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.
|Publisher:||Penguin Publishing Group|
|Product dimensions:||5.06(w) x 7.75(h) x 0.47(d)|
|Age Range:||18 - 17 Years|
About the Author
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.
Read an Excerpt
Table of Contents
About the Author
1 - Pringles
2 - Forbidden Fruit
3 - Dairy Cone
4 - Fast Food Asian
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
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.”
“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
“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 Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A.
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
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for my family
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.
Excerpted from "Stealing Buddha's Dinner"
Copyright © 2008 Bich Minh Nguyen.
Excerpted by permission of Penguin Publishing Group.
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Table of Contents
Forbidden Fruit 17
Dairy Cone 31
Fast Food Asian 45
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
Cha Gio 239
Author's Note 255
What People are Saying About This
"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."
Reading Group Guide
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.
- 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?
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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.
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.
A meandering, sometimes touching memoir of a young Vietnamese immigrant who arrives after the fall of Saigon in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her father, sister, grandmother and uncles. The adventure expands once her dad marries a woman of Mexican-American ancestry. Take a trip down memory lane as Ms. Nguyen rattles of list after list of American snack foods, fast food, packaged foods, you name it (if it had artificial flavorings, chances are it made her list). More delicious to me than the author's attraction/repulsion to American foods were the brief but nonetheless tasty slices of life she provides...how did new immigrants acclimate themselves? What was it like learning a new language and nearly forgetting your native tongue? How awful was it to go to a blonde, Christrian friend's house for dinner? (Answer: pretty darn awful!) How did her grandmother cope with this total upheaval in her life (rather well, apparently). Anyone who has felt the outsider can relate to much of this tale. But it's the monotonous listing of food and more food is just hard to digest. Burp. It's worth a read, but it could have been so much more.
I enjoyed this story of assimilation, but it struck me as a bit sloppy after the first few chapters. I read it a couple of weeks ago, and I can't say it has stayed with me at all.
Another hard-to-read memoir. Nguyen, her sister, and her father, along with her grandmother and uncles, manage to escape from Vietnam after the war and come to America. But America is tough on Nguyen, trying to find a way to blend in, wanting to eat Twinkies and Little Debbie snack cakes and Count Chocula cereal instead of Cha gio and bean sprouts and nuoc mam. Things get worse for Nguyen when her father marries a Mexican-American and Nguyen has a new half brother, a Vietnamese-Mexican American. Nguyen tries to find her way through Donna Summer and Buddha altars, Little House on the Prairie and holiday tamales.
I picked this up through Bookmooch because it sounded interesting. Frankly, anything involving food is interesting to me. I read cookbooks for fun.This is a memoir, an account of Nguyen's escape from Saigon to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Her dad made the decision to flee, in order to allow his 2 daughters a future that didn't involve bombings and war. They ended up in Michigan with grandma Noi and eventually, a stepmother Rosa and step sister Crissy. This is Nguyen's story - told through the lens of the 80's and the food of 3 cultures: her Vietnamese heritage kept alive by her grandma, her desire to be fully American and eat at McDonalds, and her stepmothers Mexican heritage, complete with tamales and sopa.The 80's were an embarrassing decade, I know, I grew up in it. And I got a little secondhand embarrassment from reading this book. If only because I pretty much did the same things and tried to wear the neon and poof my hair up to the sky as well.Nguyen was shy and "not pretty" so she kept to books. I related well, my best books were the Little House books and the descriptions of food from Ingalls kept me entranced as much as it did Nguyen.Nguyen reconciles her childhood, understanding now all of the things that she couldn't grasp back then, like most people do when they grow up. It's a fairly quick read but satisfying...like McDonalds.
I really enjoyed this book... even though I grew up in very different circumstances there was so much of Bich's story that I identified with. Much of the book was like a trip down memory lane for me - a really fun one at that... I also found her struggles to assimilate into American culture so interesting and I feel like I learned a lot too... the whole book was just a really well written good read.
Good insight on a refugee's point of view in America. Also, it is the same time period that I grew up in so I could relate. Wished it didn't go back and forth in time.
I was disappointed in this book. I wanted to like it. I very much enjoyed two other Vietnamese refugee memoirs: A SENSE OF DUTY: MY FATHER, MY AMERICAN JOURNEY, by Quang X. Pham, and THE UNWANTED, by Kien Nguyen. Maybe there was something I just didn't "get" here, or maybe it was a gender thing, but I found almost all but the last twenty pages or so pretty boring, and was soon skimming over the endless descriptions of food and snacks, both Asian and American. I guess maybe I was expecting a story of hardship, depravation and discrimination, but although there was a hint of the last, Nguyen's situation of a mildly unhappy somewhat chaotic homelife didn't seem all that different from that of a lot of kids growing up in the 80s where both parents had to rush off to work every day leaving the kids to fend for themselves. And the author actually had her grandmother there when she got home from school, so she may have had things a bit better than others in that respect. I couldn't feel much pain when she talked of "differences" and slights (real or imagined) by her older sister and step sister. Her complaints of being plain and having to wear thick, clunky glasses? Again, it didn't seem so awful or horrible. Lots of kids feel that "otherness," particularly in the pre-teen and teen stages. I wearied early on of her whining about wishing for countless rich sweets and American snackfoods. By her own admission, she seemed to have plenty of everything, and not just food, but TV, music, books, and all the other useless junk kids yearn for, egged on by too many TV ads. Bich Minh Nguyen was, as far as I could tell, a typical kid of the MTV generation. Only in the final twenty or thirty pages does her narrative take on any uniqueness - when she finally meets her birth mom and a couple of half-siblings she'd never known. And then when she journeys back to Vietnam with her grandmother and uncle. And even that experience falls a bit flat, since she speaks or understands very little Vietnamese and can't relate to much of anything there. She seems to me to be a pretty much fully assimilated young American woman. Here, I think, is the problem. While Nguyen is obviously a talented observer and writer, she still lacks the necessary perspective of years and life experience. Perhaps she should have waited another ten or fifteen years to write her story. If she were already a parent herself, I think she might have had a very different slant on her early life - particularly regarding her father and stepmother - than the view she presents us with here. To put it into culinary or "food" terms - which was the prevailing theme here - the ingredients all seem to be here, but the proper seasoning is missing. Having suffered through this book, I am not overly anxious to read her next one.
bits and bits of interesting parts, very interesting material, but overall woven weakly and doesn't have a good grip of the audience's attention. Weak emotional stream.
Interesting to read about Nguyen (Vietnamese) and how she desperately wanted to be American in every way, but the writing was only so-so.
Stealing Buddha¿s Dinner Bich Minh NyugenThis is the memoir of a young Vietnamese girl growing up in 1980¿s Michigan. Bich Nyugen tells her emotional story--- of being a Vietnamese immigrant after the fall of Saigon, 1975. Not long after settling in Michigan, Bich¿s father marries a Hispanic woman. It is interesting to see yet another culture blend into Bich¿s young life. Throughout the book we gradually learn about Bich¿s mother and the mystery surrounding her absence.Bich artfully exposes moments and facts through food, tradition, culture, and the youthful desire to ¿fit in¿, to ¿belong¿. Her story is both universal and intimate.A very unique memoir, sweet and poignant, its flavor will linger.
Vietnamese Bich Nguyen comes of age in lily-white, conservative Grand Rapids... growing up under an attractive older sister, distant father, and well-meaning, intense Latina step-mother. Both alienated and attracted to American culture, Bich fixates on TV sitcoms and food. The heroine of the book is her Buddhist grandmother. Her real mother (left behind in Vietnam) remains a cipher even after a reunion as adults. A pleasant tale; could-a been a "contender" but bogs down in details (food & more) that sacrifices the narrative drive.
This is truly an American story, cut from the cloth of America's adventures militarily and the consequent experience of those displaced. Seeing everyday American society through the eyes of one trying to be part of but also feeling apart from the culture she is forced to accommodate gives a new insight into the America many take for granted. The author is skilled at getting her audience to take a step back from the taken-for-granted realities of every day life and helping them to see the quirks in what they have assumed to be normal. The American reader will never see the tradition of making cookies the same.
A coworker recommended this book to me. I enjoyed it. It's light and fun.
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.
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.
Good read. Love learning culture and a person's stuggle with culture and identity. Much hope remains! We learn from past experiences.
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.