Being Different

Food for Thought

The embarrassment Asian Americans felt about their homemade school lunch is a common story. Fortunately, my daughter did not experience it because most Americans, particularly New Yorkers, are already familiar with Japanese food. But I understand that feeling of embarrassment; sometimes, I cook a Japanese dish at home that sends an unfamiliar odor to the hallway of our apartment building. But, for everyone to become familiar with something new, someone has to be the trailblazer. In a way, Asian American kids were forced to be one.

I must wonder, however, what these Asian American parents were thinking. Were they aware their kids might be embarrassed by their food at school? Were they oblivious, like they thought American kids ate the same things? How hard could it be to figure out how to make a peanut butter sandwich? They had to be aware. If so, it would mean they deliberately embarrassed their kids. Why?

Here, my intention isn’t to criticize them; I’m curious to know what drove them to insist. Even if they were supremely proud of their cuisines, what did they think they could achieve by embarrassing their kids? If Japanese cuisine was unknown in this country, I couldn’t do that to my child. I’m willing to feel embarrassed about the food I consume, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable forcing my kid to feel embarrassed.

On the flip side, perhaps Asian American kids became more capable of sympathizing with people who are different. Or, maybe attempting to pass as ordinary Americans would sow a deeper sense of shame in a child and cause her to suffer from unconscious imposter syndrome. Maybe, she would be better off feeling embarrassed about her lunch. Maybe these Asian American parents instinctively knew there wasn’t any solution to being different.

There will always be a cost to being different. Everyone wants to be different but not too different. There is a sweet spot beyond which difference becomes undesirable. We see the boundaries of desirable neighborhoods constantly shifting in New York. Just like the artists who moved into Williamsburg, Brooklyn, when it was an undesirable neighborhood, the courage to be different eventually pays off.