“What’s That in Your Lunchbox?”

The play-doh dumpling making station (photo credits to Annie Cheng ’22)

By Karen Lu

Lunchbox! is an art installation and exhibition created by Annie Cheng, ES’ 20, to explore what it meant to be Asian, Asian-American, and mixed; how our childhood experiences (shared or unique) contribute to our current identities as young individuals; and asks us to reflect and engage. Food is an integral, sacred aspect of the Asian culture.

Walking into Annie Cheng’s lunchbox! art exhibit in the Ezra Stiles Art Gallery, I half expected to take my shoes off at the door. I was hit with sensations of my childhood. The fragrance of the lychee jellies permeated the air as viewers peeled back the lids and popped the jellies into their mouths. Bright red wire baskets held White Rabbit, a popular sweet milk candy, and open tins strewn across a wood bench displayed mooncakes, sesame balls, peanut mochi, and almond cookies. Amid crinkles of plastic and foil were the sounds of the Asian Diaspora, notably Phum Viphurit’s Lover Boy. Viewers clustered around a small table on the side, folding gyoza and samosas with brightly colored Play-Doh. A wall of text, distilled into 8.5 x 11 in sheets of printed paper strung along together told the stories of Annie’s childhood and personal reflections. This wall drew the most viewers–or maybe it held the viewers for longer. Relatable stories do tend to have that effect. In fact, reading Annie’s personal childhood experiences reminded me of my own experience in elementary and middle school, family dinners, and holidays. Annie shared her experience of parents and relatives calling her fat, working out to a Women’s Health magazine, and wishing to be taller and skinnier and more white; her experience of refusing to learn Chinese when she was younger and her current regret at not being able to speak it well; and of summers spent in China with her grandparents.  

Paintings, all of Annie’s original works from high school, added splashes of color to the stark white walls. From a chaotic street market scene characterized by the quick brush strokes to a striking painting of a woman with dramatic Beijing-opera-style makeup, all of the paintings represented some part of Annie’s own history and culture, and spoke of the Asian experience. And among Annie’s paintings and words were viewers, familiar and unfamiliar, all deeply captivated.

For the first 30 minutes, viewers—undergraduates and graduate students, Asian and non-Asian, and young and old—walked around, popped sticks of Pocky into their mouths, chatted about their own experiences, with foreign-but-vaguely-recognizable songs playing in the background. Then, the music cut off; now it was a recording of experiences from a diverse range of upbringings:


“You can learn a lot about somebody from what they eat, how they eat, and their history with food.”


“Being a mixed race doesn’t significantly affect my conception of cuisine and food, but I’ll say that I don’t feel the same sense of heritage when my dad cooks Japanese food”  


“Divorcing language from food decontextualized a lot of it.”


“‘I love you’ was bringing cut fruit to your room. ‘I love you’ was getting up early to make breakfast at 4am before leaving for work, at the expense of sleep.”

A viewer pauses to read one of Annie’s childhood experiences.

Though many of us are Asian and connected to the exhibit in similar ways, we resonated with it differently. For Dillon Tjiptamustika (School of Public Health, ‘20) and Cathy Duong, (Morse ‘22), growing up in Southern California meant that this Asian-American experience was incredibly common, almost mundane. They grew up eating snacks like Hello Panda, Nongshim Shrimp Crackers, rice crackers, and Hi-Chew, going regularly to H-mart and local Asian grocery stores, where the first label is in Chinese or Korean characters, and regularly interacting with other Asians. To them, it was like reminiscing about their childhood and looking back at home. Their upbringing also shaped the way they viewed themselves. They never consciously distinguished themselves by race, they never thought “Oh, I’m Asian. I am different in appearance and culture from others.” For instance, because of the diversity and large population of Asians where Dillon lived, bringing cultural foods for school lunch was the norm and hardly ever questioned.

For Annie and I, growing up in a predominantly white (Lakeland, Florida) or Hispanic area (Fort Lauderdale, Florida) respectively, shaped how we viewed ourselves and our race. The notion of race and racism, firmly existed in our minds. It defined how we viewed ourselves and others–there was always the idea of an “other”. It’s interesting to realize this aspect, to realize that difference in perception can lead to completely different yet similar childhood backgrounds.

Of the Yale students who attended, all of them said that they really enjoyed the exhibit. Linh (Branford’ 22), while munching on sticks of Pocky: “I really enjoy this. It’s like walking back into my childhood.”

A jar of lychee jellies.

There were also local New Haveners attracted to the art event, some because of the Lunar New Year celebration held in February and others because of the food.  One of them said that they went to the Lunar New Year celebration in New Haven, and was inspired to go to this one. The other, Angela, a New Haven resident, expressed she just enjoys art and the food. But that’s okay, because part of the Asian experience is to ensure that everyone is full, and that food is a cure-all. I can say with a sense of surety that food is central to the Asian experience. A good host keeps everyone fed. So when I saw that the New Haven residents were enjoying the food–something they’ve tried or never tried before–it made me smile. But of course, they were just snacks. It wasn’t enough to keep them full, and seeing them put extras in their purse to bring home was bittersweet. Growing up, despite all the challenges and obstacles of being children of Asian immigrants, I always had enough to eat.

As one of the first signals of Asian-American identity in the Western imagination, Asian and Asian-American foodstuffs have often been exoticized and maligned. It is the “ew, what smells?” in the elementary school cafeterias, the “why can’t you just eat a PB&J sandwich like the rest of us?” in middle schools, and the “wow, i love sushi” when they see kimbap. Food is fundamental in the formation of Asian identity in its political, cultural, gender and racial ramifications. Lunchbox!, an exhibit on how food plays a role in Asian-identity and childhood, is so powerful not only to the Asian community here but also to those who have experienced assimilation anxiety–of being the “other.” Food is a tool of expression and the dialogue of cultures–of our own and each others.

Karen Lu is a first-year in Franklin College. You can contact her at karen.lu@yale.edu.