How It Really Feels To Eat Your School Lunchbox As An Immigrant Kid

Three testimonials, taken from the new issue of Kieran Yates’s zine British Values.

October 25, 2016

When it comes to immigration, the rhetoric of Britain's right-wing media seems increasingly absurd with each passing week. One queasily memorable example from this October: the Daily Mail's front page headline on the “bogus” child migrants arriving in the U.K. from Calais. Declaring that these asylum seekers were actually over 18 years of age, the newspaper called for their swift deportation. The providence of their claim? A Microsoft age-recognition web game.

When it feels like the media’s trolling us, it’s crucial to keep a critical head. But it’s also important — for our sanity, if nothing else — that we’re able to roll our eyes at it too. In her hilarious and sharply focused zine British Values, London writer and FADER contributor Kieran Yates nails this balance. This month she releases the second issue of the publication, with Britain’s post-Brexit prime minister, Theresa May, screaming on the cover. In an email to The FADER, Yates wrote, “the anguish on the cover pretty much sums how I feel about our current political situation.”


Yates continued: “There are a lot of stories that I want to hear that are still not told in the way I'd like them to be, and I can't be alone in that. Having a project like this feels even more like a civic duty in a post-Brexit climate. This is when you use what you have in your arsenal to platform the contributions and history from your community that remain invisible.”

While the political mood has darkened in Britain since Yates released the first issue last summer, the zine holds onto the lightness that made it so irresistible the first time around. One feature, “Snog Marry Deport!”, is a darkly humorous twist on a playground game, and there’s a pin-up page with a sexy Photoshopped image of Sadiq Khan. Also included are sharp interviews with Radio One DJ Clara Amfo, actor and musician Riz Ahmed, and rapper Speech Debelle.


Today on The FADER, Yates shares “Eugh, what’s that?” — a feature from the new issue which explores what it’s like to be a kid with a lunchbox that looks, or smells, a little different to white bread sandwiches. She explained the personal motivation behind the feature as follows: “I grew up in an Asian area of west London, so the pakoras and samosas in my lunchbox felt normal. But when I was a bit older we moved to a very white area of the U.K., and I remember opening my lunchbox there and seeing people's faces and responses. The embarrassment stuck with me, and I remember feeling like I couldn't be an Indian that smelt like an Indian. I guess that runs deep, because I still think that now sometimes.”

“Really,” Yates said, “the lunchbox feature is away of reclaiming power to the thousands of kids who felt like outsiders, and felt shame.” Buy British Values here, and read on for the full lunchbox feature below.

Pelin Keskin
How It Really Feels To Eat Your School Lunchbox As An Immigrant Kid Kieran Yates

Dimes Peach juice

“The spiced, sun-dried tomato paste that my mother uses runs through Turkish food like blood runs through a body, and the smell of it is everywhere. It’s not pungent, but like a perfume I’ve been spraying for more than a month, my nose is used to it. Which is why when the lid would pop off my manti and the smell would hold itself high with pride, someone always had to strike it down with, ‘that garlic is strong man, what is that?’

“I apologized for it by constricting it with the Western corset of language. It’s like ravioli but Turkish. It’s not that weird! It’s something you know but…different. If manti had a face it would probably gasp and look back at me like, ‘Your mother did not break her neck ensuring I was small enough to have 40 fit on a tablespoon to be compared to those overbearing, lazy, pathetic excuses of dumplings.’ I barely ate it, threw the rest out and when my mother asked me if I ate all of it, she would smirk because she would know what I did. Why else would I come home and eat three pastries in a row, barely pausing to breathe, only to throw a slice of feta cheese in my mouth, and wash it down with çay. I was at home, where no one would ask me what that is, why it smells, where I didn’t have to pause to be a cultural tour guide.

“No it's not like dry lasagna, it's börek, and no it's not like Turkish pizza, it's pide. I was free to let my stomach embrace the known and let my brain rest through it all. I never brought manti in again for two reasons; I was overprotective of my mother’s food and embarrassed of myself. In the end, she went to Lidl, bought boxes of sandwich filling, slapped it on white bread, cut it in two and wrapped it in tinfoil. When I came home, she never asked me if I ate all of it.”

Hani Richter
How It Really Feels To Eat Your School Lunchbox As An Immigrant Kid Kieran Yates

“My lunchbox was those pink heart shaped ones with a Barbie on it, oh the irony, because ten minutes later I would be having my shin kicked a hundred times during a game football in the playground.

“I went to a very diverse school (Roxeth Manor), and everyone ate all types of food in the canteen. I felt basic with my halal Tahira chicken burger and Ribena. And, before all the Somali lot roast me and think this isn't Somali food — ‘Where's the barees (rice) and (Baasto) spaghetti?’ Fam, that's for when you get home — not school — so allow it.

“Anyways, it was the norm to have the kid next to me eat his or her chicken curry or a lamb biryani — no one thought anything of it. Rumour goes, a UKIP member saw us eating once and started campaigning like crazy.

“It was a constant flux: one day you would have your ‘ethnic’ food and the next a tuna sandwich, and it would be cool. Though one time this guy (the same guy who stole everyones Pokémon cards) bought cornflakes and milk. He got grilled – a bit – for it, so yeah school was really fun.”

Aleksandra Bilić
How It Really Feels To Eat Your School Lunchbox As An Immigrant Kid Kieran Yates

Tunnocks tea cake
Cherry tomatoes

“I made ‘zeljanica’ (Bosnian cheese and spinach burek, brought over to us from the Ottoman empire and made our own with extra extra butter) with my granny especially for this article and only now realized the love, care and patience that goes into layering filo pastry with cheese, spinach, and eggs, so as not to tear it. I feel bad for feeling embarrassed in school when I’d have two squares of zeljanica, a tub of plain yoghurt, and some tomatoes. It was with a Tunnocks tea cake which was peculiarly British, and I still love the fluffiness of the filling — not so much the plain biscuit underneath.

“I remember staring at a girl’s plain peanut butter sandwiches, with a slither of filling and the crusts cut off the tasteless white bread. I was jealous! Kids would stare at my lunch and look a bit disgusted; maybe because the spinach was green. I’m not sure. Later, when we were a bit older, friends would come over and have zeljanica straight out of the oven, with a dollop of yoghurt on top, all cheesy and warm and delicious like a hug. In school, they’d want to trade with me. I’m pretty sure I swapped a slice of the stuff for some Disco’s [chips] once, (I’m not sure what I was thinking but we all gotta learn).

“Zeljanica is my favourite of the Bosnian pies, granny or mum would make ‘krompirusa’ (potato) or ‘burek’ (meat) sometimes too. The beauty was that you could have a slice cold in your lunchbox the next day and it would be another type of delicious. Now I know how to make it myself, I can die happy.”

Read an essay by Kieran Yates about how toxic British Values really are.

British Values: Issue 2 launches at London's Rye Wax on November 10.

How It Really Feels To Eat Your School Lunchbox As An Immigrant Kid