Brown paper lunch bags marked me as a New Yorker, an outsider
As a 12-year-old just arrived from America, I felt lonely, isolated and far from all I knew
‘When I look back on those brown paper bags, they were the only visible manifestation of my difference. One day, when I felt an acute homesickness, they were my only company as I ate my lunch within the confines of a bathroom stall.’
Like most 12-year-olds, I had my own fair share of parental-induced embarrassment: the lack of fluency in young-folk lingo, sporadic warnings about underage drinking, and silence-inducing questions around matters of puppy love. If those years were to be made into an album, it’d be titled “Miniscule Annoyances: The Greatest Hits (So Far!)”, riddled with guest appearances of your own voice dropping the occasional “Oh my god. Just stop.”
In my own uncut version, there’d be a track listed smack in the middle called, “my parents’ accents”.
My mother is a quintessential New Yorker. She’s a straight-talking, exclusively-public-transport-taking, leftovers-for-breakfast-eating former professor of public speaking at New York University. There wasn’t a week that went by where I didn’t get to attend an art show or museum opening, since she somehow managed to fit writing for a local travel supplement around everything else. There’s another tell-tale New Yorker attribute for you - an inexplicable ability to multitask.
My father is a Manhattanite of another time. He wore a three-piece suit to the Christmas party where he first met my mother, and when asked how he’s doing by a friend or family over the phone, often answers with, “all the better for hearing your voice”.
For the past 11 years, the majority of his friends and family stayed on the other end of that phone line. We moved to Ireland in 2007, dropping our anchor just outside Athlone.
Along with 200-plus cardboard boxes and old furniture, we dutifully brought a slew of stereotypes with us across the Atlantic. It took me a while to comfortably call my friends’ parents by their first names, and my mom to this day still drives an automatic car. We had that signature nasal twang and mild public shamings were often prefaced with, “Now, dear”.
And of course, there was the damning physical evidence: brown paper lunch bags.
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Oh man, did I hate them. Practically speaking, they’re not fit for the challenges of brought-from-home eating. If any liquid makes a run for it in there, it’s game over. But what I really despised about them was how they marked me out.
I am fully aware of how easy I had it as an immigrant in Ireland. I was a white, English-speaking Irish-passport holding New Yorker living in the midlands. No one ever questioned my right to be there, I never struggled to follow lessons or jokes around lunch tables, and there were times where the novelty of my hometown was a means of connection. I could point out cafes or storefronts I had frequented by pointing to a television screen.
Along with 200-plus cardboard boxes and old furniture, we dutifully brought a slew of stereotypes with us across the Atlantic.
The problem was, I refused to accept that for better or worse, we were here. I would pen long letters to my parents during the Irish classes I mutely sat through, conjuring up whatever deal with the devil I could. They started off tepidly with requests to relocate our family pod of three back to the Upper West Side. As I became increasingly self-absorbed in my own misery, I resorted to mastering my own fate - “I could go alone. If you let me.”
During one particularly desperate moment, I presented a fool-proof offer: if they helped me move back to New York, they wouldn’t even have to worry themselves about where I would live. I would sleep in a bin bag on Fifth Avenue.
After wading in my own self-pity, I’d go to lunch with my classmates. They were always kind and welcoming to me, despite my erratic moods. I’d take out that stupid brown paper bag, and in an effort to be cordial and make conversation, someone might remark, “Oh my god, that’s so American.”
Perfectly acceptable, yet my frustration would turn in on itself like kneaded dough. I would smile in response, because I knew their intentions were good. But all I wanted was to answer, “Oh, they’re real alright. Everyone I love eats out of them. And yeah, they are so American. I’d give anything to be back there.”
Those first few years were very polarising in how I lived them. I returned to the US every summer for an American cultural rite of passage: sleepaway camp in the North-east. I would come back to Ireland, and dread the first drive I took with my mom into town. Because that’s when I knew how long the stretch of time was before I could go home again.
When I look back on those brown paper bags, they were the only visible manifestation of my difference. One day, when I felt an acute homesickness, they were my only company as I ate my lunch within the confines of a bathroom stall. I wish I had looked at them in a different light, and preferably not under the fluorescent ones that hung from the bathroom ceiling. I wish I saw them as a way to connect with people who appreciated where I was from, who just wanted to know more about this place I seemed to miss so much.
If I think of loneliness, I think of that afternoon I spent with my bag full of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches in a bathroom stall.
But since there’s no going back, I’ve found my own lesson in their presence. I know it might seem strange to look for pearls of wisdom in folded blank paper, but there is so much written there in my eyes. If I think of loneliness, I think of that afternoon I spent with my bag full of peanut butter-and-jelly sandwiches in a bathroom stall. Once I started to accept the fact that this wasn’t an incredibly lucid dream, that I had indeed moved away, I tried, and continue to try, to bring that 12-year-old-girl along with me everywhere I go. She knew isolation, even though it was partly self-inflicted. She knew where its reflection could be found, and what she could do to help.
So, like most things, brown paper lunch bags are complicated than they initially seem. To me, they embody loneliness, stapled together by metal and empathy.
When I present my own brown paper bag at the story collecting sessions at the Epic Irish Emigration Museum in Dublin this weekend, I have to admit I’ll be making one slight cosmetic alteration.
I’m going to scrawl at the very bottom, in a signature black sharpie: “Love your accent. Because you’re going to be okay.”
Epic, the Irish Emigration Museum will be gathering stories from members of new Irish communities who have moved to Ireland from other countries this weekend in the Dublin Docklands. The stories will then become part of the online Europeana Migration Collection, Europe’s digital library, museum, gallery and archive. For more information see epicchq.com/epic-invites-new-irish-communities-storytelling-collection-weekend