The Portrayal of Asian Food in America


A. Guo

Why are we constantly made fun of for the food we bring to school? There is a larger context than you might expect.

The distinct smell of black vinegar and meat-and-egg-filled dumplings wafted through the elementary kid stuffed bus, and the comments were curious, “What is that smell?”, “Where is it coming from?”. Their eyes checked the windows, seats, and people, determined to find the mystery source.

Now sitting ten times more self consciously, I attempted to cover my lunch box’s smell with my large, boxy backpack. My heart stopped as I made eye contact with the girl next to me, “Do you smell that?” she asked, her eyebrows scrunched. I quickly shook my head, silently wishing for the bus to drive faster.

As we arrived at school, my feelings of anxiousness turned into anger, why did my mom have to pack such a smelly lunch? Why did black vinegar smell so strong? Why couldn’t I just eat lunchables and pizza like the other kids? 


This damage of relationship to food ties to a larger narrative of xenophobia and racism. In specific regards to Asians and Asian Americans, exoticizing foods has led to real consequences for Asian-owned businesses and restaurants. When looking at the rise in hate crimes, Covid-19 was constantly linked to false rumors about a Chinese women catching Covid when eating a bat. In more subtle attacks there are examples like the labels displaying “MSG FREE” which continue from the elementary disgust of Asian food.

Uncleanliness has a long association with Asian Americans: dating back to The Page Act in 1875 where Asian women were characterized as disease-ridden prostitutes. During the Second Opium War, there was a fascination and fear of “Chinese ways of eating”. In the 1980s, MSG was falsely blamed for a variety of physical conditions while being associated with Chinese restaurants.

So while a small remark on the smell of bean paste may seem insignificant, those regards stem from much more historical and systemic issues.