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Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

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I am not good at reading non-fiction, and a perfectly juicy book will sit on my pile for months, rejected in favor of far callower fiction, because it has the misfortune to have the word “memoir” or “account” on its cover. I blame this problem on school, starting with the first grade, where the only books about women on the “Biography Cart” were Amelia Earhart, Florence Nightingale and Julia Ward Howe, books I could recite from memory by the end of second grade. I was not interested in Daniel Boone, Henry Ford, or the other 70 books, all about famous men, and machines and shooting and so forth. The deal was sealed in law school, where I recall reading the same sentence in a Property case approximately 30 times, and probably highlighted it at least 15 of those times. I am capable of reading for information, I do it when it’s necessary, but never in my 47 years have I said to myself “I wish I had time to read a really good piece of non-fiction.” Not one time. No Malcolm Gladwell, not even Thomas Friedman.

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Strange, then, that I am so completely smitten with Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen, (pronounced “Bic,” by the way) which is not only non-fiction, but has the word “memoir” on the cover. I bought it because it was about many things of great personal interest to me, including Food, Asia, Asians, Asian Food, Buddhism, and  Differentness. It sat and sat on the shelf, however,  as I read novels, then magazines, then nothing; it sat until I picked it up yesterday morning, began to read with my morning coffee, and consumed it as greedily as the author remembers consuming American candy in her early years here.

smarties[1]The secret here, is that Nguyen became a friend early in the book, and I trusted her to tell me everything, to do it beautifully, and not to leave me feeling manipulated or “instructed,” and she didn’t disappoint.  We have much in common, the author and I; we grew up a scant 9 years and 68 miles apart, we are both avid readers, come from a mix of cultures, and felt ourselves to be “outsiders” as children. She describes, in lyrical detail, the lunch room scenes, the foods and even the stores and restaurants I know from growing up in Michigan. She also read and re-read  the same books I did, from Laura Ingalls Wilder to Harriet the Spy, and was also enthralled by the descriptions of what everybody ate. That’s more than enough social glue to form the easy beginning of a friendship.

The differences between us though, are what held my interest. Nguyen was an immigrant from 1975 Saigon, and her sense of “differentness” and search for her true identity were of a very different variety from my own. I could have chosen, perhaps, to be more athletic and less eccentric, but Nguyen’s alienation involved an immutably Asian face, a petite frame and Buddhist roots among a sea of tall, blonde, Christians in Grand Rapids, Michigan (before we all became so “diverse”).  It also included a multigenerational home with a grandmother who made daily offerings to a Buddhist shrine,  a Hispanic stepmother with a culture and baggage of her own, an absent birth mother who could never be discussed, and the shame of bargain-basement clothes and generic cookies in a universe of pastel crewnecks and Hostess snack cakes.

buddha in reposeNgyuen grows up moving among her Vietnamese roots, her stepmother’s traditions and decrees, and her yearning to be like the families she sees in commercials and meets at friends’ houses. She does not fit into the world of her Grand Rapids school friends with their canopy beds, fervent Christianity, and mothers who are “homemakers” and send to school perfectly packaged lunches full of desirable, brand-name items. She is equally ill at ease with her stepmother’s family and their traditions, and eventually becomes so thoroughly assimilated that she mixes badly with the clique of other Vietnamese immigrant children who have grown up preserving their heritage through language and cultural tradition. No matter where she is, even when it seems that she is getting what she wanted, Nguyen is missing pieces of her other selves, and rarely feels complete or satisfied.

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Food is an essential part of Nguyen’s journey through childhood without a comfortable identity. There is always, in her house, the Vietnamese food cooked by her grandmother, and the fruit which, after it is offered to Buddha, is lovingly peeled, cut and presented to Nguyen and her sister Anh. There is the haphazard, low-budget, sometimes Mexican cooking of stepmother Rosa, and the wonder of the tamales prepared by Rosa’s family for various holidays.  There are always dreams of the American food seen on TV: the Pringles, the bouncing cubes of Jello, the salad dressing pouring from the cruet at the family table, and mothers who, in cahoots with Poppin’ Fresh, understand that “Nothin Says Lovin like Something from the Oven.”  There are restaurant meals, from ersatz Mexican at Chi Chis to a brief family love affair with Ponderosa. There is a particularly lovely thread about Nguyen’s difficulty using a knife and fork to cut meat at a friend’s house , and of her grandmother’s unspoken understanding in the form of serving her un-cut pieces of food so that she could practice using a knife and fork.

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Although I would have loved this book just because Nguyen writes so lovingly and with such focus about food, there is much more to relish.  Nguyen’s frank narrative also outlines the tension of a blended family, a difficult relationship with her stepmother, who is “not her real mother,” but is also her only mother, her changing place in the family as her sister and stepsister become teenagers and leave her behind, and the constant pressure to accept Jesus and be saved, despite the fact that she replaces the word “God” with “Buddha” when saying the pledge of allegiance in school.

Running through the vivid descriptions of Nguyen’s complicated childhood are filaments which, in the end, come together to answer the question of what is “real life.” Is it the commercials with perfect families, the Grand Rapids households with bobbed mothers who bake, the Vietnamese community with its Tet celebrations and dried squid snacks, or the world of Jo March and Laura Ingalls Wilder? This question is answered in a way that is at once inevitable and surprising.  What could, with a heavier touch, have become a  sodden tale of yearning and isolation becomes, in the end, one of the most life-affirming things I have ever read. The life it affirms is messy, and complicated, and confusing, but a life that shaped a writer of this caliber really can’t be written off as “sad.” Please read this book, read it soon, and give yourself a little time to savor what you’re offered. I may never again see the word “memoir” and flinch.

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About imagineannie

I am a 40-something Midwestern wife, mother and lawyer with a passion for cooking, reading about food, eating food...you get the picture.

12 responses »

  1. Our dear friend GreenTuna gave me this book for my birthday and I couldn’t put it down. I have a love affair with fiction (usually mystery novels) but generally eschew non-fiction under the assumption that I have no to read about someone’s terrible, horrible, no good, very bad life. I’m rather good at whining about my own life, thank you very much.

    And then I read this book and I found so many parallels with my own life and yet enough difference that I was intrigued.

    Great post!

    Reply
    • GreenTuna’s got mad taste. I resisted “Eat, Pray, Love” for ages after she told me to read it, then I read it and loved it. Maybe I’ll try more nonfiction. Maybe not…..

      Reply
  2. Bought it at lunch. Since one of my favorite books is Joy Luck Club, I figured I would like this-especially since I was born in Grand Rapids and went back frequently as a child to visit grand parents. So far, I love it. Thanks for the recommendation.

    Reply
  3. I LOVE LOVE LOVE this book… I also connected with it. I was actually IN GR about the same time as she was. I have told people that I always felt out of place in GR with my brown hair and lack of religion in my family and I wasn’t from a family as “different” as her. You mention Christians, in GR, especially at this time, it’s Christian Reformed who were much stronger and quite different from other Christians I have come in contact with. I don’t know if she distinguishes that in the book. I love her discriptions and longing of certain foods in this also. Excellently written as always Ann :)

    Reply
    • Well I thought about you all the time I was reading it, because I figured you (and probably Mrs. Chenault) had to know about all of the places she described. I do know they’re different; I didn’t trust myself to get too far into that issue without letting my own bias show. I think other flavors of Christians might actually have explained to their children that some people ave different faiths and that we should respect them. Glad you liked it!

      Reply
  4. Read it for book club. Loved it. If you are going to dive into Memiors (not a favorite of mine historically) I enjoyed Glass Castles and Mennenite in a Little Black Dress. Happy Reading.

    Reply
    • Well, Stehanie, (I am hysterical, here) I have read Glass Castle and found it unrelentingly grim; should I trust you on the other one? I guess your track record’s pretty good…..

      Reply
  5. BTW- i do know how to sell my name….the “p” decides to dissappear at times.

    Reply
  6. Annie, you would think….but the people I KNEW didn’t love the fact that my family didn’t attend church every Sunday, so completely different religions…not so much. Of course not everyone was that way, but the way the childhood memory works, that’s what I remember. It was interesting reading about the place you grew up. My father also works with Vietnamese families very closely, so all around, very interesting.

    Reply

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