[Image description: Illustration from ‘Cora Cooks Pancit’ by Dorina K. Lazo Gilmore and Kristi Valiant. A Filippina mother holds a large bowl steady while her daughter puts in noodles.]
In this post: Find children’s books that dismantle racist food shaming against American Asian & Pacific Islanders.
Referring to Asian as food ‘ethnic’ centers whiteness as the norm
Actually – stop calling all of our stuff – particularly us as people, ‘ethnic,’ ‘diverse,’ and ‘exotic.’
It’s othering, it’s fetishy, and it makes us uncomfortable. When you talk about us like this, you’re feeding into the stereotype that we’re perpetual foreigners who don’t belong here. Cut it out.
This plays out throughout our culture, but it’s easier to see in children’s literature. American Asian & Pacific Islander (AAPI) characters are almost entirely relegated to orientalist mysticism, transnational adoption, martial artists, and, of course, books about food.
The disproportionate focus on how different our food is promotes AAPI stereotypes – and our narrow role (cheap) restaurateurs. This is a direct result of the racist, xenophobic anti-immigration laws that targeted Chinese and other AAPI immigrants until 1965, and how depictions of our food (and by extension, us) as dirty and unhealthy continue that bias against that seeps into how we’re perceived in education, the workforce, and housing applicants.
So while I’d love to make a booklist not about food – We’ll work with what we’ve got.
Below, you’ll find books to start conversations about unpacking orientalism and othering – as well as a few tropes to avoid.
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How to raise kids who don’t food-shame (cough cough, MANNERS.)
What others eat is none of our kids’ business. Talk about lunchroom etiquette with your kids before they embarrass themselves or hurt someone. Here’s how we teach our kids to stay in their lane:
Don’t be classist.
Don’t comment about junk food. Maybe they can’t afford vegetables or the time to prep them, and pop-tarts were free with double coupons.
Don’t be ableist.
Don’t comment about a friend’s lunch if they eat the same thing every day. Don’t make a snide comment about straws. Sensory disabilities, a need for a predictable routine, allergies, digestive issues, fine motor challenges – all of these are common obstacles for kids with disabilities.
Don’t be a supremacist.
Don’t suggest that your way of life – your traditions, your faith, your lifestyle, your language, and your food – is better simply because the dominant culture accepts it as typical.
Don’t body shame:
Don’t comment on how much, or how little, a friend is eating. We don’t get to dictate what others put in their bodies.
Don’t be insufferable:
We try to be ethical eaters within our resources. We tell our kids about the impact of our diet, and give them space to choose ethical alternatives when possible. We also teach them that not everyone has the same resources and few families have access to sustainable, healthy, or cruelty-free food.
- Just don’t make a derisive question or comment about a friend’s lunch.
Talking about food is fun! We don’t we need to avoid it. Practice these scripts with a careful, upbeat tone, free from sarcasm or judgement. How to talk about food without being a jerk:
- “That looks tasty.”
- “Mmm, smells good.”
- “What are you having for lunch today?” (always follow this up with a positive statement)
Below, we’ll highlight some books that celebrate, normalize, and validate the experience of AAPI kids – along with some problematic issues to watch out for in picture books.
You might also like: 8 Radically Body-Positive Kids Books
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If you’re pairing this advice with a trip to the library (please do!), you can also help me create more collections like this on Patreon.
Handle Picky Eaters With Humor, Not Coercion
We don’t have to stuff new food down our kids throats – but if we don’t tell your kids that it’s normal for food to have smells, texture, flavor, and eyeballs, they are going to gag when they smell fish sauce. And scream when they watch grandma eat an eyeball. Rude.
Before we teach our kids how to be more inclusive about food culture – let’s talk about what we’re not here to do. We are not going to shame kids with limited diets. All of us get grossed out by unfamiliar things. We center our own experience and assume different = bad and familiar = good.
It’s also totally okay to have sensory issues, allergies, and to have disabilities and conditions that limit your kid’s diet. Respecting our kids bodily autonomy means also giving them agency about what goes into their bodies. Getting our kids to respect other people’s choices requires that we set an example and respect our kids choices, too.
How to Feed Your Parents and Little Pea use a role-swapping gag to show kids why it’s fun to try new (and healthier) food. I’d Really Like To Eat a Child helps kids see how a more flexible can help them achieve their dreams.
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Celebrate Asian & Pacific Islander Food
When I visited my grandmother, she would grab my arm, test it for plumpness, and decide I was “Good fat!” or “Too skinny! Need wonton.” Regardless my status, she’d sit me down and ply me with food for entirety of my visit.
This is how I knew she loved me.
When we ask ‘Have you eaten yet?’ it’s a check in to say “I want to know how you’re doing, and I care about you” Feeding our kids is how we show that we love them. It’s how we connect them to our cultural heritage. It’s how we create an environment for a happy, comfortable, and safe childhood.
Having that emotional connection erased, insulted, and reduced to jokes and party themes hurts.
That’s why we teach our kids to be proud of our comfort food. And why we respect and celebrate others’ food traditions.
You might also like: Adipositive Stories Championing Fat Liberation
For kids who feel like the odd one out
If your kid packs traditional food for lunch, there will always be that mayo-sandwich kid who wrinkles their nose and calls it disgusting. These validating books show our kids that they’re not alone.
This is only one relevant scene in this but it’s also worth mentioning: On The Day You Begin
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Validating the experience of Asian & Pacific Islander kids seen as ‘the other’
From pressure to assimilate and be less AAPI, feeling not AAPI enough, to being seen as a perpetual foreigner – the following books validate the experience of Asian & Pacific Islanders in the North American mainland.
In each of these books, we see food and eating practices used as metaphors for how we reconcile our identities with whiteness and western assimilation.
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History & Symbolism of Food
Our food has a history, tradition, and is often highly symbolic. Get some insight on the cultural symbolism and historical significance of a few AAPI cuisines.
You might also like: Justifying Our Existence – Validating Kids Books With Multiracial Families
Stop calling our food dirty, unhealthy, and bizarre – Problematic tropes to watch out for
Here are a small handful of books that exploit bias and bigotry against API food & culture.
Content warning: I can’t really hold back the salty language when it comes to racist books.
Fussy Freya – Classist & cultural food shaming, shitty parenting
We’re strict when it comes to food, and I’m not as flexible as most American parents when it comes to shared meals. Everyone eats the same thing. If my kids don’t like what we’ve cooked, they don’t have to eat it. If they whine about it, dinner is over.
But we never teach our kids that any particular food is ‘gross.’ That kind of thinking gets classist and racist real fast.
In this story, Freya whines about the ‘gross’ food her family cooks and throws it across the room. They placate her by offering her ice cream and candy. To teach her a lesson, her grandparents cook food the author considers repulsive – warthog, monkey, and giraffe.
My grandmother watched her mother and brother starve to death. As a kid, she served up cow tongue, nibbled chicken feet, and sucked the eyeballs out of fish heads. When you know what famine means, you eat everything and you don’t complain.
As an adult, I thought the nasty jokes about our food were behind me. But I still come acrosss white mommy bloggers making digs at how disgusted they are to find our chicken paws at the grocery store. As if our food isn’t good enough to sell in grocery stores.
Chicken paws are edible. Warthogs, monkeys, and giraffes are all edible. So this book can stuff it.
The Ugly Dumpling – Reductive pan-Asian nonsense, sloppy cultural appropriation, jokes about Chinese restaurants as filthy.
I find it hard to believe the makers of this book have actually ever been to dim sum. They decided to blunder forth and use racist Chinese restaurant tropes as a platform for some convoluted ugly duckling story anyway.
In the story, steamer trays are served not from carts, but by hand. With no cover, and no plate underneath. This would be a disgusting, drippy mess. Which, I guess, explains why the restaurant has cockroaches all over the place.
Seriously! A cockroach is a main character! Yeah, they went there, with the whole Chinese-restaurants-are-disgusting-and-full-of-bugs bullshit. In this book, every one of your racist aunt’s rants about the local Chinese takeout place is true. Food is left out in the open, where cockroaches skitter around on it all day.
It gets worse. From the book: “There was an ugly dumpling! But all dumplings are ugly, you say!”
The fuck? Pizza is pretty nasty looking, so don’t come at my dumplings. Dumplings are tantalizing! There’s even a Pixar short about a dumpling and it is ADORABLE. And tasty looking.
Also pictured on the cockroach-infested tables: American-style broccoli. And colorful cocktail umbrellas… And salt and pepper shakers (?!?) Reducing dim sum to some kind of pan-Asian/Pacific Islander nonsense.
“It was a steamed bun – a golden-hearted, smooth-skinned steamed bun, exactly like all the other steamed buns in the world.”
Dude, there are like, one billion types of steamed buns, and all of them look completely different.
INFODUMP: Any bun with ‘a gold heart’ is likely custard and will probably not be smooth, it’d have a crunchy layer of baked custard on the top. I can’t even with this nonsense.
Stop appropriating my favorite things, suggesting they are disgusting, and then not even getting the basics right.
Pancakes to Parathas – Centering anglosphere cuisine as normal, racist food shaming
The entire book is biased toward American and European food, describing it as delicious. Eastern food is described in the most unappetizing way possible.
“Shocking” Vegemite is a sideshow of horrors: “they also spread vegemite between crackers and squeeze so the spread comes out of the cracker holes like little worms!”
Japanese cuisine is equally unappetizing: “their breakfast may be slimy, soured soybeans, fish and rice, and one raw egg.”
Israel’s cuisine is “homegrown” and “fresh” while food from the Netherlands is “delicious,”“perfect,” and “flavorful.” UK food is “hearty” despite also being the eggs being soft boiled (aka raw, like in Japan) with baked beans and fried mushrooms – which are somehow not described as slimy, probably because they’re made in white kitchens.
Mexico is “spicy, feisty” because of course we have to add in the spicy Latinx trope to the mix.
Text suggests the author lives in Israel “here in Israel…” The author’s bio describes how she has tried Jamaican, Indian, Israel, Mexican, and American food (notice that she hasn’t tried the food she describes as disgusting). She has nothing negative to say about the western foods she’s eaten. Given the illustrator’s other work (in Japanese only), I’m wondering if the Japanese illustrator was aware of the negative connotations that come with ‘slimy’ and ‘soured’ in English, and how they’ve been misapplied to perfectly healthy fermented foods.
Oh this was such a hot mess. We have a video unpacking the genesis and impact of books like this as a perk for our Patreon supporters. If you enjoy these collections and want to support my work – or you just want to watch me rage-laugh over lines like “They ALL eat worms in China!” in a children’s book, you can find that over here.
The Invisible Boy – Saviorism, centering whiteness
The white savior tells a Korean kid his lunch doesn’t look gross. Nice low bar for basic human decency. That’s all it takes to win the adoration and friendship of a Korean kid, I guess. Instead of empathizing with kids who get picked on for eating kimchi, the book just normalizes bullying behavior as something we should expect in every cafeteria. No disruption of systemic injustice, just a band-aid white savior coming to rescue a pathetic Asian boy who can’t stand up for himself. No thanks.
Green Eggs And Ham – Not respecting consent, harassment
While we’re at it, Green Eggs and Ham has not aged well. No means no the first time.
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Stay Curious, Stand Brave & Eat More Wonton
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