was the best out of my own lot. Why the F. Scott Fitzgerald has it taken me this long to figure out that this is not okay? Even though these people weren’t saying these things to be rude (backhanded compliments, let’s call them that), they were reinforcing that I wasn’t like them. I get that everyone is a beautiful individual snowflake and everything but I’m getting frustrated.
Sometimes I feel like being the child of immigrant parents is an on going struggle, and I know I’m not the only person who feels like a first generation kid who can’t figure out how to blend their parents beliefs and values with the ideas that society has taught them. I constantly feel like I’m drifting. When I go back to Thailand, I can’t relate with any of my family. The jokes are lost in translation and the language barrier that grows larger with every trip back makes it more awkward with the march of time.
I’d like to think that one day I’ll have it figured out, but as of right now I’ll probably continue to struggle with my own existence (however dramatic that may sound).
But back to the boy, I remember the hesitation I saw on his face as he grabbed his lunch a week or so later. I remember sitting there quietly eating the seaweed strips my mother managed to sneak in after my vehement protests that morning. I remember that feeling of disappointment when no one wanted to trade snacks with me that day. I remember not caring about the significance of that moment when he placed his lunch on the counter until years later, but looking back now it must have resonated to my core.
Because out of his bag, he pulled out a sandwich.