• The days of school lunchbox shame are hopefully a thing of the past (E+)Source: E+
When I asked my daughter what her friends at school said about her curry lunch, she responded: “they said I was lucky.”
Saman Shad

12 Feb 2021 - 12:03 PM  UPDATED 12 Feb 2021 - 12:04 PM

When I was at school, my mum was partial to taking last night’s leftover kebab, slapping it in the middle of two slices of bread and calling it lunch. If you were from Pakistan you may know this as a variant of ‘bun kebab’ – a snack sold from street carts weaving through Pakistani neighbourhoods. In Australia however no one knew of such a snack, especially not the kids at the very Anglo school I went to.

So when I took the kebab sandwich out of my lunchbox the next day, and anyone within a couple of metres of me was assailed with the smell of onions, coriander, chilli and spices mixed into ground meat, no one would turn to me and say ‘oh bun kebab, nice!’. Instead I would get a comment or two about the smell of what I was eating. And before long, I was quickly putting my kebab sandwich away as soon as I got a whiff of the pungent scent waiting to escape from the confines of my lunchbox.

Much of what I did to protect myself growing up in this country meant concealing the truth of me.

And it was this – the way so many of us growing up felt a twinge of embarrassment at reminders of our own ethnicity because we were so desperate to be accepted as part of White Australia – that perhaps upsets me most. That I was embarrassed of who I was. That much of what I did to protect myself growing up in this country meant concealing the truth of me.

Cut to many years later where I am now a mother, with a daughter of my own - one who has been exposed to a variety of cuisines, both from my Pakistani culture, as well as the many cultures that co-exist in this country. Now that I’ve told her she’s old enough to be making her own lunch for school, she has complete say over what she gets to eat in front of her school friends. And to my surprise she’s chosen not to eat sandwiches for lunch, like I wanted to, but leftovers just like my mum used to make. I’m not talking leftovers of pasta or the like, this kid is packing food like daal and rice. Or like the other day, much like her grandmother did before her, she got some leftover keema (mince) curry and placed it in a bun, thereby having a lunch much like the one I used to have - except she’s not embarrassed. She’s proud.

When I asked her once what her friends at school said about her curry lunch, she responded by saying: “they said I was lucky.”

When I asked her once what her friends at school said about her curry lunch, she responded by saying: “they said I was lucky.”

It’s not just her. Many of her friends are embracing their cultural heritage through their lunchboxes. Lunches that involve dumplings or noodles or sushi are talked over with much admiration. My daughter has spoken of at length about one of her friends who often brought homemade dumplings for lunch. If the girl was feeling kind, she would sometimes bestow a dumpling or two on friends who were filled with gratitude at the gesture.

And yes of course sandwiches still have their place in lunches - as far as I’m concerned they’re perhaps the easiest of lunch options. But these days for my kids at least, the sandwich is just so boring. Not when there are kids bringing in Thermos of hot congee on cold winter days, or munching on pita wraps filled with hummus and grilled meat.

Recently I even saw a mum ask a Facebook parenting group if someone could teach her to make sushi and dumplings because her white Aussie kids no longer wanted to take the sandwiches she was making them for lunch to school.

Food has always been a bridge, a way for different cultures to come together. 

Food has always been a bridge that brings people together. The more we expose our children to the many different cultures that call Australia home, not just through food, but by becoming friends with people from these places, the more accepting we become of difference. And the more we realise that, the monoculturalism many of us suddenly found ourselves in when we moved to this country is perhaps slowly ebbing away.

I’m not sure if the lunchbox shame that so many of us experienced as children has completely died out – but judging by what I’m seeing with my children – it’s definitely on its last legs. Now the only shame, if that’s what you want to call it, that remains for your kid, is when they go to school with another vegemite sandwich for lunch. This is why it’s always best to check your child’s school bag at the end of the week - to make sure there are no sandwiches of shame languishing at the bottom of the bag - just like my kebab sandwich once did.

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