Kimbap, kimchi and me


By Jae-Ha Kim
November 3, 2014

I still remember this scene from “The Breakfast Club.” As all the kids in detention pull out their bagged lunches, rich girl Claire (played by Molly Ringwald) carefully lays out her bento box, which is filled with sushi.

The other teens stare at her and give her a bit of a hard time. But, because she’s one of the popular kids, it doesn’t go much beyond that.

This film was released just shy of 30 years ago. And while sushi is commonplace these days, it’s still not the type of meal most parents pack for their kids — not in the United States, anyhow.

The other night, my son was eating some Chinese bao for dinner. The meat-filled bun had just been steamed and was soft and flagrant. He enjoyed his bao so much that he asked if he could take one to lunch today.

I hesitated.

On the one hand, there was the logistics of keeping the bao warm enough to still be tasty at lunch.

But, I was also worried what the other children might say.

A friend has told me that classmates had teased both her daughters for bringing pea soup and guacamole for lunch. But, with Kyle, there’s the added factor that he’s one of the few minorities at school. I don’t want to open him up to teasing for what he likes to eat.

Not too long ago, when the weather was nice, my family was having a little picnic dinner of rice (밥), Korean ribs (갈비) and crisped & roasted seaweed (김). I didn’t bring kimchi (김치) on purpose, because I didn’t want the aroma to attract unwanted attention. Still, a little girl wrinkled up her nose and said, “What is that?!”

She was just a little girl without a filter. So I explained to her what it was and she said, “That’s weird.”

I was about to tell her what was in her hot dog, but decided against it. Instead, I explained, “It’s not weird. It’s just different.”

She repeated herself and went about her business.

A long time ago when I was maybe 6 or 7 years old, my mother and uncle took us kids to Adventureland. At the time, it was the largest amusement park in Illinois. It was quite a treat for us to get to spend the day there. While my uncle took us on the rides, my mother guarded our picnic basket, which she had carefully packed with kimbap — which is standard Korean picnic fare — banchan and bottles of Coca-Cola.

We finally convinced my mother to come on some rides with us. This was America, we told her. Our food would be safe if we just left it at the picnic table. Unconvinced, my mother asked a family if they would watch our basket until we returned in about 15-20 minutes.

“Sure!” they promised. “No problem! Have fun.”

I’m not sure how long they waited before they started picking through our food. But, when we returned, there was nothing salvageable to eat. They had drank all our sodas and taken bites of our food. That they didn’t like our picnic was obvious, because they had smashed everything that they hadn’t already tried to show their distaste.

This wasn’t a group of kids. This was a family, with adult parents.

My mother was shocked. She couldn’t believe that Americans would do such a thing. She also was sad not because they didn’t like her food — which she would have gladly shared had they asked — but because they made the choice to waste it.

When my mother was a young bride, beggars used to show up at our house in Seoul. She would give them what she could spare, but often it wasn’t much. One day, she gave some old rice to a hungry woman, who gratefully ate it, though the rice was probably spoiled. My sister — who was very young at the time — watched her. The woman, thinking that my sister might be hungry, offered to share the rice my mother had given her.

This starving woman had more decency than these horrible people who clearly had never gone hungry in their lives.

I wonder if my mother thought of this as she packed school lunches for us that all the other moms of that era made — white bread slathered with butter or Miracle Whip and a few slices of deli meat. I wonder if she missed preparing the rice, vegetables and fish she would make for my siblings when they went to school in Korea.

I would’ve preferred to eat Korean lunches, but I now understand why kimbap was never an option.

When I was little, people would talk about what weird things we must eat in front of me, as if I couldn’t understand. I remember the comedian Redd Foxx making disparaging remarks about how one of his ex wives — who was Korean American — ate bugs. (It was actually pan-fried anchovies, one of my absolute favorite treats.) When we were adopting our son, some people joked that he would be used to eating dog meat. Ha ha.

These are the same people who enjoy eating a scoop of beige casserole made from a can of cream of mushroom soup and potato chips. I say this not to make fun of that dish — although it’s one that I personally don’t like — but because what’s odd to one person is something that makes another’s mouth water.

In one of my first jobs as a reporter, I was friendly with a colleague who was half Korean. Sometimes, we would sit at her desk and eat some of the treats her mom packed for her. Don’t you know that someone called security on us, saying that we were disturbing the newsroom with smelly food. (Mind you — this was in an office where carryout included Thai, Chinese, Mexican, Japanese and Middle Eastern meals, in addition to the standard soup and salad fare.)

To his credit, the security guard all but rolled his eyes when he heard her complaint. And he gladly accepted when my friend offered him some Korean food.

I didn’t end up sending my son to school with bao in his lunchbox. I packed mac and cheese for him instead.

One day, when he’s a little older and less likely to burst into tears if teased, I will let him choose. But, today wasn’t that day.

©2014 JAE-HA KIM | All Rights Reserved 

Comments (34)

  1. femme-fatiguee says:

    It’s a shame that those of us with ethnic food have to food assimilate because of things like this :/ I’m sorry that happened.

  2. admiralmackbar says:

    kids can be so rude. the pressure to conform to western “norms” begins so early

  3. chipmnk says:

    Gosh, that sounds delicious to me.

  4. talkinboutstuffseoul says:

    My Korean friend lived in the states and used to get crap for his Korean food until one of the star football players stopped by his table, looked at his food, asked to try it, freaked out over how good it was, and no one ever made fun of him again.

    • Lauren Miller says:

      Yeah, I know this is human nature. But it’s irritating that when the ethnic kid brings it, let’s make fun of him. But when the popular kid eats it, that’s so cool!

  5. enseoulment says:

    My mom once packed me leftover oxtail stew for lunch. I got teased and was really upset by it until my mom pointed out that the other kids were eating mayonnaise sandwiches and I had an awesome meal made by my abuela. Made me feel so much better ha!

  6. moonberrypie says:

    I don’t really have a filter *and* I’m antagonistic, so her little feelings would have probably been bruised when I answered, “It’s delicious as Hell. That’s what it is. Now, run along.”

  7. path-to-personal-eudaimonia says:

    *raises hand* even bigger food snob… anything canned makes me gag.

  8. ladyfaceshai says:

    It’s so hard to balance not wanting your child to get teased and also not wanting him to learn he has to change and assimilate. I wish I’d had more Korean influence in my youth. Hearts to you and your son.

  9. charlieismyalias says:

    You should just say, it’s Korean food, much better tasting than the dry sandwiches which taste like cardboard those kids are given every day. One thing I wish growing up was having Asian food instead of crappy cafeteria food for lunch!

  10. nnamu says:

    지랄.. our culture has over five thousand years of history and survival, and still this shit.. head up, chest out. my love to you and your family, and to your son.. broke my heart to learn that my mom did the same for me.

  11. Robert Steffeck says:

    My son took Pad Thai today, but he’s a little older.

  12. Kim Jaehwa says:

    I would’ve done the same thing.

  13. Judy Lee says:

    I’ve packed mandoo in my son’s lunch in Kindergarten with no issues. A friend packed gimbap in her 2nd graders and she thinks he was teased. We were both shocked because Korean food is very trendy where we live.

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      The seaweed smell, I think, is what some kids don’t like. Their loss!

    • Judy Lee says:

      Seriously but considering seaweed is sold at Costco now and there is a Korean recipe on the back of Heinz ketchup, we’ve come a long way. I remember my mom packing gimbap in the early 80s and kids being very curious but not teasing. Hope there’s more progress because people are missing out!

  14. Mike Kessler says:

    I eat something similar all the time:

  15. Sabine says:

    Happily kids can eat a variety of ethnic foods nowadays without the teasing that we had gotten as children. It seems that kids seem more open and curious as well. We were always made fun of for our strange German cold cuts or liver sausage on rye bread.

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      My mom never sent us to school with Korean food, and we were told not to eat kimchi in the morning because it would offend Americans. Honestly, some of the smelliest foods to me are things like cheese (which I enjoy, but man, it does smell awful — to me) and yogurt (which I don’t like).

  16. Val says:

    My mom used to make these delicious breaded veal chops. They were weird looking, but I did take them to school once I think. I do remember feeling odd, but I felt odd throughout much of my childhood, being one of the only Jewish children in a very non-Jewish community…Hmmm… tricky stuff this parenthood. Luckily, he has you for a mom and that is the best gift of all.

  17. Deb Bissen says:

  18. Diana says:

    I think you’d be surprised. Most kids would prob want to eat his lunch!! I wouldn’t worry too much

  19. Harriet says:

    Grrrrrrrrrr!!! I am a white (British heritage) Canadian and will eat absolutely anything from anywhere anytime! I actually prefer rice and noodle dishes (and of course sushi – bah!) Not surprisingly, I married a Filipino man. One of the things he loved about me from the start was I ate a pile of fried herring with his Dad without batting an eye! My son is (as you know) of Jamaican heritage and he goes to a school that is about 10% euro-Canadian; it’s largely Asian (of various ethnicities -Indian, Vietnamese, Filipino, Chinese) so sandwiches are the odd lunch out! Most kids bring something interesting in a thermos. LOL.

  20. Denise Adams says:

    Dd (8) took spinach tofu stew and rice to school the other day. I warned her what might happen. She got a few eews and, a couple “I like it too” from other kids who had tried korean food in the past .dd doesn’t care if others don’t approve

  21. Nancy says:

    I wonder if the other kids would even notice (I know you mention that another child got teased, but still think that wouldn’t happen). I have been worried about many things with my kids, just trying to protect them. I think for the most part, my worry has been for nothing. I feel like if asked, ‘what’s that,’ Kyle would answer ‘a steamed bun’ and keep eating. The other kids would keep eating too. Send the steamed bun if he wants it.

    • Lisa says:

      I 100% agree with Nancy. My first reaction was “really? With he get teased?” I think it would more likely be met with curiosity rather than ridicule. And honestly, Kyle might just be the perfect kid to broaden the horizons of any curious lunchmates!

    • Lauren Miller says:

      With all due respect, which part don’t you think would happen? The part that she just said happened? LOL!

    • Jae-Ha Kim says:

      Two children who I personally know were made fun of for their lunches, to the point that there were tears. These incidents happened recently. One of them just last week. I’d love it if children were more accepting. But I also don’t want Kyle to be the one to carry the burden. As adults, it’s easy to be a bit more cavalier. Honestly, I don’t care if people make fun of my food. Good. More for me! 😉 But try to remember back to when you were 6 or 7 when you just wanted to fit in.

  22. Frannie Miller says:

    I relate to everything you wrote. What people forget is that kids can be little assholes. Keep on doing what you’re doing, momma. Protect your son and when he’s a little older and able to “defend” himself better verbally, send him to school with whatever you think is appropriate.

  23. rainbowlionsanddancingfoxes says:

    They are idiots. Don’t waste your time on them girl.

  24. the-voyage-never-ends says:

    I believe you. I just can’t believe it happened. Does that make sense? I mean I can’t believe people can be such total and utter shits.

  25. Kim Jaehwa says:

    I’m actually surprised at some of the comments. Either some of you didn’t read the post or you think things like this don’t happen anymore. She said that kids were teased for their lunches and yet you question her and say you don’t think it would happen. It happens. I think that unless you’ve been teased for not being white, you don’t really know what it means to be teased for being different. Yes, we can all be teased for being fat or thin or from the East Coast or the West Coast. But to be teased because of your race or ethnicity is something you can’t really understand if you have never been the minority. Ways to point out how different people are is to make fun of their features, skin color, accents and yes, even the unusual foods they eat.

    Yes if the blond cheerleader brought a bao or kimbap to school, her friends might rib her a bit but they won’t ask her if there’s dogmeat in her bao because why would there be? But that’s exactly what they asked my child when she brought her lunch to school because they thought it was FUNNY. “Is that why you don’t have pets? Because your mom cooks them? hahahahahaha.” My daughter is older than yours, Jae, and we live in a very liberal area. But liberal doesn’t mean equal. And all you parents who think this doesn’t happen in your school, church, neighborhood, think again. Kids do things when you’re not looking. That doesn’t meant they’re necessarily bad. But that doesn’t make them good either.

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