What comes to mind at those words? A shriveled, ragged rug, covered in dust? A dilapidated blanket held together by only thin threads, now flimsy with age?
I see an elementary-school cafeteria, buried underneath eight years of memories. A young Asian girl sitting at the end of a long, wooden table, a phantom boy on her right. I don’t remember his name, nor his stature nor the color of his eyes or hair. I only remember what he said to me, the girl beside him, his words tearing through my skin, opening a wound bleeding so much shame and insecurity that it took years to heal.
As I reflect on his words right now, I feel I may have overreacted a little, taking offense at such a silly comment. Had he said the same thing to me today, I would have laughed. But I was younger, much more vulnerable, and I didn’t understand. Looking back, I don’t think he did either. He was just a child, swinging words around like a scythe, unsure of what he was saying and unaware of who he would strike. And he just so happened to strike me.
Perhaps he didn’t mean what he said. But the emotional blow he had inflicted upon me with his ignorant words had still hurt.
When I was young, I remember my favorite Vietnamese food being com voi ruoc - rice with rousong. Rousong, a dried pork product that originated in China, had a light, fluffy texture and an appearance resembling brown wool. Whenever I had a spoonful of it with rice, it may have been a bit of a challenge to chew, but its meaty, savory flavor always satisfied my tongue. I had no shame bringing it to lunch in my sky blue lunchbox - until I realized ruoc wasn’t the usual meal of the typical American first grader.
As I took my assigned lunchroom seat at the end of the table, I glanced around nervously, seeing sandwiches and apple slices and juice. No ruoc.
I was hungry and eager to taste my favorite food again, though a little hesitant to pull out the tupperware container that held my meal. The moment I removed the lid, I looked down the table to see if anyone had seen my lunch.
The boy beside me had.
"What are you eating?” he had demanded, disgusted, his loud exclamation turning the heads of the other children. Before I had a chance to reply, he stood and shouted down the table - and I’m using his exact wording here - “Caroline’s lunch looks like dried-up carpet!”
Immediately the image of lint clumps sticking to one of my grandparents’ carpets came to mind. I imagined them in my rice, thinking, that’s what ru?c must look like to him. I was mortified. I don’t remember the reactions of the other kids - all I remember is the wave of humiliation that came crashing down upon me. I didn’t eat that day. When my parents later asked me why I didn’t finish my lunch, I was too embarrassed to tell them what had happened. “I wasn’t hungry,” I’d lied.
"But it’s your favorite,” they’d protested, and proceeded to pack me ruoc the next day.
And so my shame continued. On the days I came to lunch knowing I had ruoc in my lunchbox, I’d done my best to hide my food from others’ view. I placed my lunchbox between myself and the other students, my hands held over the plastic container, ducking over my bowl as I ate. For years I worked to conceal my lunch from the students, in fear of their judgment and mockery. I trusted only my closest friends with the embarrassing secret of why no one could see my food - but trusting them, as it turned out, was a smart decision.
It was my friends who brought me out of hiding. They didn’t make fun of my culture, they appreciated it, and it’s because of them I learned to appreciate it myself. I realized that my heritage was an important part of my identity and in hiding it, I was hiding who I was from the world. I had seldom met any other Asian girls at my school, so when I befriended three of them in the fourth grade, I was surprised and reassured to find out that they understood my struggles, what it was like to be different.
Now, I’m proud to be a Vietnamese-American girl. No longer do I fear others judging me for who I am, and people rarely do. No longer do I hide my heritage. No longer do I feel shame in being different.
I haven’t yet forgotten what the phantom boy said to me, that day in the cafeteria. Perhaps one day I’ll let it go, let the words be a thing of the past. But, as they always say, “they may forget what you said, but they will never forget how you made them feel.”