It was five minutes before the class transitioned to lunch, and Min Jee was excited. She and her father had cooked dinner together the night before, and she knew he had packed extra for her today. None of her friends ever brought stew for lunch, especially not bright red stew like kimchi jjigae, and Min Jee was excited to show them what she had made.
As she entered the cafeteria, Min Jee’s friends Ella and Gabriel waved her over to a space at their table. Min Jee unscrewed her thermos and proudly showed them her lunch.
“Whoa, it’s so red! I bet it’s really spicy,” exclaimed Ella, peering at the stew.
“Remember last time I came over to your house for dinner, your dad made those rice cakes that were so spicy they made my eyes water?” laughed Gabriel.
And then suddenly: “Eww, what is that stuff?”
A loud voice came from the opposite side of the table. A girl named Audrey, who Min Jee recognized from the classroom next door, was staring at the kimchi jjigae, dramatically wrinkling her nose.
Min Jee’s voice faltered. “It’s called kimchi jjigae. It’s a Korean stew. My dad and I made it together.”
Audrey raised her eyebrows.
“Well, it looks weird. Does your family eat stuff like bats and lizards? I heard Asian people eat weird stuff like that, and that’s how everyone got sick. Is that true?”
Min Jee felt her face turning as red as the kimchi jjigae. By the time she opened her mouth to respond, Audrey had already turned away and was talking to someone else. Gabriel and Ella stared at the table as they ate their lunches. Min Jee realized she wasn’t hungry anymore.
At dinner that evening, her appetite still hadn’t returned.
“Min Jee, is something wrong?” her father asked. “You usually eat like your food is about to run away from you!”
Min Jee felt her throat tighten.
“Appa, a girl at school today said our food looked weird. And then she asked if we eat bats and reptiles because we’re Asian, and that food like ours made everyone sick. It made me so angry! And Ella and Gabriel were right there, but they didn’t say anything!”
Her father frowned and then took a deep breath.
“I’m sorry that happened, honey, and I’m so glad you told me. It can be really hurtful when people make mean comments just because something is different or new to them. It sounds like she was saying a lot of things she didn’t understand. That doesn’t make it OK, but it’s important that you don’t feel embarrassed of who you are just because of her ignorance.
“I’m also hearing that you’re disappointed your friends didn’t speak up for you. Maybe when you see them tomorrow, you can tell them how you felt. They might not have meant to hurt your feelings, but if they’re your friends, they’ll care that they did.”
Min Jee swallowed and nodded, but the thought of speaking up to Ella and Gabriel sounded just as scary as standing up to Audrey.
The next day, Min Jee approached her two friends at the lunch table. She set down her lunch and took a deep breath. Just as she was about to launch into the speech she practiced the night before, she heard Ella’s voice.
“Gabriel and I had a talk,” Ella said. “We’re really sorry we didn’t say anything when Audrey was talking about your food yesterday.”
“Yeah, we messed up,” added Gabriel. “Friends are supposed to have each other’s backs. Ella and I should have interrupted Audrey and told her what she was saying was wrong, and it’s not funny to make fun of someone’s traditions. We promise to do better next time.”
“Thank you for saying that.” Min Jee nodded and smiled. “I was really upset yesterday and felt nervous about telling you because I didn’t think you noticed. I almost didn’t let my dad pack my lunch today!”
Opening her lunch bag, Min Jee saw that her dad had packed her a few rolls of kimbap. When she looked up to offer a roll to Ella and Gabriel, she couldn’t help but laugh when she saw them eagerly holding their forks, ready to dig in.
Questions for Readers
Right There (In the Text)
Why was Min Jee extra excited for lunch at the beginning of the story?
Think and Search (In the Text)
How did Audrey’s comments make Min Jee feel? Why?
Author and Me (In my Head)
Why is it wrong to make assumptions about people or groups like the ones Audrey made about Asian people?
On my Own (In my Head)
Ella and Gabriel wished they had stood up for Min Jee. When is a time you have stood up for a friend, someone has stood up for you, or you have seen someone stand up for someone else?