Stealing Buddha's Dinner

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Overview

As a Vietnamese girl coming of age in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Nguyen is filled with a rapacious hunger for American identity, and in the pre-PC-era Midwest (where the Jennifers and Tiffanys reign supreme), the desire to belong transmutes into a passion for American food. More exotic- seeming than her Buddhist grandmother's traditional specialties, the campy, preservative-filled "delicacies" of mainstream America capture her imagination.

In Stealing Buddha's Dinner, the glossy ...

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Stealing Buddha's Dinner

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Overview

As a Vietnamese girl coming of age in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Nguyen is filled with a rapacious hunger for American identity, and in the pre-PC-era Midwest (where the Jennifers and Tiffanys reign supreme), the desire to belong transmutes into a passion for American food. More exotic- seeming than her Buddhist grandmother's traditional specialties, the campy, preservative-filled "delicacies" of mainstream America capture her imagination.

In Stealing Buddha's Dinner, the glossy branded allure of Pringles, Kit Kats, and Toll House Cookies becomes an ingenious metaphor for Nguyen's struggle to become a "real" American, a distinction that brings with it the dream of the perfect school lunch, burgers and Jell- O for dinner, and a visit from the Kool-Aid man. Vivid and viscerally powerful, this remarkable memoir about growing up in the 1980s introduces an original new literary voice and an entirely new spin on the classic assimilation story.

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Editorial Reviews

Chicago Tribune
I believe that Nguyen is a writer to watch, a tremendous talent with a gift for gorgeous sentences.
USA Today
Her typical and not-so-typical childhood experiences give her story a universal flavor.
Emily Carter
Nguyen brings back moments and sensations with such vivid clarity that readers will find themselves similarly jolted back in time. She's a sensuous writer -- colors and textures weave together in her work to create a living fabric. This book should be bought and read anytime your soul hungers for bright language and close observation.
The Star Tribune
San Francisco Chronicle
Relevant not only to anyone who's ever lusted after the perfect snack . . . but anyone who's ever felt like an outsider.
Minneapolis Star Tribune
She's a sensuous writer -- colors and textures weave together in her work to create a living fabric.
New York Times Book Review
... a charming memoir from a Vietnamese immigrant Bich Minh Nguyen...Her prose is engaging, precise, compact...
The Hartford Courant
[Nguyen] makes the inability to fit in...a gracefully told remembrance that mixes the amusing and the touching to wonderful effect.
The New York Times Book Review
A charming memoir . . . Her prose is engaging, precise, compact.
Publishers Weekly

Nguyen was just eight months old when her father brought her and her sister out of Vietnam in 1975. The family relocated in Michigan, where young Bich (pronounced "bic") wrestled with conflicting desires for her grandmother's native cooking and the American junk food the "real people" around her ate. The fascination with Pringles and Happy Meals is one symptom of the memoir's frequent reliance on the surface details of pop culture to generate verisimilitude instead of digging deeper into the emotional realities of her family drama, which plays out as her father drinks and broods and her stepmother, Rosa, tries to maintain a tight discipline. Readers are inundated with the songs Nguyen heard on the radio and the TV shows she watched—even her childhood thoughts about Little House on the Prairie—but tantalizing questions about her family remain unresolved, like why her father and stepmother continued to live together after their divorce. The mother left behind in Saigon is a shadowy presence who only comes into view briefly toward the end, another line of inquiry Nguyen chooses not to pursue too deeply. The passages that most intensely describe Nguyen's childhood desire to assimilate compensate somewhat for such gaps, but the overall impression is muted. (Feb. 5)

Copyright 2006 Reed Business Information.
Library Journal

Winner of the 2005 PEN/Jerard Fund Award, this first book by Nguyen (literature & creative writing, Purdue Univ.) is a compelling story of a Vietnamese immigrant growing up in Grand Rapids, MI, during the 1980s. One-year-old Nguyen left her native country in April 1975 with her father, sister, grandmother Noi, and two uncles. After staying in refugee camps in Guam and Arkansas, the family soon arrived in Grand Rapids, where Nguyen's father mets Rosa, a Latina woman whom he soon married. Much of Nguyen's memoir is about food—Pringles, ice cream, and Kit Kats—and her efforts to become an all-American girl. Only at the end of the book does Nguyen reveal what she finally discovered about her birth mother, who had remained in Vietnam. A poignant tale of growing up in two cultures and the important role food played in her life, this quick, fun, but ultimately moving read is recommended for public libraries and academic libraries with food or multicultural collections. [See Prepub Alert, LJ10/15/06.]
—Nicole Mitchell

Kirkus Reviews
A childhood immigration memoir for foodies. Nguyen's father fled Vietnam with his two daughters when Nguyen was just a baby. Sponsored by a family in Grand Rapids, Mich., the Nguyens began to adjust to life in a "pale city," dominated by conservative Christians and blonde Republicans. Nguyen explores her relationship with her new home through food: As a girl, she longed for and fantasized about the packaged goods that fill American grocery stores. One of her earliest discoveries was Pringles-the red tube in which the chips sit snuggly-which captivated her. When, as a girl, Nguyen began to read the works of Laura Ingalls Wilder, she marveled at the descriptions of butchering hogs and making cheese, activities that seemed to encapsulate the American frontier experience. She contrasts her own stepmother, Rosa, with the mothers of her school chums: Real mothers cook things like pot roast; real mothers bake Toll House cookies in the afternoon; real mothers send their daughters to school with lunches packed neatly in Tupperware containers. Rosa, a hard-working schoolteacher, was too busy to be Betty Crocker, and the family usually dined on simple Vietnamese food, often cooked by Nguyen's grandmother. Nguyen finally went on strike, refusing to eat until her grandmother and stepmother agreed to "better" food. This gastronomic theme sometimes feels forced, but some of the author's prose is lovely and her imagery fresh. And in her recreation of a world populated by Family Ties, Ritz crackers and Judy Blume books, she has captured the 1980s with perfection. Nguyen's not in the class of, say, Richard Rodriguez; nonetheless, this debut suggests she's a writer to watch.
From the Publisher
"Relevant not only to anyone who's ever lusted after the perfect snack . . . but anyone who's ever felt like an outsider."
-San Francisco Chronicle

"A charming memoir . . . Her prose is engaging, precise, compact."
-The New York Times Book Review

"Her typical and not-so-typical childhood experiences give her story a universal flavor."
-USA Today

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780670038329
  • Publisher: Penguin Publishing Group
  • Publication date: 2/1/2007
  • Pages: 272
  • Product dimensions: 5.86 (w) x 8.52 (h) x 1.07 (d)

Meet the Author

Bich Minh Nguyen (pronounced/Bit Min New-win/) was born in Saigon and grew up in Michigan. Her work has appeared in Gourmet, People, the Chicago Tribune, and numerous anthologies.
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Read an Excerpt

Table of Contents

About the Author

Title Page

Copyright Page

Dedication

1 - Pringles

2 - Forbidden Fruit

3 - Dairy Cone

4 - Fast Food Asian

5 - Toll House Cookies

6 - School Lunch

7 - American Meat

8 - Green Sticky Rice Cakes

9 - Down with Grapes

10 - Bread and Honey

11 - Salt Pork

12 - Holiday Tamales

13 - Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

14 - Ponderosa

15 - Mooncakes

16 - Cha Gio

Author’s Note

Acknowledgements

PENGUIN BOOKS STEALING BUDDHA’S DINNER

Bich Minh Nguyen (first name pronounced Bit) teaches literature and creative writing at Purdue University. She lives with her husband, the novelist Porter Shreve, in Chicago and West Lafayette, Indiana. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, her first book, was the recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award. She is currently at work on a novel, Short Girls.

Praise for Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

“A charming memoir . . . Her prose is engaging, precise, compact.”

The New York Times Book Review

“[D]eftly crafted . . . Far from being a memoir or what could be described as fitting into the kitschy ethnic-lit genre, her story is at once personal and broad, about one Vietnamese refugee navigating U.S. culture as well as an exploration of identity. . . . [S]he pays equal attention to the rhythm and poignancy of language to build her story as she does the circumstances into which she was born.” —Los Angeles Times

“Nguyen . . . succeeds as an author on many levels. She is a brave writer who is willing to share intimate family memories many of us would choose to keep secret. Her prose effortlessly pulls readers into her worlds. Her typical and not-so-typical childhood experiences give her story a universal flavor.” —USA Today

“Hilarious and poignant, her words will go straight to your heart.”

Daily Candy

“Nguyen brings back moments and sensations with such vivid clarity that readers will find themselves similarly jolted back in time. She’s a sensuous writer—colors and textures weave together in her work to create a living fabric. This book should be bought and read anytime your soul hungers for bright language and close observation.”

Star Tribune (Minneapolis)

“It’s the premise that makes the book relevant not only to anyone who’s ever lusted after the perfect snack, but anyone who’s ever felt different. Clever turns of phrase make Nguyen’s book read quickly, and children of the ’80s will be able to reminisce about pop culture along with her. The story resonates with anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider.”

San Francisco Chronicle

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is beautifully written. Nguyen . . . surely knows how to craft and shape sentences. She understands the evocative possibilities of language, is fearless in asserting the specificities of memories culled from early childhood and is, herself, an appealing character on the page. I believe Nguyen is a writer to watch, a tremendous talent with a gift for gorgeous sentences.” —Chicago Tribune

"The story of how one young girl could absorb all these cultural influences and assimilate drives Stealing Buddha’s Dinner and Nguyen makes the journey both fiercely individual and universal.” —Detroit Free Press

“Nguyen is a gifted storyteller who doles out humor and hurt in equal portions. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner [is] a tasty read. This memoir, which is also a tribute to ‘all the bad [American] food, fashion, music, and hair of the deep 1980s,’ feels vivid, true, and even nostalgic.”

The Christian Science Monitor

“[A] pungent, precisely captured memoir.” —Elle

“[Nguyen] makes the inability to fit in the springboard for a gracefully told remembrance that mixes the amusing and the touching to wonderful effect. She writes with Zen-like wisdom.” —The Hartford Courant

“The author’s prose is lovely and her imagery fresh. And in her re-creation of a world populated by Family Ties [and] Ritz crackers . . . she has captured the 1980s with perfection. . . . This debut suggests she’s a writer to watch.” —Kirkus Reviews

"’I came of age before ethnic was cool,’ the author writes in her carefully crafted memoir of growing up in western Michigan as a Vietnamese refugee in the early 1980s....What seems most to have caught her eye and fired her imagination, then as now, was food, which not only provides the title for each chapter of the memoir but also serves as a convenient shorthand for the cultural (and metaphorical) differences between Toll House cookies and green sticky rice cakes, between Pringles and chao gio, between American and Vietnamese. It’s a clever device and—like the book itself—leaves the reader hungry for more.” —Booklist

“Only a truly gifted writer could make me long for the Kool-Aid, Rice-a-Roni, and Kit Kats celebrated in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. In this charming, funny, original memoir about growing up as an outsider in America, Bich Nguyen takes you on a journey you won’t forget. I can hardly wait for what comes next.” —Judy Blume

"At once sad and funny, full of brass, energy, and startling insights, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a charmer of a memoir. Bich Nguyen’s story ranges from the pleasures of popular culture to the richness of personal history, from American fast foods to traditional Vietnamese fare. It is an irresistible tale.”

—Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Origin and The Language of Baklava

“Bich Nguyen’s Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is an irresistible memoir of assimilation, compassion, family, and food. Who would have thought that SpaghettiOs, Nestlé Quik, and Pringles could seem as wonderfully exotic to a Vietnamese refugee as shrimp curry and spring rolls seem to the average Midwesterner, but that’s part of the tasty surprise of this wonderful debut.”

—Dinty W. Moore, author of The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still

“Frank, tender, unsettling, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen moves the reader with each event and image. Bich’s grandparents ‘gathered up the family and fled Vietnam to start over on the other side of the world’ in 1975. Her own and her family’s subtle and brutal collisions in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are rendered true and palpable by the writer’s candid imagination. In fiction and nonfiction, the reality of a character’s life lies in how it is experienced. Nguyen’s immigrant childhood resonates, as she captures the experience of two cultures’ clashing smells, religions, hairstyles, clothes, habits, and, especially, foods. As she writes it, her grandmother’s gathering toadstools in their backyard garden sets them apart from their neighbors absolutely but also ineffably. America’s foundational story is the immigrant’s tale, and, with its new citizens, the country continuously remakes itself. Similarly, Nguyen’s unique writerly vision, her innovative and pungent voice, reinvents and renews this venerable theme.”

—Lynne Tillman, judge for the PEN/Jerard Fund Award

PENGUIN BOOKS

Published by the Penguin Group

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Penguin Books Ltd, Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2007 Published in Penguin Books 2008

Copyright © Bich Minh Nguyen, 2007

All rights reserved

Portions of this book were published as the selections “A World Without Measurements” in Gourmet; “Toadstools” in Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America, edited by Susan Richards Shreve (Houghton Mifflin, 2003); and “The Good Immigrant Student” in Tales Out of School: Contemporary Writers on Their Student Years, edited by Susan Richards Shreve and Porter Shreve (Beacon Press, 2001).

eISBN : 978-0-143-11303-4

The scanning, uploading and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.

for my family

1

Pringles

WE ARRIVED IN GRAND RAPIDS WITH FIVE DOLLARS and a knapsack of clothes. Mr. Heidenga, our sponsor, set us up with a rental house, some groceries—boxed rice, egg noodles, cans of green beans—and gave us dresses his daughters had outgrown. He hired my father to work a filling machine at North American Feather. Mr. Heidenga wore wide sport coats and had yellow hair. My sister and I were taught to say his name in a hushed tone to show respect. But if he stopped by to check on us my grandmother would tell us to be silent because that was part of being good. Hello, girls, he would say, stooping to pat us on the head.

It was July 1975, but we were cold. Always cold, after Vietnam, and my uncle Chu Cuong rashly spent two family dollars on a jacket from the Salvation Army, earning my grandmother’s scorn. For there were seven of us to feed in that gray house on Baldwin Street: my father, Grandmother Noi, Uncles Chu Cuong, Chu Anh, and Chu Dai (who wasn’t really an uncle but Cuong’s best friend), and my sister and me. Upstairs belonged to the uncles, and downstairs my sister and I shared a room with Noi. My father did not know how to sleep through the night. He paced around the house, double-checking the lock on the front door; he glanced sideways out the taped-up windows, in case someone was watching from the street. When at last he settled down on the living room sofa, a tweedy green relic from Mr. Heidenga’s basement, he kept one hand on the sword he had bought from a pawnshop with his second paycheck. My father had showed my sister and me the spiral carvings on the handle. He turned the sword slowly, its dull metal almost gleaming, and let us feel the weight of the blade.

On Baldwin Street all of the houses were porched and lop-sided, missing slats and posts like teeth knocked out of a sad face. Great heaps of rusted cars lined the curbs, along with beer bottles that sparkled in any hint of sunlight. I spent a lot of time staring at the street, waiting for something to happen or someone to appear. Chu Anh got a job working second shift at a tool and die plant, and sometimes he and my father would meet each other on the street, coming and going from the bus stop.

My sister was also named Anh, but with an accent no one pronounces anymore. A year older than I, she was the ruler of all our toys. We amassed a closet full of them, thanks to the bins at our sponsor’s church. We had so much, we became reckless. We threw Slinkies until they tangled and drowned paper dolls. Someone gave us tricycles and we traveled the house relentlessly, forgetting our uncles sleeping upstairs. We didn’t know that they had to get up in the middle of the night, or that our father competed for pillows and comforters from the reject pile at work. We didn’t know that we were among the lucky.

I remember bare feet on old wood floors; shivering after a bath. Noi knitted heavy sweaters from marled-colored rayon my father bought at Kmart. Puffs of steam rose from the kitchen stove where she cooked our daily rice. One blizzard morning, Noi let my sister and me run outside in our pajamas and fuzzy slippers. The snow fell on my face and for a moment I laughed and waved. Then a gust of wind sent me tumbling into a snow-bank and I screamed so much, Noi thought the weather had turned into an attack. She snatched us up and ran inside.

We had been living on Baldwin Street for almost a year when Mr. Heidenga invited us to dinner at his family’s massive, pillared house in East Grand Rapids. The Heidengas had a cook, like Alice on The Brady Bunch, and she must have fed us—me, my sister Anh, and the Heidenga daughters, all sequestered together in the kitchen. But I don’t remember eating anything. I only remember staring, and silence, and Heather Heidenga— who might have been Marcia, with that oval face—opening a canister of Pringles. Anh and I were transfixed by the bright red cylinder and the mustache grin on Mr. Pringles’s broad, pale face. The Heidenga girl pried off the top and crammed a handful of chips into her mouth. We watched the crumbs fall from her fingers to the floor.

Mrs. Heidenga swished into the kitchen to see how we were doing. Later, my father would swear that she served them raw hamburgers for dinner. Mrs. Heidenga was tall and blond, glamorous in a pastel pantsuit and clicking heels. When she touched her daughters’ hair her bracelets clattered richly. Nicole Heidenga, who was younger than her sister but older than mine, waited for her mother to go back to the dining room. She shoved her hand into the can of Pringles and said, “Where’s your mom?”

Anh and I made no answer. We had none to give.

We had left Vietnam in the spring of 1975, when my sister was two and I was eight months old. By then, everyone in Saigon knew the war was lost, and to stay meant being sent to reeducation camps, or worse. The neighbors spoke of executions and what the Communists would do to their children; they talked of people vanished and tortured—a haunting reminder of what my grandfather had endured in the North. My father heard that some Americans were going to airlift children out of the country, and he wondered if he could get Anh and me on one of those planes. Operation Babylift it was called, and over the course of April would carry away two thousand children. But on April 4 the first flight crashed at the Tan Son Nhut air base, killing most on board. My father decided he had to find another way, though time was running out for Saigon. Americans were fleeing. Wealthy Vietnamese worked bribes to get any route out. Masses of would-be refugees mobbed the airport.

On the morning of April 29 the last helicopters rose from the roofs of the American Embassy. The North Vietnamese were closing in, firing rockets at the downtown neighborhoods, where looters were still smashing in windows. Tanks would be rolling into the presidential palace by the next day. Chu Cuong, who was based at the naval headquarters, called Chu Anh at the army communications center. Two dozen ships had been waiting at the Saigon River for the past month, preparing for the end. Now it was time. I’m getting on a ship, Chu Cuong said. You get the family on any one you can. Go now.

He had been to the United States for training missions— there’s a photograph of him confident and grinning in hip-slung bell-bottoms, his hair windblown while the Statue of Liberty rises up behind him—and he was certain that we would all be able to meet up there. We’ll find each other, he said casually, as if America were a small town.

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Table of Contents


Pringles     1
Forbidden Fruit     17
Dairy Cone     31
Fast Food Asian     45
Toll House Cookies     61
School Lunch     73
American Meat     85
Green Sticky Rice Cakes     95
Down with Grapes     117
Bread and Honey     131
Salt Pork     149
Holiday Tamales     165
Stealing Buddha's Dinner     179
Ponderosa     197
Mooncakes     221
Cha Gio     239
Author's Note     255
Acknowledgments     257
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Reading Group Guide

INTRODUCTION
I came of age in the 1980s, before diversity and multicultural awareness trickled into western Michigan. Before ethnic was cool. Before Thai restaurants became staples in every town. When I think of Grand Rapids I remember city signs covered in images of rippling flags, proclaiming “An All-American City.” Throughout the eighties a giant billboard looming over the downtown freeway boasted the slogan to all who drove the three-lane S-curve. As a kid, I couldn’t figure out what “All-American” was supposed to mean. Was it a promise, a threat, a warning?

from Stealing Buddha’s Dinner (p. 10)

When does the immigrant make the transition from alien to citizen? Is identity a gift bestowed or a stake to be claimed? Bich Minh Nguyen’s evocative, intimate, coming-of-age memoir explores the notion of identity through one motherless child’s personal quest for acceptance. Her story begins in a culturally homogenous Midwestern town where, at the tender age of one, she begins her new life as an outsider in the only country she knows. In April 1975, her charming, unshakable father manages to put his fractured family on one of the last boats out of Saigon in hopes of a better, safer life in America. In their escape they leave behind Bich’s mother, a situation that her family later covers in silence. Despite the generosity of their sponsor family, the Nguyens immediately feel the sting of xenophobia in their adopted country. Though their grandmother Noi tries to maintain Vietnamese traditions, Bich and her sister, Anh, find their connection with their homeland tenuous and yearn to fit in with their often callous white neighbors and classmates.

Shortly after arriving in America Bich’s father woos Rosa, a strong-willed Mexican American single mother who plays maternal stand-in for the mother inexplicably missing from Bich and Anh’s life. In addition to bringing Crissy, a daughter Anh’s age, into the family, Rosa gives birth to Bich’s half brother, Vinh, an American-born, mixed-race child. Together they build an unusual family life steeped in two separate ethnic traditions, three languages, and the continual din of American popular culture.

Bich, a sensitive, introspective girl, can’t slip into the social stream as easily as her pretty, outgoing sisters do. Desperate to feel, look, and be American, she latches onto the idealistic family imagery projected by brand-name packaged foods. Shake ’n Bake, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese in a blue box, and Hamburger Helper, while bland and insipid compared to the traditional Vietnamese foods Noi makes, nevertheless come to represent the social acceptance and insider invisibility Bich wants. Through an insatiable hunger for commercial treats full of empty calories, she tries to eat her way toward an American identity, to become an American from the inside out.

Though Bich feels like an outsider among her white peers, she also finds acceptance difficult in the Vietnamese community. Despite a deep longing to shed the mantle of “otherness,” she and her sister alternate between pride and shame regarding their heritage. They go out of their way to avoid attending Vietnamese parties, where, despite superficial similarities, they feel no cultural connection to their Vietnamese peers. But Bich still defends her family’s religion from her condescending, devoutly Christian neighbors, and despite her classmates’ lack of appreciation champions the green sticky rice cakes lovingly prepared by Noi.

To the young Bich, food becomes a physical manifestation of the intangible qualities that forge a self, one defined by her fanciful longings as much as by the facts of her life. Her story reflects the complexity of the immigrant’s struggle with identity, which is never a simple dualistic tug-of-war. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is ultimately a very American story, a touching treatise on the thorny gift of rebirth given to all who cross the threshold of America’s golden door.

ABOUT BICH MINH NGUYEN

Bich Minh Nguyen teaches literature and creative writing at Purdue University. She lives with her husband, the novelist Porter Shreve, in West Lafayette, Indiana and Chicago.

A CONVERSATION WITH BICH MINH NGUYEN

How did you choose the title Stealing Buddha’s Dinner?

One of the most enduring symbols of my childhood is my grandmother’s bronze statue of Buddha. He sat on a high shelf in her room, surrounded by candles, incense, and offerings of fruit and food, and he seemed such a powerful yet calming figure. I liked the idea of being Buddhist, but at the same time I recognized that it was considered—during the early to mid-1980s in Grand Rapids—not just anomalous but wayward and weird. It was such a strange contrast to play outside with girls who cheerfully asked me if I knew I was going to hell, then return home to the sanctuary of my grandmother’s room. Buddha played a role in the decision I felt I had to make between maintaining Vietnamese identity and assimilating into white identity. I felt stuck in between, so the effort to claim a culture, whether American or Vietnamese, felt to me like a theft, like a taking of something that didn’t or never really would belong to me. The title chapter of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner illustrates the origin of the title; there came a day when, troubled by ideas of spirituality, I attempted the unthinkable: taking some of Buddha’s offerings for myself.

You spent a lot of time at the library as a child, but did you always want to be a writer? Which writers have most influenced your writing? What occupations did you dream of having as a child?

Like most writers, I dreamed of writing because I loved reading. I loved falling into someone else’s imagined world and getting carried forward within his or her language and narrative. At first wanting to write stemmed from wanting to emulate the writers I admired, such as Louise Fitzhugh (Harriet the Spy) and Beverly Cleary (the Ramona Quimby books), and later, Dickens and Austen and Hardy. Writing also felt like an enormous kind of freedom. In real life I was so shy I sometimes couldn’t answer when someone asked me a question; in the imagined life I could speak through writing. I could be as close to fearless as I dared.

I was also intensely interested in language. While I didn’t know it consciously at the time, I’m sure that part of my obsession with reading, writing, spelling, and language was connected to my need to learn English—to master it. I probably felt that I had to prove that I could be as good at English as anyone else. It was my way of dealing with my self-consciousness as a “foreigner.” I vowed I would “deforeignize” myself through English.

When I was in second or third grade someone gave me a scrapbook called “School Days.” It had pockets to keep report cards and drawings, pages to record the highlights of one’s grade-school years, and fill-in-the blanks: “My favorite subject is _____”; “My best friend is _____.” Then: “When I grow I want to be _____,” followed by different options for boys and girls. For boys: doctor, fireman, astronaut. For girls: nurse, teacher, secretary. I would choose secretary because it involved a typewriter, and because it seemed, laid out so, a logical career choice. What I really wanted—to be a writer—seemed so ambitious as to invite ridicule. So I kept it a secret. There was also a big part of me that wondered why anyone would care what I had to say. For years I wrote stories, poems, and “novels” that basically mimicked whatever I was reading—often, British literature. I didn’t discover books by Asian American writers (and it never occurred to me to write about being Vietnamese) until I got to college and read Maxine Hong Kingston’s The Woman Warrior. Then, slowly, possibilities unfolded in my mind. I started writing first-person stories not from the point of view of a white girl—my usual protagonist up to that point—but of a Vietnamese girl. It felt scary and audacious but also somehow right.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is your first book. Why did you start with a memoir? What was it like to have your first book win the 2005 PEN/Jerard Award?

I found I could write in the nonfiction form what I could never seem to articulate fully in fiction or poetry: how my family fled Vietnam on April 29, 1975, and how we left my mother behind in our flight; how we settled in, slowly, to life among tall people in Grand Rapids; how my father came home with feathers in his hair after shifts at the feather factory where he worked; how my new Latina stepmother and stepsister changed all of our lives. I didn’t want, after all, to hide this story in fiction or poetry. In order to write it I had to acknowledge it as the truth—or my truth, the truth as I knew and had experienced it. I’m also interested in the shape a memoir can take. It doesn’t have to be confessional and full of trauma (a persistent misconception, I think). Rather, it can be a collusion of ideas and personal history, a meditation on memory and metaphor. That’s what I was aiming for in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner.

Winning the PEN/Jerard was flat-out one of the best things that ever happened to me. It gave me the encouragement I needed to keep writing, and it allowed me to think about creating not just manuscript pages but an actual book. I am extremely grateful to the PEN American Center for their support.

Do you think it’s easier for Asian immigrants to be free to be themselves now that there are Asian restaurants everywhere and Asian characters are featured on many prime-time TV shows? How do you think your experience might have been different if you had grown up in Boston or Los Angeles?

As an Asian American in Grand Rapids, my childhood was defined by a feeling of isolation. I’m technically first generation, but my experiences were that of the second generation. So I guess I’m somewhere in between; I didn’t have the older generation’s connection to Vietnam, its language and culture, but I did have the immigrant’s feelings of uncertainty and hyper-self-awareness that come with living in a predominately white city. I’m not sure I would have felt any of this so keenly had I grown up in, say, Little Saigon in southern California, or the West Coast cities that saw the birth of Asian American studies. Or maybe I would have. Did my sense of outsiderness lead me to writing, or was that feeling innate? Writers are always writing from the outside; they are witnesses and observers; they are never really “in.” In a way, growing up where I did helped me develop as a writer. It kept me in a state of consistent discomfort. It kept me watchful and aware and wondering.

It does seem easier now for Asian immigrants to be themselves; a good deal of progress has been made since the early 1980s. At the same time I think the negative idea of the “foreigner” still persists—not just for Asian immigrants, but for many nonwhite immigrants and their descendants, people who continue to be asked: “Where are you from? I mean, where are you really from?” And while there are a lot more Asian Americans in the media now, some are still depicted in stereotypical ways, or as so-called comic characters with exaggerated accents. Still, hope and complexity are stronger than ever: in more diverse casts on TV shows; in literature, such as Jhumpa Lahiri’s Interpreter of Maladies and The Namesake and Vincent Lam’sBloodletting and Miraculous Cures; and in movies like Harold and Kumar Go to White Castle. Here the main characters, a Korean American and an Indian American, play on, turn around, and comment on stereotypes. It’s a long way from Long Duk Dong in Sixteen Candles.

In the book you describe the hurt you endured from adults and children because of your name, Bich (pronounced “Bit”). Did you ever consider changing your name once you became an adult? Do you believe that childhood difficulties help build character? Would you give your children American or Vietnamese names?

I’ve thought about changing my name many times. I used to try out new names with restaurant reservations, or at any place that called out “Order for X” over a loudspeaker. I’ve been Lucy, Julia, Alice, and all the girls’ names from Little Women. Sensible, pretty, straightforward, no-way-to-mispronounce names. None of them ever sounded right, though; I felt like I was in hiding. Which I was. I believe that names have great power—that more than just marking us, they are part of our identities. I deal with this idea in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner through the insistence on name brands. Words like Pringles, McDonald’s, and Izod connote and generate impressions, memories, and contexts. They insist on their exactness, and no generic term will do. The funny thing is that I don't really like the name Bich as a Vietnamese name. And I think I probably would have had an easier life, at the very least during roll call, if I’d gone by Beth or Meg or Jo. But my name—the difficulty of it, the burden of it—is a part of me and a part of my story. I’m still learning to be okay with that. I figured, too, that if I was going to proceed with a nonfiction book, I should very well use my real, given name.

I do think that childhood difficulties can help build character through heightened sensitivity and awareness. Which is why if I have a child I plan to saddle him/her with an “American” name, a Vietnamese name, and a hyphenated last name!

Now that you are an adult, do those candies and brand-name processed foods still appeal to you? Were you able to learn how to cook Vietnamese foods from Noi?

When I was a kid, candy and processed foods appealed to me on a very earnest level. They offered both literal and metaphorical nourishment in that they satisfied desires for access. If I could eat what normal Americans were eating then I could be one of them. It’s disturbing and comic to think about how misguided I was—how much I longed for erasure and transformation.

I’m happy to report that my tastes and desires have evolved since that time. I still love candy, but now I mostly look for things like single-origin chocolates and handmade sweets (though, I confess, a box of Nerds once in a great while is very satisfying). The boxed and processed foods of my youth appeal to me now on a camp level; they have become symbols and ideas, signposts of a former time, place, and identity. When I was writing Stealing Buddha’s Dinner I even ate Chef Boyardee and Jeno’s frozen pizza (since renamed) as a way to cull memories and meditations. Such foods, for me, are inextricable from their context—their role in my eighties childhood.

I have learned from Noi how to cook some Vietnamese foods, like cha gio and pho. I crave these dishes now, but somehow they never seem to turn out exactly the same, or nearly as good, when I’m on my own.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is steeped in 1980s culture—TV, music, fashion. What do you think it means to have grown up in the eighties? Do you still listen to eighties music?

It’s embarrassing to admit, but I really did buy into the pop culture and commercialism of the time. All the songs, television shows, and foods in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner are there to show the context in which I sought an identity. They were the identity I wanted. To help me remember that I listened to a lot of eighties music while writing this book. Journey, Cyndi Lauper, Prince—the songs called forth endless memories, like how I used to wait for the school bus at the corner of the street and sing at the top of my lungs. The songs also revealed the ethos of the time. If the music of the sixties and seventies emerged from times of political and economic struggle, the music of the eighties emerged from a time of intense materialism. This resulted in a lot of truly awful songs. But at the same time, I think there’s a grappling with identity politics, such as sexuality, going on behind the materialism. This kind of mixed message helped define my eighties experience.

Today I can still appreciate the good badness of the eighties: Lionel Richie, Back to the Future, The Facts of Life. Back when the Whopper beat the Big Mac, when music videos were heartfelt and narrative. It was an era of confusion: excess and indulgence and synthesizers backlit by the Cold War and the rise of multiculturalism. It was a bad-fashion, teased-hair decade in which to grow up, but it did teach me something about irony and complication. The eighties were my first (if perverse) lesson in aesthetics, and in how notions of taste and beauty can be entirely culturally constructed.

In the book you illustrate the many fantasies that you had as a child about what you imagined American family life was, and the disappointment you felt when you learned the truth. What had you dreamed about your mother and the life you might have led had you stayed with her instead of your father?

When I was growing up much of the world seemed steeped in mystery. The minor mysteries—how exactly did Pringles get their shape?—weighed almost as much as the major mysteries—what had happened to my mother? The subject of her life was shrouded in secrecy—no one in the family wanted, or dared, to talk about her—and in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner I try to re-create that sense of silence. The structure of the book mirrors my experience of not knowing, and not even really allowing myself to think about her. She was an off-limits subject, and I not only bowed to that, I was a part of that pact. It sounds awful, but the reality was that I had never known her; I didn’t know anything about her. And since I had a mother, Rosa, in my life, and my grandmother Noi, I wasn’t lacking maternal figures. When I fantasized about having the perfect family, I dreamed of mothers I could not have, like Marmee March or Maria Von Trapp. They represented, or so I often thought, lives of perfection. In Stealing Buddha’s Dinner the truth about my mother is not revealed until near the end—again, the narrative structure reflecting my experience—when, no longer a child, I face the mother I had all along feared to know.

Though you dreamed of Manhattan, Boston, and Los Angeles as a child, you have remained in the Midwest. Did you ever try living in any of those places? Have you reconciled the “missingness” you felt as a child? Do you identify yourself as a Midwesterner?

I’m a Midwesterner and a Michigander. While I love being in New York and Los Angeles, I’ve mostly lived in the Midwest. What people from the Midwest have in common—though I don’t mean to generalize, since the area is quite vast, and living in Grand Rapids, for instance, is very different from living in Chicago—is a kind of understanding of landscape and middleness. We are aware, we are made to be aware, that we are far from both coasts; we are “flyover” country. That can forge a kind of kinship between someone from Illinois and someone from Ohio. It can also create a sense of longing and restlessness that, when spotted in someone else, becomes an avenue for discussion. I remember in high school being thrilled to learn that F. Scott Fitzgerald was a Midwesterner. Gatsby made a lot of sense to me.

The missingness I felt as a child was part of my larger desire not to be lonely. I didn’t know that then. I thought it was simply about location, as if being in a bustling city would guarantee friendships. Now I know that loneliness crosses all regions, and that one can be just as terribly alone in a crowd of people walking the same sidewalk. So in a sense I guess you could say I’ve reconciled that sense of missingness in that I understand it better now. I also think it’s important, especially as a writer, to follow that missingness and see where it leads.

Since leaving Grand Rapids for college, grad school, and professional life have you met children of immigrants with similar childhood experiences? Because you grew up in such a unique household, do you find it difficult to identify with Asian American diaspora groups? You teach a course on Asian American literature—does your work qualify as Asian American literature, and do you identify yourself as an Asian American writer?

I’ve met many immigrants and children of immigrants who have had similar childhood struggles with assimilation, identity, and outsiderness. I’ve also met many nonimmigrants, people whose families have been here since the Pilgrims, with the same feelings. The territory of childhood is so often unkind—brutal, even. My story may be rooted in Asian American–ness, but issues of loneliness and longing certainly don’t belong exclusively to the Asian American experience.

Being Asian American is a part of my work and my identity, so in that way I do think my work can be considered Asian American literature, which often deals with issues of immigration, diaspora, stereotypes, and identity. At the same time, I would resist being pigeonholed as “only” Asian American. I identify myself as a writer and as an Asian American writer.

What are you working on now?

I’m finishing a novel, titled Short Girls. It revolves around two sisters, Linny and Van, who are dealing with troubled love lives (one is involved with a married man; the other is trying to cover up the fact that her husband has left her), and their own unstable family. Through these complicated relationships, the novel explores what it means to be short in a tall world—to be sometimes overlooked, for instance, or simply to feel overlooked. Of course, the sisters are short, and so is their father, a failed inventor of products to improve the lives of short people. They have to come to terms with things they cannot change—their face, race, family, and height, and in so doing try to make progress in a world that often feels out of reach.

Writing fiction after writing nonfiction has been very freeing. I keep thinking: I get to make stuff up! It’s also freeing to have told my real story in nonfiction—it’s as though I had to tell the truth in order to allow myself really to write fiction. I’ve always enjoyed working in more than one genre and thinking about places where one genre bends toward another. I have found, for myself, that subject matter is the primary element that decides which genre a work is going to veer toward. Short Girls does draw on what I know in that it’s mostly set in Michigan and depicts characters who are Vietnamese, but that’s pretty much where the autobiographical involvement ends. Well, except for the title.

DISCUSSION QUESTIONS

  • The narrator uses food as a metaphor for cultural identity. How effective is this metaphor? What kinds of foods does the narrator describe to define who she and her family are? What kinds of foods does she describe to define who she wishes to be? Can any person be defined by what they eat and what they long to eat? How much can a person’s diet reveal about who they are?
     
  • Some argue that immigrants should assimilate themselves entirely into American culture, while others believe it is important to preserve the cultural heritage of the country they originate from. Which Vietnamese cultural customs does the narrator hold onto? Which American customs does the narrator embrace? What are the difficulties of straddling two very different cultures? What issues of cultural identity are specific to the immigrant in America?
     
  • The narrator’s father uproots their family to escape a life of destitution under the postwar communist regime in Vietnam. But when confronted with limitless choice in the land of plenty, the young narrator and her sister Anh only yearn for what they cannot have, hardly able to appreciate what little they would have had had they not left for America. How might their aspirations have been different if they had not escaped communist Vietnam? Is this materialistic yearning the flip side of “freedom of choice”?
     
  • The narrator embraces American consumer culture, yearning for brand-name foods and the lifestyles associated with them. Have advertising and marketing campaigns shaped her American dream? Can you think of instances in your own childhood where you believed, perhaps naively, that a product could give you a lifestyle you wanted?
     
  • The narrator describes her obsession with the Little House on the Prairie series of books, saying, “In a way, it makes sense that I would become enamored with a literature so symbolic of manifest destiny and white entitlement.” Why does it make sense that she would embrace Little House on the Prairie? What do the Ingalls represent to the young narrator? What does the Ingalls family fantasy provide to her that her family life does not?
     
  • Why do the narrator and her sister, Anh, break into the Vander Wals’ home and wreck Jennifer Vander Wal’s room? How do Jennifer Vander Wal’s pious superiority and the narrator’s resentful friendship reflect relations between Americans and Vietnamese refugees at that time?
     
  • Rosa, the narrator’s stepmother, teaches her stepchildren to embrace their Vietnamese heritage and tries to integrate herself into the local Vietnamese community, which often emphasizes the cultural differences between Rosa and her adopted family. Why does Rosa try so hard to embrace Vietnamese culture? Was her method the best way to unify a mixed-culture family?
     
  • On the few occasions in which the narrator is finally allowed to indulge in the foods she’s idealized—Kraft Macaroni and Cheese after she has an argument with Rosa, a pork-chop dinner at her friend Holly’s house—she finds herself disappointed by their flavors. How is this mirrored in the accompanying personal experiences?
     
  • The music references in the book are almost as rich and evocative as the food imagery. Is music more or less personal than food? Given that music is purely sensory pleasure while food is a necessity that can also be a sensory pleasure, what do you make of their impacts on culture? Which has had more of an impact in your own life?
     
  • How has the immigrant’s status changed since Nguyen’s family came to America? What was unique about the immigration situation for Vietnamese refugees? Which of the narrator’s experiences—harrowing escape, immigrant sponsorship, religious condescension, etc.—could have happened today? Which experiences would be different?
     
  • What does the book reveal about ideas on motherhood and matriarchy? Why does Nguyen structure her book so that the revelations about her birth mother are not revealed until “Mooncakes”? How do themes of motherhood in the book reflect tensions between the immigrant and her mother country?
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Customer Reviews

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Sort by: Showing 1 – 17 of 15 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 12, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A great Vietnamese immigrant story

    This is a memoir of growing up as an immigrant in a small town in Michigan where the population was predominant white. Nguyen's family left Vietnam after the fall of Saigon and she chronicled the difficulties of her family adjusting to life in the U.S. Her father married a Mexican-American woman named Rosa and her family dynamics was unique compared to a typical American family at that time. The main theme of her book centered on her confusion due to her dual identities as both a Vietnamese and an American. Throughout her book, Nguyen described her cravings for American food which were what "normal" Americans for eating. She grew up fantasizing about snacks like Ho-Hos, Ding Dongs, chips, Chef Boyardee and others. Where she was stuck eating "pho" a type of Vietnamese noodles.

    This was a rather interesting read about growing up as an immigrant in the Midwest in the 80s. Her writing was clear, engaging and very descriptive. She was candid in describing her family and issues they were facing as well as her own challenges in trying to fit into the mainstream society. A heartwarming memoir!

    Another great memoir I highly recommend is by Lac Su called "I Love Yous are for White People". It's also a Vietnamese immigrant story. Not as cute as Nguyen's memoir but a fascinating read nonetheless. It's raw and uncensored.

    11 out of 11 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 2, 2008

    Hungry for Love (and Identity)

    I just finished this delightful memoir. I admit I don't often read the memoirs out today because their subject matter always seems to be about abuse. But this one is different. We are taken on a journey from Vietnam to Grand Rapids Michigan, through the eyes of a young girl trying to seek her identity through the crass commercialism of the United States. Food plays a major role in this narrative, rather than abuse, although there is plenty of dysfunction in this mixed family situation. Nguyen is definitely a writer to watch, and I look forward to reading her novel when it comes out.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 28, 2008

    Entertaining Book

    I grew up with the same thoughts about eating fruits on the alter as this author did. A very well-written book 'in the English light.' However, I find a great disappointment in the spelling errors of Vietnamese words she decided to incorporate into this book. The editors of this book should look into the spelling errors in this book, at this day and age I feel that consumers should not have to pay for books with spelling errors, and it is very unPC to have mispellings of words. Other than this mishap, this was an interesting read that I've referred to others.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted August 30, 2012

    more from this reviewer

    A coworker recommended this book to me. I enjoyed it. It's lig

    A coworker recommended this book to me. I enjoyed it. It's light and fun.

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  • Posted March 15, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Stealing Buddha's Dinner

    Stealing Buddha's Dinner was an interesting book. Being from the state of Michigan, it was fun to read about places that I know and experiences that I have had in this state. I have gone blueberry picking in PawPaw. I grew up during this time period and remember vividly the airlift out of Vietnam. This series of events in the book was totally fascinating and heart-breaking at the same time. The food in this book made my mouth water and brought back many of my own childhood memories. I loved those candy necklaces. The references to the Vietnamese food made me want to learn to cook these traditional foods. I also enjoyed the music that was mentioned in the book. Some were just so funny, because I would start singing the words. This book was just enjoyable.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 12, 2009

    Eh.

    This book was really exciting at first! I was really excited to read it because the family ends up in the city i live by! Then I got to the middle... It was so slow that I couldn't wait to put it down. I HAD to read it for an english assignment so i HAD to finish it. Im not sure if I would have finished it if I wasn't required to.

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  • Posted February 18, 2009

    Stealing Buddah's Dinner

    Good read. Love learning culture and a person's stuggle with culture and identity. Much hope remains! We learn from past experiences.

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  • Posted November 27, 2008

    more from this reviewer

    I like to be in America

    A representation of the process that immigrants go through when the reach a destination that was going to answer all their needs. Definitely worth reading, if only to see what others face when going through a cultural shock of this kind.

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