My Asian lunch box moment
I remember sitting on the cafeteria bench of my elementary school, excited to eat my packed lunch of longganisa, eggs, and fried rice. Even at six, I already knew pork longganisa was my favourite Filipino food: sweet, juicy red smoked sausages with a scent that never fails to make my mouth water. In this crowded cafeteria, I remember being excited to eat my homemade Filipino lunch, until I wasn’t.
“What is that?”, a red-headed girl asked in disgust. Behind her, more classmates peered over while peeling the plastic off their grocery-brand Lunchables. As I noticed their confusion, I became increasingly aware of how different my lunch appeared compared to those around me: square sandwiches in ziplock bags, thermoses of pasta, and containers of bite-sized fruit and veggies.
Suddenly, my food felt too foreign. Ashamed and embarrassed, I put the lid back over my delicious longganisa and waited until the other kids left so that I could dump it in the trash.
From then on, most of my school lunches ended up in the trash.
My experiences with racialized food continued beyond this all-too-common Asian “lunch box moment”, and evolved into patterns of unhealthy eating habits that would last up to high school.
I went to great lengths to avoid openly eating Filipino food at school. If my mother didn’t have me pack Lunchables, pizza pops, or something more Western, I would skip lunch entirely and keep my food in my bag — sometimes forgetting about it altogether. On many occasions, she would rage at me after finding days-old food in my backpack.
All I wanted was a “normal” lunch, but I went hungry most of the time as my habits progressed to not packing food for school. Without eating during the entire school day, I would binge-eat once I got home.
As I alternated between short periods of starvation and binge-eating, feeling foreign or too Filipino began to take a toll on my mental and physical health.
The gross Asian food narrative
As a Filipino immigrant in Canada, even in the simplest acts — like eating lunch — I desired to appear more Western in fear of being judged by my peers. I neglected my appetite to appear less Filipino, not realizing that this eating habit was ultimately part of a larger issue of embracing my Filipino identity. Growing into a young woman, my struggles with food also interconnected with my struggles with my physical appearance.
As I recall my peers’ jeering remarks on my lunch, I recognize that these attitudes were never restricted to just the schoolyard. In fact, as Vivian Dang explains, mainstream media plays a prominently negative role in Western society’s view on Asian cuisine.
Take The Late Late Show’s “Spill Your Guts” segment, for example. Although it showcases Asian delicacies, such as the Filipino street food balut, the dishes are portrayed as disgusting, horrific, or simply “not smelling good”. More often than not, James Corden and guests visibly gag at the sight or smell of the traditional Asian dishes.
There are harms to these mainstream depictions. As Kim Saira wrote in her petition against the insensitive “Spill Your Guts” segment, “so many Asian Americans are consistently bullied and mocked for their native foods, and this segment amplifies and encourages [anti-Asian hate]”.
Discovering a sense of belonging through Filipino food
Despite encountering these offensive Western depictions of Asian food, I developed a deeper understanding of my fellow Filipinos’ pride for their food as I grew older.
Following controversy around James Corden’s “Spill Your Guts” segment and the blatant disrespect of balut — Bretman Rock, a social media influencer, reminded the public how to treat cultural Filipino food with respect. Through a TikTok video, he educated his followers about balut, showing support for those offended by Corden’s segment.
Tiktok if you take this down . . .♬ original sound – bretmanrock
Despite struggling with unhealthy eating habits for the majority of my adolescence, I never stopped loving Filipino food privately. During adulthood, I began to openly embrace my culture’s cuisine as I started to see others in the community and mainstream media, like Bretman, express their love for Filipino food.
Witnessing their respect of my culture’s cuisine reminds me of the important connection Filipino people have with their food. Often oily with a lot of meat and fatty sauces, Filipino food is not just delicious; in our culture, it brings people together.
Food is part of what makes Filipinos so welcoming and hospitable to others. I treasure the birthdays and holiday parties where my extended family members would come together to share a delicious spread of classic Filipino dishes that would cover an entire dining table. The list is extensive: pancit, adobo, lumpia shanghai, leche flan, palabok, mechadong baka, lechon, and more.
We would circle around the large dining table, taking turns scooping up individual portions of food. Newcomers and guests were immediately welcomed to the table, and there would always be enough food for everyone to package and take home.
As Peter Psyk explains in his article, “Filipinos are considered to be among the most hospitable people in the world”, and enjoying and sharing food together is a way of life.
Before, when my parents slaved all day to prepare a dining table full of Filipino food for my 14th birthday, I remember how most of the food was left untouched. My non-Filipino friends didn’t see the value in my parents’ hard work that showed their wonderful hospitality and care through cooking, and my shame for having our cultural identity exposed made me feel embarrassed.
But now, looking back, I wonder: why should I have been embarrassed about something part of our culture that brings my family joy and compassion?
What Filipino food means to me now
Now that I realize the importance of cultural Filipino food, I wish I saved myself the many years of feeling ashamed of my lunches.
It’s well overdue for Western society to let go of tired narratives painting Asian food as foreign, gross, or terrifying. In the midst of anti-Asian attacks in North America, it’s more crucial than ever for us to actively show our pride for our culture, and to share with our non-Asian peers the rich bonds and authenticity beneath our distinctive cuisines.
I’m not asking for non-Filipinos to like adidas (chicken feet) or igado (liver stew), but we must demand respect for traditional dishes that are loved and appreciated by many. Most importantly, we need to remind ourselves of this.
Being an immigrant who came to Canada as an infant, Filipino food bestows a primary, deep-rooted connection to my native culture. For me, behind Filipino meals are vital cultural practices that bring unconditional warmth. By rediscovering my love for my culture’s cuisine, I learned lessons of valuing family, sharing, compassion, and hospitality.
I’ll no longer let that go to waste.
Featured photo credit: Eiliv-Sonas Aceron
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