How Timothy Goes to School Captured My Lunchbox Moment

The Girl Who Was Ashamed of Her Culture’s Cuisine

I never would have thought that I’d relate so much to a cartoon Japanese cat. When it came to my favorite TV show, Timothy Goes To School, I was forced to confront many of my own struggles with cultural identity. 

This animated show surrounds the adventures of a 5-year-old raccoon named Timothy, who experiences the joys of kindergarten class alongside several other peers. 

In episode 02 of the first season of the show, Yoko is bullied for bringing an amazing-looking sushi lunch to school only to find out from her peers that it’s disgusting, not normal, and looks like it’s moving. As Yoko urges her mom to bring cheeseburgers for international food day, her mom insists on creating deluxe sushi not knowing the struggles Yoko has already been facing at school. 

While everyone else devours the other international foods such as enchiladas and spaghetti, Yoko’s sushi is left untouched which leaves her at her lowest point. Timothy, after failing to try any of the foods, desperately eats the sushi and ends up thoroughly enjoying it, urging Yoko to bring more the next day.

That gradual change of heart and open-mindedness that was shown from Timothy is what saves people like Yoko from abandoning their culture. 

This was Yoko’s lunchbox moment.

What is the ‘Lunchbox Moment?’

The lunchbox moment is regarded as the first time BIPOC, especially immigrant communities such as Asian Americans experience racism at school and more specifically during lunchtime. It has been dubbed the “lunchbox moment” as it occurs when a child brings an ethnic meal packed by their parents. 

Michael Spencer, a professor in social work at the University of Washington and director of the university's Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander, and Oceanic Affairs dissects the process. Spencer affirms that children feel very ashamed of what they have when opening their lunchboxes. This reaction is the result of the cultural differences between their food and other students,’ leaving a lasting impression.

“The kinds of behaviors that children are socialized to at a young age around race, around culture, around difference, whether it be accepting or not accepting, are the kinds of values that stay with people for a long time”

— Michael Spencer, Professor in Social Work at the University of Washington and Director of the university's Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander and Oceanic Affairs 

New Generations of Asian Immigrants Address the ‘Lunchbox Moment’

This subject is central to my experiences with anti-Asian racism, which as noted by Spencer stem from stereotypes around our cuisines. Being slammed with hate comments about not bringing “normal food” for lunch or being asked repeatedly if I eat dogs or worms, became a constant obstacle in my life. 

While I was aware of the racism and discrimination I experienced, I only learned of the phrase a few years ago when my older sister, Meegan Lim, was creating her zine, MSG: The Craving for Cultural Embrace. This is when I finally started coming to terms with the several ways I have internalized racism via fear of bullying. While effective as a temporary coping mechanism, it worsened the extreme insecurities I was facing being one of very few East/Southeast Asian students at school.

Throughout elementary school, I convinced my mom to pack more sandwiches and other stereotypical American/Canadian meals to avoid bullying. I had undergone a period of only eating sandwiches which I absolutely resented, but for the sake of acceptance and comfort, I abandoned my cultural cuisine. The shame was not always present as sometimes I did bring Chinese and Malaysian dishes to school. My mom packed me various traditional meals ranging from dim sum, sticky rice, steamed fish, satay, chao fan, kaya toast, and lots of char siu; but as expected, I was still harassed and called out.

The pure racism and xenophobia in these early years of childhood were not bred from malice and hate, but rather sheer ignorance and a lack of cultural awareness. Just as it is for many others, food is an essential part of my culture, so when I was made to feel isolated, abnormal, and disgusting, I blamed my mom. Insulting our cuisine has been normalized to the point that I conformed and joined along, making fun of the things I ate just to feel accepted. 

Even in kindergarten, I had understood the cultural barriers between me and my classmates. My lived experience coupled with the toxic media portrayals of my people resulted in a loss of culture through refusing to learn my mother tongue and trying to assimilate as much as possible. 

The Harm of White Ignorance and Anti-Asian Racism on Television

When activist and social media influencer, Kim Saira, started a petition to boycott James Corden’s racist segment, Spill Your Guts or Fill Your Guts, I was once again reminded of these traumatic memories.

James Corden under fire over ‘culturally offensive’ Spill Your Guts Late Late Show segment: More than 13,000 people sign petition claiming 'weird food' feature ‘encourages anti-Asian racism’. Photos by Daily Mail

The racially insensitive segment is a "truth or dare" styled game where celebrity guests must either answer a difficult question or consume foreign food. However, many of those foods are traditional Asian meals such as balut, century eggs, chicken feet, bird’s nest soup and more. 

Kim Saira (M) leads a protest in front of CBS Television City, demanding the host of The Late Late Show, James Corden, apologize for negatively portraying Asian food. Photo courtesy of Kim Saira

People are victims of hate crimes and murdered for appearing as East or Southeast Asian due to these sinophobic tropes and monoliths. During the height of the COVID-19 pandemic, much of this xenophobia is what fuelled the violence against Asian communities. Chinese people were blamed for starting the pandemic due to the usage of wet markets and consumption of foods perceived as foreign and dangerous.

For more information please review the following article written by Michelle T. King, Jia-Chen Fu, Miranda Brown, and Donny Santacaterina.

“Rumour, Chinese Diets, and COVID-19”

While viewers and supporters of the series interpret it as comedy, many of us recall years of intense pain. Only within the past few years have I finally embraced my cultural identity in many of its forms. The internalized racism and xenophobia will always be a part of me but slowly I am reconnecting and relearning how to feel proud and confident of who I am and where I’m from.

Have you ever had a lunchbox moment? What food were you eating?

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To further read about how cultural identity and food intersect, see the links below! 

The Limits of the Lunchbox Moment ︳Eater Essays

Lunchbox Moment ︳Sparks

MSG in Chinese food isn't unhealthy -- you're just racist, activists say ︳CNN

Racism targets Asian food, business during COVID-19 pandemic ︳PBS News Hour

'Chinese Restaurant Syndrome' - what is it and is it racist? ︳US & Canada