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.
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.
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.
Ngyuen 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.
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.
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.