Sunday, February 14, 2021

Link List: Lunchbox Stories

via Unsplash

Although it's currently too early for me to start writing my end-of-month reading reflections post for February, I needed to mention the novel I just finished because it was just too good! Susanna Clarke's Piranesi is really special, an incredibly beautiful, immersive story that I was completely swept up in and stayed up late to finish reading in one day. (It's not a particularly long book, but I started reading after dinner.) These days, not many books are able to capture my attention so fully. 

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And one definitely doesn't need to have been a fan of Clarke's first novel, Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell to enjoy Piranesi. I tried to pick up Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell years ago, but never quite managed to get into it. The experience of reading Piranesi may inspire me to try reading Clarke's first novel again. 

1. // I enjoyed this insightful Eater article about "The Limits of the Lunchbox Moment." You've probably heard the story at least once, about the first or second-generation immigrant child whose ethnic food is declared gross or smelly by other children in the school cafeteria. No doubt that's happened to and been hurtful to many. But it's also not a universal Asian American or Chinese-American (or Taiwanese-American) experience, and that may be obscured by how ubiquitous the lunchbox story is in American media (a space that might not have room for all the complex, nuanced Asian American stories out there). 

In my case, I've never had a lunchbox story. Throughout elementary school, I ate cafeteria hot lunch almost every day. On field trip days when school lunch wasn't available, I generally got Lunchables. I only rarely brought anything else to school for lunch, if I did it'd typically be a sandwich with a somewhat Taiwanese bakery spin like this

And because I grew up in the Silicon Valley Bay Area, where the large-ish public schools I attended always had majority-Asian American student bodies - we may have been as much as 75% of the population at every school I attended, to the point where a notorious-in-our-community Wall Street Journal article from 2005 claimed we caused a "New White Flight" by scaring off white families - it was unlikely anyone would have had a "lunchbox moment," where they were shamed for bringing ethnic food. Our Asian American student population skewed heavily East Asian and South Asian. On any given day, one saw a wide range of both western and Asian-style lunches brought from home. No one really had reason to comment on anyone else's food, we'd seen it all before. When I shared this article with a close friend who attended public school in a midwestern state with a much smaller Asian population, she also had no lunchbox story. She observed that different schools have their own culture, and not all children learn to behave cruelly in this specific way. 

One theme in this article is that, for many of the people interviewed, published articles, essays, or books written by other Asian Americans often aren't accurate to their personal experiences. There's some frustration that a more diverse range of Asian American stories isn't being told, and that's likely at least in part because certain stories are seen as more marketable or "sellable to an editor" than others. 

It's difficult to find other stories about the Chinese-American or Taiwanese-American experience that truly resonate with me. Throughout my childhood, and even in college, I was sheltered from being made to feel "less than" because of my racial or ethnic identity, I was always at schools where at least a significant critical mass of students looked like me. With regards to race and identity, my personal story is therefore dominated by experiences of workplace discrimination and implicit bias that are specific to the legal industry. To the extent I look back further in time, issues of economic class and my parents' marital status - divorce being rare amongst the Asian American communities I grew up attending school with - weigh far heavier than questions related to my race. 

I can recommend a few Chinese or Taiwanese-American stories I'm fond of: Kathy Wang's debut novel, Family Trust, is in many ways a story about the world I grew up in. Lulu Wang's movie, The Farewell, is an incredibly good telling of a Chinese-American story, as I've mentioned before. I quite like Helen Wan's The Partner Track for an easily digestible and ultimately fairly light story that still manages to have some pointed insights about the biglaw approach to workplace diversity. (That book's a bit more focused on women's experience in biglaw than anything else.) 

And I suppose this is as good a time as any to mention that, since the last time I mentioned Amy Chua's memoir in 2018, I have significantly revised my previous thinking about her, and inevitably, also about her memoir. Events surrounding the Kavanaugh confirmation and her likely complicity in helping cover up her husband's harassment of students at Yale Law - where they both play an outsized role in students' access to clerkships, giving them a level of power easily abused - show I was wrong to ever say I related to her. I'm not a perfect person, nor a perfect lawyer, but I'll never be like Amy Chua. 

2. // This Atlantic article about the new popular brand names in fast fashion these days - PrettyLittleThing or Boohoo anyone? - and about how they approach their business was fascinating. (I'm a bit of a dinosaur who barely understands Instagram or other, newer social media platforms. I suspect this helps ensure I've never heard of most of the companies mentioned in this article?) In short, many companies are so adept, nimble, and "ultrafast" at selling fast fashion that they make the original fast fashion giants, the likes of H&M, Zara, and Forever 21, look almost... sedate... in comparison.  

To me, practically the most shocking fact in this entire piece was that Forever 21 still spent "nearly half its marketing budget on radio ads" as "late as 2017." Now that's a serious failure to adapt to changing market realities! No wonder Forever 21 has downsized significantly and been through a bankruptcy since 2015, when I still thought of it as the quintessential fast fashion brand.   

3. // New York magazine recently published a great deep dive about Justice Sotomayor. Out of all the Supreme Court justices in my adult lifetime, she's my personal favorite. Reading her memoir, My Beloved World, was an important, formative experience for me. I can also personally vouch for how personable she is, and that she walks around while taking questions at other law school events - not just the one mentioned in the article - taking photos with everyone without needing to be asked, so nobody feels left out. That's a precious law school memory of mine. 

Justice Sotomayor's story - particularly from her Senate confirmation process - also gets at some ugly truths about the profession's problems with diversity. Even some fairly mainstream figures in the legal profession - including Harvard law professor Lawrence Tribe, in a letter that was eventually leaked - specifically questioned her intelligence, something I don't think would ever happen with any white Supreme Court nominee. 

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