Why you should care
I’ll take your hamburgers and fries … and raise you a gimbap, banchan and japchae.
A young, impressionable Korean-American child squats atop a toilet to avoid being seen by other children, eating rice with a banchan (side dish), while silently choking back tears. This is an all-too-familiar story to Korean-Americans who, like me, fell victim to the stares and criticism of other children every time they broke open their dosirak, a Korean lunchbox, arduously prepared by their immigrant mothers.
My friend Cat Lewis, a Korean-American who grew up in Colorado, tells me her mother also prepared her a dosirak with the little utensil set — a spoon and chopsticks — early each day before school. It was filled with japchae (stir-fried glass noodles with vegetables), rice, gimbap (Korean rice roll) or banchan, because they were healthier than cafeteria food. Occasionally her mother packed her a thermos of bean sprout (kongnamul) or seaweed (miyeok) soup. “Obviously the smells were off-putting to many of the kids. I really liked eating it, but it was really embarrassing, so I would eat it in the toilet stall …,” Lewis explains.
No child should ever feel they have to hide their food or culture.
The subtle racism toward Asian food in America cannot be ignored. Chef David Chang, my hero since he made it nationally acceptable to eat kimchi in public, said it best while talking with Trevor Noah in March about food views in the United States. “[There’s] hidden racism in how people perceive … basically anything that’s different from mainstream America,” Chang commented. But that doesn’t mean American schoolchildren need to remain oblivious to the wondrous sights, smells and tastes of my mother’s favorite dishes.
In fact, no child should ever feel they have to hide their food or culture. Education in this great melting pot needs to ensure kids are exposed to new cultures in schools and that differences are celebrated. So, to push back in a positive way, I say it’s time to institute Korean Food Days in schools across the U.S., forcing all students to try Korean dishes at least one day each year.
Marion Nestle, professor of nutrition, food studies and public health at New York University, believes introducing children to new cuisines is important, because, in an increasingly globalized world, we need to appreciate and understand one another. “The earlier children are exposed to different foods, the more they are willing to try them,” she advises. Research shows that many children need to be offered something new 20 to 30 times before they begin to accept it.
“Food is one of life’s greatest pleasures and exposing children to many different kinds of foods at an early age sets them up for a lifetime of enjoyment,” Nestle says. Korean Food Days would require children to open their mouths and hearts to an unfamiliar, incredibly healthful cuisine that includes seaweed soup (rich in vitamins A and E), different marinated roots (namul) and, my absolute favorite, delectable rice cakes (dduk) dipped in sesame oil and honey.
Even though there is so much more to Korean cuisine than kimchi, we can have our children sample that too since many Americans find it especially weird. There are more than 100 varieties of kimchi, some of which aren’t stereotypically spicy at all, like mul-kimchi (water kimchi) or chicken-mu (slightly sweet pickled radish that is traditionally consumed with Korean fried chicken).
“Food is more popular than ever before, and it intersects so many different parts of culture through the world,” Chang has said. I believe that we can live in an America where Korean-American children are no longer teased to the point of tears for wanting to eat their soybean sprout soup at school during lunch. So, fellow Americans, let’s make this happen now, not just for Korean-American children but for children of all ethnicities. Let’s educate our children through food, and change futures and lives.
Here’s a template of a letter you can send to your school district to get the gimbap rolling.
To Whom it May Concern,
I am writing to you to kindly demand that you institute a [INSERT ETHNICITY HERE] Food Day in our schools. This will ensure our children try new foods and experience different cultures. It is our duty as adults to raise empathetic and culturally aware children who celebrate and respect diversity. Let’s start with food.
Thank you for your time.