You’ve assembled a colorful, nutritious and cute bento box. You can’t wait for lunch time. You open it up and… you attract a crowd of classmates or coworkers, curious about your lunch.
Has this happened to you? It certainly has to me. At first it did bother me, especially if I packed a bentos or an onigiri picnic basket for a train trip. It’s amazing how strong soy sauce and nori seem to smell in an enclosed train compartment! Swiss people are generally polite and reserved, so rarely do they out and out stare - though on a couple of occasions I’ve had an old lady enthusiastically point at my bento, asking this or that. But, these days I don’t mind it at all. Well maybe a little bit, but not much. And people who know me, or The Guy when he takes bentos on the road, are used to our unique lunch boxes, and perhaps even a bit envious! (The sandwiches sold in the train are expensive and pretty sad…)
But what if it’s your kid’s bento lunch getting all that attention? I don’t have kids of my own, and my niece and nephew live in Japan where their bentos attract no undue attention of course. But I’ve been reading on some blogs by some Japanese moms living in other countries, about their kids’s cute, carefully assembled bentos attracting too much, sometimes unwelcome, attention. Some kids even ask their moms to stop making Japanese style lunches, and stick to plain, non-attention grabbing sandwiches and such. One little boy was teased by a schoolmate who said his onigiri looked like poo (because it was covered with nori, presumably). Another little girl was bullied by older kids. Kids can be cruel, for sure.
I also remember reading some time ago on a blog (I wish I’d kept the link, but I can’t find it anymore) about a girl in her late teens, who had a Japanese mother who would make her beautiful bento lunches every day when she was in elementary school somewhere in the U.S. In her case it wasn’t her classmates who made her feel conspicuous, but her teacher. Every day, the teacher would insist on drawing attention to her bento, pointing out how beautiful it was, how exotic, and so on. The girl in question remembers hating that unwanted attention. I was a rather shy kid growing up myself, and I know that I drew attention anyway (I was the only Asian at the school I attended for several years in England for instance) so the last thing I would have wanted was that kind of attention placed on me. I remember one time when we had a school picnic. My mother made me some onigiri with tarako, my favorite filling then, and some chicken karaage . But when it was lunchtime, I was so shy about eating my onigiri in front of the other kids that I pretended that I’d forgotten part of my lunch, and just ate the karaage. (Fried chicken after all is fried chicken.) By the time I got home, the poor onigiri were smooshed flat. I threw them away quietly, burying them at the bottom of the kitchen garbage can. (If my mom is reading this, now she knows…)
I hope that kids these days have been exposed a lot more to ‘exotic’ food and are more accepting, though the stories from those Japanese mothers say otherwise. Or are their stories the exceptions?
How do you feel about this, especially if you have kids? Do your kids like bring exotic (as in, not the plain sandwich-and-bag-of-chips/crisps lunch) lunches? Have they been teased - and if so, how did you, and your kids, deal with it? It doesn’t have to be just Japanese-style bentos either - what if you pack a Mr. Bento full of fragrant curry or soup, and so on?
(See also: Embarassed by bento lunches?  discussion on the flickr bento boxes group.)