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Take Note: Amie Bantz on her "Lunchbox Moments" art exhibit aimed at anti-Asian hate

TN Amie Bantz pic.jpeg
Emily Reddy
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WPSU
Asian American artist Amie Bantz stands in front of her "Lunchbox Moments" installation currently at the Penn State HUB-Robeson Center until May 15.

Amie Bantz is an Asian American artist from Harrisburg. She's visiting Penn State with her interactive art exhibit "Lunchbox Moments: Seek understanding. Share stories. Stop hate." Ninety-one of her painted lunchboxes are on display in Penn State's HUB-Robeson Center. And she's helping community members and students create their own lunchbox moments in several hands-on workshops. Amie Bantz, thanks for talking with us.

Amie Bantz 

Thanks for having me.

Emily Reddy 

So first start with you know, what exactly is a "lunchbox moment"?

Amie Bantz 

So a lunchbox moment, I can't take credit for the actual term. It was not coined by me by any means. But from my research and from my work, I've discovered that a lunchbox moment by definition is a moment when, typically, an Asian American kid brings a traditional Asian meal to school. And there is some sort of reaction from the peers, whether it's positive or negative. But that formative memory can be categorized as a lunchbox moment.

Emily Reddy 

And this exhibit actually takes those moments and puts them on to lunchboxes and bags painted on with phrases, sometimes pictures.

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Emily Reddy
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WPSU
A closeup of some of the "Lunchbox Moments" lunchboxes and bags.

Amie Bantz 

Yeah, exactly. So it started with just collecting old lunch boxes, donated boxes that I spray painted. And then I collected stories from the AAPI community, and then physically painted those stories onto those surfaces.

Emily Reddy 

And AAPI is "Asian American Pacific Islanders."

Amie Bantz 

Correct. Yeah.

Emily Reddy 

So how did you first come up with the idea of doing an exhibit around these lunchbox moments.

Amie Bantz 

So I guess a little bit of background, most of my art work up until this point, focuses on food. So my mom is an immigrant from South Korea. And my dad is white. He grew up on a cattle farm in Western Maryland. And so I grew up in a household being the first biracial being born into both lines of my family. And to make sense of it all and to explore my identity, I started thinking about moments in my life where I felt the most out of place or other. And for some reason, all those moments revolved around food and eating foods in front of my peers, and again, having those sorts of reactions. So before lunchbox moments was ever even a thing. I focused a lot on normalizing these foods that I grew up with through illustrations of kimchi or bibimbap and creating them in really fun, light illustrative styles so that people will just see them in a more normalized way, and instead of a weird way. So my experience in artwork has always been rooted in that. And then, in 2020, with the rise of anti-Asian hate incidences happening in our country, I again went back to "Okay, well, how do I grapple with this? And how do I make sense of everything." And I always go back to artwork to make sense of my life. And I found myself exploring those moments around food again. And then I just started branching out and reaching out to folks in my AAPI community and just talking about these moments, and I realized, like, oh, I'm not the only one that feels like those moments surrounding food were formative. So I collected stories, and I kind of just sat on it a little bit. I was like, I think I can do something with this. And maybe the best way to showcase our experiences and to let people know what it's like growing up in America, as an Asian American is to just share one facet of that experience surrounding the lunch room, and lunch and food.

Emily Reddy 

And one of the first lunchboxes you made was inspired by your mother's lunchbox experience, right? What is that? What is her experience?

Amie Bantz 

Yeah, so she came to the States when she was an elementary school. And she told me this story frequently about how she wanted to fit in. And one of the ways that she thought that she could do that was to have a red plaid lunchbox. And she was so excited to bring that to school. Because she felt like oh, like I'll just fit in with everyone else. Now that I have this thing that everyone else has. And she got to lunch that day, and she opened her lunchbox and my grandmother, my halmeoni, had packed her kimbap, which is almost like a Korean sushi. But my halmeoni forgot to cut it into small, bite sized pieces. And so it looked like a really long snake kind of covered in aluminum foil, which would be kind of jarring to like any elementary schooler opening that. And so my mom opened this box and she saw the long tinfoil snake as she describes it, and then she shut the lid really quickly because she knew she knew that how could she possibly eat this foreign food in front of these kids that had already made fun of her? So she just didn't eat her lunch for the rest of the day. And, yeah, it's just it's crazy to me that that story has stuck with her her entire life. And she remembers it so clearly. And that was something I discovered in doing this project is that so many people just, they remember these moments of just feeling anxious in the lunchroom as kids for their whole adult life. It's so formative, you know.

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Emily Reddy
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WPSU
One lunchbox in the exhibit reads, "My college floormates made me eat my Korean food in the courtyard."

Emily Reddy 

Some of the examples that are on the boxes, "I threw away my lunches if my mom packed something too Korean." "Why does it smell funny?" A lot of them are about smell, and chopsticks as well. Another just says, "Ew, seaweed." So sort of a taste of what these look like. There are also a lot that mentioned wanting Lunchables instead. They're these pre-packaged meals with meats, cheeses, crackers. We see that strong urge to sort of fit in to the American mold.

Amie Bantz 

Yeah, yeah. And I mean, I think that that has been an interesting layer in doing this project. I don't really know what I was expecting when I first made it. I think I just wanted an outlet to think about these moments in my life, in our lives, that were again, very formative. And it kind of transformed over time into almost like a sociology project and just viewing human beings and their desires to fit in and the lengths that we'll go to to do that. And yeah, Lunchables was like one of them. Or just wanting... the the deep, deep desire just to have a sandwich. And how that translates into normalcy. And being an ordinary all-American student, I thought was really fascinating.

Emily Reddy 

So a lot about that normal American lunch, and often about the Asian parents trying, but messing it up somehow. One lunchbox says, "I asked for mac and cheese. My mom gave me white rice with a Kraft single melted on top." I kind of found these touching. You know, there's this parent who is trying to help their kid. But they don't know quite how to do it.

Amie Bantz 

Right, yeah.

Emily Reddy 

It seemed pop up a lot.

Amie Bantz 

That was actually my lunchbox moment. The Kraft mac and cheese.

Emily Reddy 

That one's yours! I was going to ask what yours was.

Amie Bantz 

Yeah, yeah, so that one was mine. And that's one of my first memories of just like truly wanting an American dish. And I mean Kraft mac and cheese I think it's the best way of categorizing American food. And I asked my mom, "I was like, Omma, now can I please have this gooey gooey like delicious thing." Because I saw a commercial for it. And it just looked so good. And that's exactly it. She came back with a bowl of white rice with a Kraft single melted on top. And I remember feeling so embarrassed. But that's exactly what you're describing, like my mom wanting so badly to give me the American dream, but not quite knowing how to do it. And I've spent most of my life just getting this almost off-brand version of American things. And I, in my adult life now, am so appreciative of her efforts. And I wish I did a better job of showing that as a kid. Because that's another thing that I've learned in this process is that there are so many folks who are adults now that wish that they could go back and tell their parents, thank you. Thank you for trying. Thank you for making these beautiful dishes and these wonderful meals that I just... we wanted PB&J instead, like, that sounds so crazy now that we're adults. But in the moment it it was just... we were just being kids, I guess.

Emily Reddy  

I wonder, did you see a lot of difference based on the age or the generation of the creator of the lunchbox moment?

Amie Bantz 

Yes. So that was another thing that kind of shocks me a little bit. Myself being a millennial and then also interviewing folks from older generations, I think that a thing that stuck out to me was in 2020 when so many instances were occurring, I had some things happen to myself and I remember talking to my mom about it and she got emotional saying like "oh, well I remember the same exact phrasing being said to me when I was a kid." And it is just kind of crazy that nothing... or just in that moment seemed like not much has changed. And then going back to food it was so interesting seeing how there's almost a popularization of Korean culture, specifically for my experience. And I had some kids actually create some lunch boxes in some of my workshops and they've never experienced anything negative. You know, they go to the lunchroom and they open up their lunchbox, and maybe they're eating kimbap or sushi or seaweed. And their peers are like, "Oh my gosh, that's so cool." Or they know exactly what they're eating because of just social media and globalization. And there are a number of boxes that touch on that, saying, "The white kids who tormented me when I was a kid are now eating kimchi." Because it is trendy and it is popular. And how do we I don't know. I don't really have a solution of how to grapple with that. I don't really know if there is a solution. It's more of just a "yeah, this happened." And it's, it's just an interesting observation, seeing the difference generationally. And there is part of me that feels encouraged. You know, these younger kids, they get to grow up, and the foods that they're eating are being treasured and prized, and there's just a popular light attached to them. But I think that there's just a level of sadness there, too. You know, like, my generation, we didn't get to experience that. And my mom's definitely didn't. So I don't know, I guess it's a little bittersweet. Yeah.

Emily Reddy 

Do you feel like it's all positive? Or do you all feel like your food has kind of been co-opted? And you know, here if you look at the the food court at Penn State, there's the Panda Express. And there's the plastic things of sushi...

Amie Bantz 

Yeah, yeah, I don't? I don't know. I don't know. And I think that that's something that I struggled with just as a person in general, you know, especially when all that stuff was going down in the spring of 2020/2021. I just being Korean, but also white is really challenging. You know, like, how do I deal with my whiteness, while also being Korean. And I like the accessibility of the foods that I grew up with. And I don't know, I think I just have a level of imposter syndrome. Like I don't really know how to be and how to act, because I am biracial. And I do think that there is a bit of a lack in resources for those that are half. You know? I always feel and I say this all the time, but I feel so white against my Korean friends, and so Korean against my white friends. And I almost don't even feel like I'm the right person to be in this role to speak on all these issues. It kind of just got placed on my shoulders, you know, with this project. So yeah, to be totally transparent, it's a lot of me just like figuring it out along the way. And just speaking as much as I can, and as honestly as I can about my own personal experience, and recognizing that that's not everyone else's experience.

Emily Reddy 

You said that you sort of started this in early 2020, beginning of COVID. When there was a lot of anti-Asian hate happening. What do you think your goal was? Did you have a goal with it? It was it, you know, to open people up by sharing the culture or what did you have in mind?

Amie Bantz 

That's a really good question. It started with just needing an outlet to create and make and have a safe space to share stories. My background is in education. I was a high school art teacher for a number of years. And so I think a lot of my work has an educational component to it. So I definitely didn't think that it would be what it is today. I think my initial goal, and my mission, which is still really true now is just to share stories, you know. And I believe that the only way to reduce hate or to come to some sort of understanding with the person that is different than you is to find some sort of common ground. And everyone eats lunch. Everyone has walked into a lunch room. Everyone has felt anxious being in that space, regardless of your ethnic makeup, you know? I say this a lot too where like, I'm a grown adult, and you cannot pay me to sit in a high school lunchroom or to even walk in one now. Because there's... it's just, who do you sit with? You know, like, what are you eating? Do you have to buy reduced lunch? There's just there's so many layers to that singular space. And I don't know, it just it seemed accessible to me. It seemed like a non-threatening, easy way to have a conversation. And especially in the climate that we're in right now where I feel like there's kind of a lack of productive conversation. It seemed like, in my mind, an easy way to just show how human the Asian population is and how we too just feel weird when we're at lunch. And yeah, I don't know, maybe that's too simple, but that was my initial thought behind it.

Emily Reddy 

If you're just joining us, we're talking with Amie Bantz, an Asian American artist from Harrisburg. Her interactive art exhibit of 91 painted lunchboxes is called "Lunchbox Moments: Seek understanding. Share stories. Stop hate." So you talked a little about that hands-on component to this exhibit. I attended one of your lunchbox making sessions here at Penn State. And you walk attendees through the brainstorming of their lunchbox moment, then how to pick out the most important words or phrases to put on a brown paper lunch bag is what they used. How does this process help non-artists to participate?

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Emily Reddy
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WPSU
Amie Bantz (far left) works with students and community members as they create their own "Lunchbox Moments" art.

Amie Bantz 

Sure. So the workshops were a later addition to the installation, I think the installation's kind of evolved over time. And so its original conception was just sharing these stories on surfaces of lunchboxes. And then it kind of evolved into, well, let's get the community to participate. Let's get the AAPI folks to actually make lunchboxes as well that can go on display. And then it kind of evolved from there into well, if this is truly about reducing hate about seeking understanding and sharing stories, let's open it up to the general public. And get folks thinking about those moments in their own lives where they have just felt a level of anxiety in the lunchroom. Yeah, I guide folks through... because a lot of people, they come into the setting, and they're like, "Well, I don't have a lunchbox moment. I'm just you know, I'm a white American kid that grew up in a public school. I never was ridiculed, blah, blah, blah." But then, over time, and after some reflection, almost everybody remembers a moment in their life where either they didn't have someone to sit with, or their parents packed them something that was just a little bit odd. Or they remember making fun of a kid. And that's the whole point of this space that I'm trying to create of just focusing in on one area of our lives and talking about it. So yeah, I just I ask people their stories, and then I have them write them down. And then we talk about extracting a phrase, and we talk about some design elements of if you make some words bigger, they're gonna have more meaning to the viewer. Or if you do it a different color. And then they create their little lunchbox, and it goes on display in whatever location I'm showing the installation at. And it becomes a really powerful reaction to the works of art.

Emily Reddy 

I talked to some of the participants while they did draw their lunchbox moment bags. Vivian Ho is a Penn State student who's Vietnamese American, and she talked about people's negative reactions to her fried rice growing up, and how she switched to getting the school lunch. But she also...what she actually ended up writing on her bag was, "This is my culture, not a TikTok trend." She told me there's a TikTok trend right now called mukbang, where people eat a bunch of food in front of the camera. Here's a clip of her talking about it:

Vivian Ho 

Um, so right now, they're doing like Asian snacks, candies. And then they're doing like live octopus, like for the views and whatever. Because like, you know, when do you sit down and be like, "Yeah, I'm gonna eat a live octopus." But like in Asian culture, like that's, that's a normal thing. Like he can eat that like, as street food. So like, it's normal for us. But it gains a lot of viewers for like, the American people, because it's again, it's not something that you readily eat.

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Emily Reddy
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WPSU
Penn State students Jaclyn Navarro (left) and Vivian Ho (right) hold up their completed lunch bags after the hands-on "Lunchbox Moments" workshop. Navarro's says, "My food is perfect the way it is." Ho's says, "This is my culture, not a TikTok Trend."

Emily Reddy 

I feel like I have so many questions about this. But I was really surprised to be at this event and to be talking about TikTok. I guess lunchbox shaming has made the jump to the digital divide, like everything else has.

Amie Bantz 

Yeah, and I mean, in talking to the students, I wish I was more surprised about the content that she's talking about. But I'm not because I think historically, there's always been a level of look at this otherly culture. And let me explore that and show you how weird it is. You know, it's like that level of weirdness for lack of a better term. That's what gets the clicks. That's what gets the views. That's what gets the engagement. When it's very normal, and almost mundane in our culture. You know, like, those are the foods that our parents make and eat. And then to see it in a light where it's, "Ew, that's so crazy. Let me show you how odd this is." I mean, there's... I think that people don't realize that there's a level of pain there. That's almost indescribable, because it's molecular at this point, I don't know how else to describe it.

Leslie Laing Jamaican lunchbox.jpeg
Leslie Laing holds up her lunch bag, which says, "Food," "Emotions" and "Angry ox." She says the other kids in the cafeteria thought her Jamaican lunches of ox tail were strange.

Emily Reddy 

This exhibit started from that Asian perspective. But people at the event I went to were writing about Jamaican food, Latin food. So different food, but then similar feelings of embarrassment. Have you seen this project make connections between these people who are very different?

Amie Bantz 

Oh, yeah, absolutely. I think that's another thing that I wasn't really expecting from this installation was just the sheer amount, just the volume of similar stories cross-culturally. Yeah, it's powerful. It's powerful. And I'm honored that people share these stories with me and want to showcase their experiences.

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Emily Reddy
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WPSU
A "Lunchbox Moments" exhibit lunchbox reads, "The entire room turned and stared at me."

Emily Reddy 

You mentioned this a little bit. But in the room, there were a lot of people talking about their lunchbox experiences that weren't about food that were about that nervousness and anxiety. And is that something that you're seeing in all of your sessions?

Amie Bantz 

Yeah, I think that that is the underlying theme in the entire show and at every workshop, and every conversation I have is just if we could really boil it down to something, it's, again, just this innate desire as human beings just to be accepted. And I think that that's the goal of these workshops is just to get to that moment where everyone realizes, oh, we're not that different. You know, we have these wildly different experiences. But the end, at the end of the day, we all just want to fit in, and we all just want to be accepted. And I don't know, like, I feel like if we, the sooner we get to that conclusion, the sooner we realize that we're all just human, we're all just trying our best here. And we're all just trying to make each other like one another. I feel like if we got to that conclusion faster, a lot of the stuff that we see on the news and experienced the hurt, like I just feel like that would be reduced. And that was my ultimate goal was just to bring awareness and spread kindness and love. And as silly as that seems. And as simple as it seems like that just it also seems impossible some days.

Emily Reddy 

I have another clip to play, Sarah Kipp is actually the exhibitions coordinator for the HUB-Robeson Galleries. She's white. So her lunchbox movement was about gender and eating. And I thought it was pretty, pretty powerful. I'll play that.

Sarah Kipp 

My bag said, "Don't let the boys see you eat, or they will think you're a pig." I was trying to think hard about my own lunchbox moments. And then I just remembered those moments of you know not wanting these boys to actually see me eat and sometimes even going into the bathroom to eat or things like that, you know, as a young girl.

Sarah Kipp lunchbox.jpeg
Emily Reddy
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WPSU
Sarah Kipp's lunch bag says "Don't let the boys see you eat, or they will think you're a pig."

Emily Reddy 

I feel like you've tapped into this whole other just gender issues of eating.

Amie Bantz 

Yeah, it's a very layered installation. And again, like I did not expect for so many layers to come out. I mean, I'm overjoyed. I think that the ability to create a space for people to feel comfortable enough to share those stories is wonderful. But yeah, I remember talking to Sarah about that moment and about that story. And it resonated with me. And I mean, I totally get it. I look at menus before going on a first date and picking out which food would be the least aggressive to eat. And I almost feel like that could be a whole other installation in and of itself, you know, just women existing in America, and the pressures of food and consuming food and not consuming food. I lay awake at night all the time thinking about all the stories that I hear. And that's one of them. That was a new take, I think, in my workshops, that I appreciate so much.

Emily Reddy 

What is the best or the worst or the most surprising lunchbox moment that you've heard during these workshops?

Amie Bantz 

Oh, gosh. That's a tough question. I think a moment that sticks out to me was a story that was shared with me of a woman who is my age. She's a millennial, but as a kid her dad had packed her traditional meals, and he has now passed away. And she as a young girl again felt embarrassed. She sometimes wouldn't eat those foods or she would throw them away before she could eat them and sitting in a space with her hearing her story and watching her eyes fill up with tears. And at this moment in her life, she's like, I would do anything to just have my dad make those meals for me again. I'm getting emotional thinking about it now. And I think that's something that I really want to showcase with this installation is that these stories aren't just stories. They're memories, and they're powerful. And it's, it's just food. I think that's what's wild to me. It's just a packed lunch. But there's so much there. And I just, yeah, I, I don't know, I don't know what to do with these stories sometimes. I guess other than share them, and hope that someone else will find a connection to that story. And maybe they'll feel inspired. And maybe they'll change. And maybe that's the starting point. Maybe this is where we need to begin. Maybe this is where the work needs to be done. Maybe it's just in conversation. Maybe it's just in listening. Maybe it's not in trying to change the whole world, which I wish that I could do so deeply. But it can't because I'm one person, but I can't I can do this. And I can be an artist. And I can create spaces. And I can create conversations. And as an artist and as an educator, I feel that responsibility to do so. Because I didn't have that when I was a kid. And my parents or my mom like didn't have that she didn't have someone to listen. And so many these people just want someone to hear their stories. And so now I feel like I have to.

Emily Reddy 

And you told me that in January you did quit your day job to become a full-time artist. Congratulations.

Amie Bantz 

Thank you. So scary.

Emily Reddy 

I was gonna ask about that. You know, how do you feel, sort of embarking on that?

Amie Bantz 

Yeah, if I think about it too much, I think that I will just cry or panic. Start breathing really heavily. So it's, I guess, just the mantra that I've taken with everything. I needed to be honest with myself, and I'm an artist, and I didn't want to do this. I did it kicking and screaming. I was like, I don't want to be a starving artist. I don't want to have to worry about these things. But you leap and and a net will appear. And nets have been appearing. And I think that that's kind of the way the world works. As soon as you... if you really want something, you'll make it happen. And I really wanted this. I mean, not really, but secretly. Yes. So we're making it happen.

Emily Reddy 

Amie Bantz, thanks for talking with us.

Amie Bantz 

Thank you.

Emily Reddy 

Amie Bantz is an Asian American artist from Harrisburg. Her interactive art exhibit of 91 painted lunchboxes is called "Lunchbox Moments: Seek understanding. Share stories. Stop hate." It will be on display in Penn State's HUB-Robeson student union building through May 15. For this and other episodes of Take Note, go to WPSU.org/takenote. I'm Emily Reddy, WPSU.

Emily Reddy is the news director at WPSU-FM, the NPR-affiliate public radio station for central and northern Pennsylvania.
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