Eleven months into the pandemic, Eater magazine published “The Limits of the Lunchbox Moment,” a critique of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) literary trope in which a brown child opens a “strange” or “stinky” homemade lunch in the school cafeteria and instantly becomes the other. While the trope has provided rich material for children’s books, memoirs like celebrity chef Eddie Huang’s Fresh Off the Boat (the basis for the television show), and even the news, it privileges white American tastes and standardizes AAPI experiences. As author Jaya Saxena complained, “There is no nuance to the ‘lunchbox moment.’”
A group of food writers in the San Francisco Bay Area resolved to disprove that claim. Alarmed by the downturn in Chinatown restaurant patronage and the uptick in anti-Asian violence in the United States (a 150% increase in hate crimes in 2020, with a sharp increase in the Bay Area, reminiscent of how San Francisco’s Chinatown residents were vilified for the 1900 plague), pals Shirley Huey, Diann Leo-Omine, and Anthony Shu put out a call inviting AAPIs to share their food stories, from microaggressions to celebrations of cultural practices.
Lunchbox Moments, the resulting 78-page “charity zine,” offers personal essays and art from 30 contributors around the country. The cover, by designers Jeffrey Liu and Haylie Chan, shows a stylized Bento box of cheery food cutouts. Inside, diverse offerings include a “Secret Menu,” Grace Hwang Lynch’s guide to navigating Chinese restaurant menus as an ABA (American Born Asian); “Nourishment,” Nancy Hom’s intricate food mandala; and a touching account of working in healthcare during a crisis blamed on Chinese eating habits (Vivian Qin’s “The Customer”). Intersections of class and race that challenge the Model Minority myth also figure on the menu, notably “Viz Valley,” James Cerenio’s account of growing up Filipino in a poor, predominantly Black community that turns out to be closer to home than he imagined.
The quality of the writing ranges, reflecting the speed with which the project was put together. (The call went out in March; physical and digital copies launched June 7; the entire print-run of 300 sold out by August, with digital copies now available.) It also reflects the indie, DIY zine aesthetic, where first-time artists from all walks of life take their place at the table with seasoned professionals, each voice contributing to a balanced meal. As Celine Lota concludes in “Made with Love,” she wants to share what some have “been missing — some home-cooked heritage, made with love.”
Digital PDFs of Lunchbox Moments are available for a suggested donation of $15. All proceeds go to the San Francisco Chinatown Community Development Center, a nonprofit supporting Chinatown restaurants and SRO residents. lunchboxmoments.com.