In this series, we’re highlighting the stories of people who remain connected to their home countries—either those with immigrant parents or those who are immigrants themselves. With “We Are All Immigrants: Stories About the Places We’re From,” you’ll hear from those most acutely affected by changing policies and a shifting reality, those who exist as part of multiple cultures at once. Here, a writer reflects on the intricacies of elementary school lunchrooms as a first-generation kid.
As a first-generation kid, I experienced what I like to call “The Lunchable Complex.” Allow me to explain: in elementary school, I’d sit alongside my classmates and unpack an insulated lunch box full of lamb koftas, stuffed grape leaves, and spinach bourekas. It sounds amazing if you’re reading this as an urban-dwelling twenty-something who routinely shells out $65 at trendy Middle Eastern tapas joints, but if you’re nine years old, it’s total bullshit. Why? Because Megan’s mom packed her Lunchables, and there’s just no way you’re going to be able to trade your entire tupperware of grape leaves for even one turkey-cheddar cracker.
There’s just no way you’re going to be able to trade your entire tupperware of grape leaves for even one turkey-cheddar cracker.
I shouldn’t need to be the one to tell you that early grade school isn’t exactly the place where differences are celebrated. If you ever watch the original My Big Fat Greek Wedding and come across the early scene in which Toula’s classmates tease her about how her lunch “moussaka” sounds like “moose caca,” you’ll witness, firsthand, what I’m talking about.
Back then, if you opened my refrigerator on any random Saturday after a grocery run—to the Turkish grocery store an hour away—you’d most likely find feta cheese swimming in tubs of salted water, sticky jars of quince jam, and paper cartons of sour cherry juice. When I snooped on my friends’ fridges, I saw bright orange slices of Kraft cheese, peanut butter that had been carefully selected according to salt and texture preference, and sweet, sweet Dr. Pepper. Not to mention pizza bagels.
But while I watched early 00’s rom-coms at a friend’s house, I ate peanut butter and jelly sandwiches that I didn’t actually like—but given the ravenous enthusiasm I showed towards them, it was impossible to tell. Here was a group of American kids, sharing an American snack while watching American television. Once I was old enough to pay my own way to the grocery store, I indulged in Lunchables exactly twice before coming to terms with their disappointing, high fructose corn syrup-ed reality. I realized that it had never really been about the Lunchables themselves, but the sense of belonging that they symbolized. Unwrapping a box of Lunchables would have afforded me the alluring comfort of not having to answer questions about what I was eating and how to pronounce it in “my language” over and over again.
I indulged in Lunchables exactly twice before coming to terms with their disappointing, high fructose corn syrup-ed reality.
As I got older and moved from the lunchroom to an office, I became more comfortable chiming in to a food-related conversation with an example of a Turkish counterpart to an American dish that was being discussed. As an adult, my Turkishness became a unique trait that set me apart, and people now ask me for recommendations on where to find great kebabs or grocery items for a complicated recipe they’re endeavoring—an ironic conclusion to the many years I spent wishing I could have just belonged.
As a writer, the obvious choice for some of my earliest published work was to write about being Turkish, including politics, social issues, literature, and, of course, food. Food ended up being the easiest to write about because I had spent so much time as a child obsessing over its differences relative to what I perceived to be the norm. I had explained the nuances of cacik (chilled yogurt soup with dill, garlic, and cucumber) and ayran (a salted yogurt drink that you can buy in Turkish supermarkets next to bottled water) enough times that I was certainly “writing about what I knew,” as common knowledge urged me to do.
Though I’ve grown into a newfound appreciation and expertise, sometimes it feels like I don’t deserve to write about how to make a traditional rose-scented rice pudding because I spent my formative years wishing I was eating a hostess cupcake instead. I now know that I wasn’t shunned from the other kids at school simply because my mom didn’t buy me the same chips and soda as their moms did. But, if shared recipes can be a cultural vessel that bring groups of people together, then it seems only fair that they can make a first-generation kid feel left out sometimes, too.
Today, I won’t readily opt for pizza bagels over a perfect lamb shawarma, but I also won’t pretend that the satisfaction I get from the former isn’t rooted in my childhood experience. As if pizza bagels needed another reason to taste incredible.
The author requested to be published anonymously to protect their identity.