Your College Unnie: Lunar Lunchbox

An illustration of a lunchbox filled with asian cuisine.
(Andrea Orozco | Daily Trojan)


Elementary students gather around a hexagonal wooden table. Eyes are bright in anticipation as voices chatter excitedly and shoulders are jostled. One by one, lunchboxes are slid up from under the table and opened. They are pink, yellow and blue; tin and nylon and brown paper bags; rectangle and square and pyramid shaped. They all hold similar lunches — PB&J or crackers and cheese with bite-sized morsels of fruit or dessert.

<Zoom, AE Lock on girl in bottom left corner>

Dark hair in neatly plaited braids and almond eyes that cautiously study her peers break with the table’s standard Western features. 

After a moment of observing, she hesitantly pulls her rectangular pink plaid lunchbox towards her. Brows furrowed, she slowly drags the zipper along its path, pausing briefly before peeling back the top flap. Her tablemates, intrigued, lean in and vie for a look.

“Ew, what is that?”

<End scene>

Despite having lived in the US for over 18 years, as a Korean American, there were (and still are) times where I don’t feel rooted. Maybe it’s a white substitute teacher who doesn’t care to take attendance and pronounce the majority of Asian names on the list because, in her words, “they’re too difficult and she didn’t grow up in the system.” Or this: the lunchbox scene. In this case, it’s often the result of innocent ignorance — genuine unfamiliarity paired with a lack of proper manners. Yet, regardless of the intention, the impact is still there. The feeling of being different. “Other.”

While you can try to “teach” them, in most cases, I found that my sense of unease came not from others, but from within. 

“Why would they say that? Was I really that different?” were the questions I asked myself.

In reality, the questions I should’ve asked were “Why do I care so much?” “Why am I insecure in my identity?” “Why do I think being different is a bad thing?”

It’s not. But we’re conditioned to think it is. 

I love food. Give me a time and a place, and I’ll be there. Which is pretty great, because gastronomically, my hometown is pretty diverse. Within a 30-45 minute radius, restaurants offer dishes ranging from Nigerian-style small chops to locally-sourced French pâté. There’s a multitude of boba shops abound — as a regular at Gong cha, Tiger Sugar and ShareTea, I can confirm. Yet, despite the rich food and diverse opportunities, I found myself unable to share this same zeal when it came to food from my own culture.

It’s almost as if I was blocked from loving Korean food. No matter how many times I ate it or was around it, I just, couldn’t. Whenever I would see or smell the bright aromas of kimchi or other, voices from my past would mix in with the scents. “You’re not Korean enough,” “Are you even Korean?,” “You sound so white!” Rather than enjoying the spicy, sweet and umami flavors, each bite reminded me that I fell short of expectation. In a way, I couldn’t let myself fully embrace Korean food. I didn’t think I was deserving of it. I didn’t think I was enough to enjoy it and represent Korean culture.

My first semester of college, I didn’t go home until winter break. “Home” is over 1,400 miles away. Deeply wistful, I turned to the last thing I thought I would: Korean food and culture. From connecting with the Korean American Student Association, to regularly relying on microwavable white rice, Kang Ho Dong Baekjeong, BCD Tofu House and Oakobing, when everything was in limbo, I turned back to my roots. To food.

Food plays a big role in our lives. You need food to survive, and what food you choose to eat is based on a set of variables, including availability, proximity, efficiency, ability and more. Food, simply put, is deeply intertwined with culture and identity. 

Lunar New Year, or Spring Festival, is based in China´s origin as an agricultural society: a celebration of and request for good harvests. Partakers typically eat fish (meaning surplus or abundance) for good luck, glutinous rice ball soup, New Year’s cake and Jiǎozi. 

In Vietnamese culture, Lunar New Year is called Tết. During this time, Viet households are adorned with kumquat trees and flowers, and stomachs are satisfied with five-fruit platters, bánh chưng (savory sweet rice cakes) and bites of sugar-laden dried fruits or roasted seeds known as mứt tết.

For Koreans celebrating Seollal, charye, a tea offering ceremony, tteokguk, rice cake soup, and Dosoju, liquor for ‘fending off evil spirits,’ is customary. These items are often supplemented with other Korean dishes and drinks, such as sikhye, hangwa, japchae, galbijjim and jeon.

Asian cultures and societies each celebrate Lunar New Year differently, but they all have one thing in common: food. Some foods represent abundance, prosperity and good luck. Others, such as those made from glutinous rice, symbolize togetherness. 

This Seollal, I unfortunately won’t be home. As I write this, I’m typing on my iPad on an offline Google doc in the middle seat of a truck on my way to Mammoth. 

But, I’ll still be celebrating in my own ways. That is, Shin Ramyun over the stove on Sunday. On Monday, I’m heading with a friend over to Seong Buk Dong for some tteokguk (although their samgyetang is looking pretty tempting…), and later, Oakobing. 

While children may have similar lunchboxes, the contents are unique. Each lunch is crafted with love and is indicative of identity, culture and community. In short, there is no cookie cutter recipe to being perfect, or being Korean. It matters not what others think, but what you think, the value you place on the topic discussed and in what ways you internalize or externalize it. 

When you open up the box, look at the things placed inside. This Lunar New Year, it’s in the little things. The big things. The random things. The pretty things. The ugly things. The difficult things.

The tasty things.

Victoria Lee is a freshman writing about the AAPI experience in America. She is also the Wellness and Community Outreach Director for the Daily Trojan. Her column, “Your College Unnie,” typically runs every other Wednesday.