Saturday, October 4, 2014

A memoir of family, food and immigration

Stealing Buddha's Dinner, Bich Minh Nguyen

I requested this memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen from the library after reading her novel Short Girls.  Like her two main protagonists, Ms. Nguyen grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, where a large population of Vietnamese immigrants settled in the mid-1970s.  Unlike the Luong sisters, who were born in the United States, she came as an infant, with her family fleeing Saigon just ahead of the North Vietnamese army.  I expected this book would chronicle her introduction to the United States - and the Midwest in particular - focusing on her experiences growing up in a new country, a foreign language and culture.  From the title, I figured that food would play a major role in her story, which the blurb from the library's website confirmed:
A vivid, funny, and viscerally powerful memoir about childhood, assimilation, food, and growing up in the 1980s. As a Vietnamese girl coming of age in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bich Nguyen is filled with a rapacious hunger for American identity. In the pre-PC era Midwest, where the devoutly Christian blond-haired, blue-eyed Jennifers and Tiffanys reign supreme, Nguyen’s barely conscious desire to belong transmutes into a passion for American food. More exotic seeming than her Buddhist grandmother’s traditional specialties  — spring rolls, delicate pancakes stuffed with meats, fried shrimp cakes  — the campy, preservative-filled “delicacies” of mainstream America capture her imagination. And in this remarkable book, the glossy branded allure of such American foods as Pringles, Kit Kats, and Toll House cookies become an ingenious metaphor for her struggle to fit in, to become a “real” American.

All of that is true. Each of the chapter headings is food-related, starting with "Pringles" and ending with "Cha Gio." (I still remember my first taste of those small fried spring rolls, with the hostess at the restaurant showing us how to wrap them in lettuce leaves with cilantro and dunk them in nuoc cham sauce; my addiction was instantaneous.)   Food is a major theme in Ms. Nguyen's story, but it is a much more complex story than the blurb suggests.  I found myself reading this straight through, marveling at the resiliency of the author and her family.  I couldn't help wondering how her family felt about this very candid and revealing memoir.

Ms. Nguyen was only eight months old when her father forced their way onto a ship of refugees, with her grandmother Noi and her older sister Anh.  There was no mention of the girls' mother, whose story is revealed later in the book.  Two of her father's brothers and a family friend joined their group, which moved from a camp in Guam to one in Arkansas, before a sponsor brought them to Grand Rapids.  There, two years later, her father met and married a Mexican American woman, Rosa, who had a daughter of her own.  The new family had hardly moved into a new home (with the uncles living in the basement), when a baby brother arrived.  For many immigrants, their family and the immigrant community are sources of strength and comfort as they navigate a foreign land.  But here the family's new home was away from the Vietnamese community.  Ms. Nguyen and her sister were sometimes the only Asian children in their classes, subject to teasing and often feeling very isolated.  It certainly didn't help that her first name can so easily be mispronounced as "Bitch."  And there was tension at home as well, with a resentful stepsister and a stepmother whose parenting was more about control than love.  It didn't help that her husband, like the father in Short Girls, preferred hanging out with his friends and gambling to actually working, and was often absent.

Ms. Nguyen found comfort and security with her grandmother Noi, whose room seems to have been the quiet still center of the house.  There she kept the family's statue of Buddha, before whom she placed food offerings every day, later shared with her granddaughters (the dinner of the title).  Every day she cooked the familiar Vietnamese dishes, with a pot of hot rice ready when the girls came home from school.  Ms. Nguyen could retreat to her grandmother's room for peaceful hours of watching TV or working on puzzles.  Her uncles provided another refuge.  They lived their own lives in the basement, and there the children were free from the restrictions that ruled so much of their lives upstairs, as well as the tensions.

Sharing a bedroom with her two sisters, Ms. Nguyen watched the older girls grow closer as they moved into adolescence, leaving her on the outside.
I had only one thing to call my own: I read. Reading was my privacy  . . .  I carried books with me everywhere, even to the Dairy Cone. They were a safety, a just-in-case. Some people have imaginary friends; I had characters in books  . . .  I liked to pile my books around me in bed, moatlike, and sleep among the narratives. . . I read to be alone. I read so as not to be alone.

Though I was the oldest in my family, and always had my own room, I could have written those words.  And Ms. Nguyen counted Louisa May Alcott and Laura Ingalls Wilder among her favorite authors (noting how much Wilder writes about food).  But as she grew older, she became more aware of the lack of diversity in the books available to her.
I didn't have any nonwhite literature, anyway, to know what else I could become  . . .  I thought if I could know inside and out how my heroines lived and what they ate and what they loved - Harriet in New York, Laura in Dakota, Jo March in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Bennett in England - I could be them too.  I could read my way out of Grand Rapids.

Reading that set me thinking about the books I read, growing up in small towns in Michigan and Georgia and Washington State.  While I read and re-read Wilder and Alcott, I also found books with more diverse characters in the libraries, such as those in Mildred Taylor's books.  However, I realize now that many of the books featuring people of color were written by white authors.  My nieces and nephew have a greater richness of diversity, in both authors and characters, in the books available to them today.

Despite her complicated feelings about Laura Ingalls Wilder's books, Ms. Nguyen's new novel, Pioneer Girl, not only invokes Wilder in its title but also features a brooch that may have belonged to the author, a claim her main character (a daughter of Vietnamese immigrants) sets out to investigate.  No surprise that I have added that book to my reading list - in fact, I hope to pick it up at the library today.


  1. I just started this book and was struck by how food featured in it. It was making me hungry - at 10pm! I should've guessed from the title. I didn't know that she had written a novel too so I'll have to check that out soon.

  2. olduvaireads, thank you for stopping by! This book made me hungry for things I haven't eaten in years - and also for Vietnamese food, particularly those spring rolls. I saw on your blog that you're reading Ovidia Yu's new book. My copy just arrived today & I am excited to read it.


Thank you for taking the time to read, and to comment. I always enjoy hearing different points of view about the books I am reading, even if we disagree!