Papers & Essays

What's in a Lunch

The school where I work is an international junior/senior high school that specializes in returnee education for kids who have lived outside of Japan for an extended period. Having worked there for over ten years, I thought I understood the students' situation well. However, when I asked eighty students to identify a single situation in their international experience that either clearly labeled them as "foreign" or forced them to acculturate to a new environment, I did not expect half of them to identify the same situation, and never one so mundane.

For students who are sent overseas and then return to Japan, there is almost always a period of adjustment, and they are often forced by society to "choose" between one culture and the other. Although the families of the vast majority of students at our school are Japanese, the students themselves may have lived abroad from such an early age that the non-Japanese culture is the one with which they identify more closely on a personal level. "Returning" to Japan, their family's country, forces them to make cultural adjustments. Students who are old enough to have been socialized in Japan when they go to live abroad must adapt, at least to some degree, to their new environment.

After reading an Alexie Sherman essay on that author's feelings when caught between American Indian culture and the mainstream (in his essay, "White") American culture that he was thrust into while in high school, students were asked to write an essay considering one defining moment or event when their "foreignness" - either from being raised outside Japanese culture and then trying to adjust to it, or by moving to a different country and adjusting to the culture there - was brought into focus. In their essays they then had to discuss the episode and what they decided to do about it, if anything.

One might expect that a variety of events would come to light when the question was put to a group of eighty senior high students. Surprisingly, almost half of them identified the same single situation that was the pinnacle of their acculturation, or lack thereof: lunch at school.

Incredibly, students who had lived in countries as far flung as Britain and South Africa commonly wrote about the school lunch experience. For students initially acculturated in America or Japan (the two countries where the majority of our students have lived), the content of one's lunch seemed to be a crucial factor in peer identification and evaluation. For them, a lunch revealed much about home life and a person's standing in their family. Had someone taken time in preparing the lunch, making it look neat and cute or putting in the most recent and coveted snack or dessert? In Japan, apple slices might be cut to look like rabbits, or vegetables like flowers. In America, the crusts might be cut off the bread, or a small gift - a toy or note - might be included in the lunch bag. What about the nutritional content - whole wheat bread verses white - or taste - rice balls with standard-issue pickled plum, or some specially flavored sea vegetable or even salmon? And perhaps most importantly, popularity: the snack or dessert that everyone wants and one that hopefully can be shared with a few lucky friends. In the lunchroom, in the classroom or outside, students scrutinize each other's lunches and often announce the contents of others' meals to the entire room. The lunch determines whether they are to be envied or pitied. It might even be a factor in gaining popularity with a group or becoming ostracized.

Certainly, parents in both America and Japan at least are aware of the seriousness of lunch at school; books on how to prepare a wonderful lunch for your child abound in both countries. On a personal level, I recall spending days planning my daughter's first boxed lunch for her nursery school field trip in Japan. Though she was only three, she returned with a full report on her friends' lunches, even though I never asked.

The content of a lunch can even elicit judgment from teachers. One friend, who happens to be a middle school teacher in Japan, exclaimed over a busy professional single-mother who had sent her daughter on a school excursion with a convenience-store-bought lunch as opposed to homemade fare. According to my friend the teacher, this action bordered on child neglect and garnered the girl the pity of all her teachers. In light of the pressure and significance of the school lunch to adults even within a homogeneous society, it is no wonder such episodes were so crucial to children trying to straddle a considerable cultural gap.

Perhaps the most common dilemma was the dichotomy of the main part of the lunch: rice ball (onigiri) verses sandwich. The pinnacle for many students, it seemed, was the attention focused on this item. For those in non-Japanese countries, having a rice ball in their lunch was the cause of much attention. Cold rice is rarely served in North America or Europe, and sticky rice in a lumpy ball would strike most people outside of Asia as unpalatable. The food only became stranger if it was wrapped in nori, a sea vegetable commonly used in Japan. "It's black. How can you eat something that is black?!" was a shocked classmate's reaction at seeing the lunch of one essay writer.

Yet the outcome of having a traditional Japanese onigiri made lovingly at home that morning would seem to depend more on the student than the lunch. A number of students were greeted with shock and surprise when they pulled rice balls out of their lunches in their respective new classrooms and lunchrooms in the various countries where they had been sent. However, the initial reaction of their peers seemed to have less to do with the final outcome of the episode than how the student handled it.

Some students lacked the confidence, or in some cases the language skills, to explain this exotic food to their classmates. When their peers pronounced their lunch "weird" at best or "disgusting" at worst, they acculturated by bowing to the majority opinion. Some student simply returned home to ask that in lieu of a rice ball, a sandwich be packed from then on. Others, feeling it might be hurtful to their parents to request a different lunch said nothing but threw away their rice-ball lunch every day. These students would then buy lunch with their own pocket money. Such elaborate ruses illustrate how treacherous this situation really is for the students struggling with it. It would not be too much to say that many felt it as a real moral dilemma, one forcing them to choose loyalties between their culture of origin and that of their new environment, bringing into question their personal identity. Feelings that they are betraying "their own" country may come up because of the foods they choose, or choose not, to eat.

However, not all students had such a negative experience. Some of them spoke up in the lunchroom, explaining their traditional cuisine to ignorant classmates. By and large, these students were subsequently supported by teachers or peers who were curious and enlightened enough to see this as a learning opportunity. Such students often described becoming instantly popular and having students ask them for a taste of their unusual fare, or even having other students wanting to trade their own lunch for this "Japanese gourmet meal". One student's family ended up making sushi rolls like mini-onigiri for the school potluck because the "unusual" lunch had become so popular.

The major question that comes from all this for us, as people who care about children, is how we can support them better at these times of difficulty. What can we do to help them emerge from these moral dilemmas being proud of who they are and what they do?

For me, as an educator, my first realization was that I did not always think carefully about the small events in a young person's daily life that might create a difficult situation. When I think about a new student who is entering our school in Japan after having lived abroad for a long time, the points I expect will be difficult are finding classrooms, understanding homework and classroom expectations, proper social interactions with teachers, and making friends. Lunchtime is probably something I would write off as not being a problem, thinking to myself, "Well, they know how to eat!"

In fact, according to the essays I received, it was just this moment that was the most important for most of these students. The CRN Website gives us a great resource by publishing the writing of young people. Please read the essays they have written about these experiences as they appear this year, as well as their other pieces. The first of those specifically referred to for this article is already up and can be viewed at Lunch Time Rice Balls.

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Sarah Ogawa

Sarah Wittenbrink Ogawa first came to Japan in high school as a short-term exchange student. After spending her junior year of college at Doshisha University, she returned to graduate from Smith College in Massachusetts. She moved back to Japan in 1992, where she has worked at a number of schools and in television. She is a faculty member at Doshisha International High School in Kyoto, where she lives with her Japanese husband and their two children. She has done graduate work in both science and the humanities, and holds a Master's Degree from the University of California.
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