When I was younger, I never realized how much the scrutiny and judgment of The Lunch Table influenced my insecurity over food. Back then, the kids who brought Little Debbie brownies and peanut butter sandwiches in pretty pink lunch boxes reigned supreme while I started as one of the lowly peasants who bought rubbery hotdogs in the lunch line. Every day, the lunchbox kids whispered about my grubby, oily, disgusting pizza as I did the walk of shame down table aisles. Believing I was what I ate, I looked down at the soggy, spongy, vaguely triangular lump topped with bleached white cheese and mysteriously fluorescent orange pepperoni. I couldn't help but see the resemblance. It was pitiful and revolting like me.
Eventually, I became too self-conscious to endure the daily ridicule of buying lunch. I resorted to bringing leftovers from home though I still faced the same problems from before. The minute I opened my lunchbox in public, it was subject to the prying eyes of my classmates. The container of fen si filled with delicate rice noodles and tender bean sprouts that left a fragrant aroma of sesame oil in my mouth drove people miles away from my lonely spot at the lunch table.
However, not all hope was lost. Sushi was my saving grace that possessed the exotic allure needed to turn me into an overnight sensation. The colorful and mysterious ingredients all wrapped in a neat little package must have intrigued people without being too foreign to gross them out. I finally became an object of interest. People stared when I opened my lunchbox. People asked questions about my food. People even offered to trade their snacks that I yearned for so badly just to taste my sushi. I finally felt like I had friends; like I had been accepted.
Then, on a fateful day, my 15 minutes of fame came to a head when one of the popular girls in our grade asked if she could have a piece. I was stunned beyond belief. Out of all the plebeians with their GoGurt and Kraft Mac and Cheese, she had chosen me! This was my moment to shine, to prove I was one of them. Deeply honored, I gave her my best piece and waited expectantly. The entire room held its breath for her verdict while her face wrinkled into a grimace of repulsion. Slowly, she spit out my limp, slimy sushi and told me, "It tastes raw." My heart plummeted to the dirty cafeteria floor.
I was crestfallen. With just three words, she had crushed any sense of self-confidence I had built up from the past month. I forced a chuckle and masked my hurt with indifference. The words "It tastes raw" echoed in my head that day bouncing back into my consciousness just when I had forgotten it. It constantly nagged at my mind reminding me that I didn't belong. I wonder if that girl noticed me stowing the sushi away into the shameful depths of my lunchbox.
I stopped bringing sushi to school for a while, not out of disgust but something vaguely akin to fear. I pestered my mom to buy peanut butter and jelly, turkey and mayonnaise, Lunchables and Capri Suns. I perfected my technique of hiding food under the table and tried to make my lunch taste more like food. All the while, neglected, stale leftovers kept accumulating in the refrigerator with no one to eat or acknowledge them.
However, when I met an Indian girl who had moved to our school from Michigan, there was something in me that changed. I finally had someone who was just as insecure and embarrassed about her food as I was — someone who could relate to my experiences. As we gradually became friends, she hid her Indian roti beside my Chinese chao mian. It was the first time I didn't feel alone as we shared the trivial yet impactful shaming subtly placed on our food.
I finally found community and pride in being an outsider away from the choking reigns of lunchtime society. I finally learned to accept myself and understand the misunderstanding of others. In the solidarity of our misfortunes, we slowly helped rebuild each other until our food resurfaced from under the table. Indian and Chinese sat there uncertainly at first but more surely as time went on. They were two islands in a sea of American.
One year later, I set a small box of sushi on the lunch table again. This time, my friend and I split it, relishing the shrimp, cucumber, and egg wrapped in a blanket of seaweed while everyone else stared. My sushi had never looked better. It stood tall, upright, beautiful, and proud in the face of PB&J sandwiches as it boasted its wonderfully fluffy rice and explosion of colors in the center. Out of the corner of my eye, I saw the girl who had humiliated me.I grinned and offered her another piece of sushi.