Starting in late elementary school, I noticed that slowly, everyone began packing lunches. I don't know if it was a "cool" thing to not eat the bouncy popcorn chicken from the school cafeteria, but soon, if you weren't packing lunch--you became "uncool". The other kids I sat with would bring peanut-butter and jelly sandwiches, juice boxes, and lunchables. I would bring thermoses of leftover fried rice, dumplings, and noodles. At first, I was excited to start packing lunches and bringing them to school. I could finally show my friends what authentic Chinese food tasted like--not the "Americanized", super-sweet stuff they sell at Chinese takeout places. However, I remember so clearly the day I brought a lunch of some leftover rice and Mapo tofu, a student made a comment: "What's that smell?" Everyone was scrunching their noses, looking for the culprit who had brought something strange-smelling to the lunch table. I had never felt so out of place than in that moment, sitting there with my rice and pungent tofu whilst my friends had sandwiches and salads. I remember the burning feeling under my cheeks as I silently closed the thermos and sat there the rest of lunch, drinking water.
I was ashamed.
After that day, I stopped bringing Chinese food to lunch. I convinced my mom to go out and buy lunchables for me, and would wake up extra early in the mornings to make sandwiches. One day, my mom slipped a packet of my favorite octopus jerky (which to be fair, did smell nasty but tasted good) into my lunchbox. At lunchtime, I opened my lunchbox to find the smell of octopus jerky wafting into my face. Everyone suddenly turned to me, scrunching their noses and asking what on earth I had packed. Trying to fit in, I explained that I had brought it in as a joke--a disgusting snack to dare them to try. I handed out bits of my favorite snack and told everyone to try it, lying that it was my least favorite food ever. Soon, everyone was laughing and spitting out the octopus jerky, and I felt so relieved. Why should I have lied about the things in my culture that I liked just to fit in with those who couldn't appreciate it? My elementary school self was so focused on fitting in that I had pushed away everything about myself to fit the mold of a "normal student" in suburban Pennsylvania.
As I've grown up, I've realized that the world is too big to focus on fitting in. As social media has played a more prominent role in everyone's lives, I've been exposed to an online community of Asian-Americans who faced the same lack of self-confidence, but also a community of people who are able to build each other up. This awareness has been a big confidence booster, and all the new people I've met have helped me to overcome my inferiority-complex to become a more-confident version of myself.
If I could tell my elementary school self something, it would be that there is a whole world out there full of open-minded, supportive people who may be facing the same problems you are. Focus on finding those people, and build each other up. Also, ham and cheese sandwiches are nasty.
Author: Carina Sun