Growing up in Marin County, just north of San Francisco, Jeffrey Zhenhua Liu ’16 remembers his peers making fun of him at lunchtime for the Cantonese-style fried rice and Zhejiang-style dry noodles his mom packed for him. “I was one of the only nonwhite students at my high school,” says Liu, who is Chinese Cambodian.
Anthony Shu ’16 had a similar experience. Kids in school called him slurs — “it was almost an everyday occurrence for me,” says Shu, who is Chinese American. “Many Asian Americans feel their first sense of difference when they are made fun of because people think their food is weird or smelly.”
When anti-Asian sentiment surfaced during the pandemic, the pair — along with Diann Leo-Omine and Shirley Huey — helped create a zine called Lunchbox Moments featuring Asian American and Pacific Islander writers and artists exploring their relationship with food and cultural identity. Proceeds from sales of the zine will go to San Francisco’s Chinatown Community Development Center.
The pair’s first foray into food journalism was at Princeton, where they started an online magazine, Spoon University — Princeton, which sponsored social events around dining and sought to introduce students to cuisine they weren’t familiar with. They also spent time together in a rented car exploring the New Jersey food scene, from the food trucks at Rutgers to the many Asian restaurants in Edison. A favorite spot was EPS Corner on Nassau Street — it has since closed — where they discovered Sichuan dry hot pot. “We were going there every week and had ordered everything else on the menu,” Liu recalls.
Shu, a sociology major, spent a summer working at a cooking school in Paris through Princeton in France and wrote his thesis on food and culture. After graduation, he worked for a year as a line cook in San Francisco restaurants before taking a position as a senior digital content coordinator at Second Harvest of Silicon Valley, one of the nation’s largest food banks. He also is a freelance food writer.
Liu is an architect who works as a project designer at John Friedman Alice Kimm Architects in Los Angeles and is an editor at the Yale School of Architecture’s student-run journal, Perspecta.
They hope Lunchbox Moments’ 28 essays and works of art help readers explore “the incredible diversity of experiences for Asian Americans” around food, Shu says. “There is a range of emotions: anger, sadness, shame, pride, and celebration.” Essays with titles that include “I Don’t Want to Tell You What’s for Lunch” and “Wrapped with Love, Eaten with Shame” examine the way that “sometimes food comforts you, sometimes it alienates you from the majority population,” Liu says. Stephen Li ’16 and Kingston Xu ’16 contributed pieces.
Three hundred copies of the magazine will be printed, each selling for $30. A digital version will be available after paper copies have sold out.
The zine’s creators also hope it counters the myth of Asian Americans as “the model minority.” “There’s this perception that we don’t face discrimination,” Shu says. “There are experiences that Asians have that are not often told and need to be told.”