By Longan Nguyen
Collegiate Staff Writer
Escaping from the fall of Saigon with her family at only eight months old, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” features the story of Bich Minh Nguyen, whose family receives a sponsorship in Grand Rapids, Michigan.
Bich, pronounced “bit”, describes her trials and forays of becoming an American so earnestly that one can only believe it.
Her humor, bite and sincere recollections grant this memoir literary acknowledgement. If that isn’t enough, Nguyen’s focus on food is the most vivid. Her almost religious admiration for American food drives her to make a catalyst out of them.
Though she can’t be the ideal American because of obvious reasons, she will become one through hard work and vigorous eating.
Conversely, she scoffs at her grandmother Noi’s cooking, choosing commercialized snacks over meals of rice and nuoc mam, writing “because I could not, because our household did not, I invested such foods with power and allure.”
“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 rippling flags, proclaiming, ‘An All-American City.’ 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?”
Despite the memoir’s sole flaw, it’s drenched in food metaphors that eventually become a tad bit tiring, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” doesn’t fall short, and accomplishes in avoiding to become another typical second-generational memoir, where culture clash is exhausted.
The memoir’s multitude of developing stories include the relationship with her second generational Mexican-American stepmother and the absence and eventual presence of the mysterious mother.
It is not solely an Asian story, but one that transcends time and culture through the channeling of a selfish child and the longing for the things we do not have. She accentuates her deprivation well, with a father who wasn’t willing to assimilate as other Vietnamese parents were, writing:
“Their parents were anxious for them to fit into Grand Rapids and found the three quickest avenues: food, money, and names. Food meant American burgers and fries. Money meant Jordache jeans and Izod shirts. Names meant a whole new self.
Overnight, Thanh’s children, Truoc and Doan, became Tiffany and David and other families followed.”
The repercussions of this are shown:
“I found comfort in the girl whose parents were as stubborn as mine: Loan, who remained Loan, which carried a lovely double syllabic. Lo-an. We went to the same school during first and second grade, and became the best of friends. Bitch and Loan, some of the kids said on the playground. Hey bitch, can you loan me some money?”
Asian-American readers will transition through well-accustomed scenes of assimilating to American culture. Vietnamese-Americans will recall the all too familiar parties, divided living, and elderly Vietnamese demeanors.
Readers will be thrown back to the Grand Rapids of a decade ago: nostalgia of the Thrifty Acre Meijer and its Purple Cow ice cream will surface, and memories of street and annual festivals will be evoked.
Winner of the Pen/Jerard Award, Nguyen’s memoir was chosen for the 2009-2010 Great Michigan Read, an annual statewide book club that designates one book to help Michigan readers better their understanding of the state’s history and society. Short Girls, published last year, was her first novel.