Saturday, May 17, 2014

Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen

Reviewed by Kristin

Bich (pronounced “Bit”) Minh Nguyen came to the United States from Saigon in 1975, when she was only eight months old.  Amidst the bombing, thousands of people were running, trying to maneuver their way onto the departing boats.  Bich’s family made it onto one of the last available boats.  Once in the United States, her family was kept in a refugee camp in Arkansas for months until a sponsor was found to help them settle in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

This memoir is all about being separate from the American culture, but also being different and not fitting in with other Vietnamese.  When Bich visited friends’ houses, she discovered just how different her family’s food, customs and manners were.  Bich lived with her father, big sister Anh, grandmother Noi, step-mother Rosa, step-sister Crissy, half-brother Vinh, uncle Chu Cuong and his friend Chu Dai.  Her grandmother cooked traditional Vietnamese dishes such as spring rolls, fried shrimp cakes, pancakes stuffed with meats herbs and bean sprouts, pho, stewed beef and eggs, and shrimp curry.

With all the variety in her diet, Bich still wanted American junk and convenience foods.  Images of racks filled with candy and packaged snack cakes filled her mind, with 80’s music and television shows filling the background.  Van Halen, Sheila E., Michael Jackson, Pat Benetar, Cyndi Lauper were but a few populating her personal soundtrack.  Bich and sister Anh immersed themselves in American pop culture, including Barbies, Days of our Lives, MTV, Charlie’s Angels, Laverne and Shirley, Little Women, Little House on the Prairie, Wonder Woman, Sesame Street and so much more.  Seeing commercials of “Hey Kool-Aid!” and the Pillsbury Dough Boy tied their daily television exposure to the typical American foods that Bich so craved.

Following her Buddhist tradition, Grandmother Noi had a shrine to Buddha and placed the best fruits on it, taking the fruit down days later and cutting it up for the family.  Bich continued to feel the struggles between her family’s religion and the prevailing Midwestern conservative Christian community surrounding Grand Rapids.

While the beginning of the book practically ignores why the family came to the United States without Bich’s mother, eventually this is revealed.  Bich, Anh and their half-brother Vinh had strong maternal figures in step-mother Rosa and grandmother Noi.  Rosa was portrayed as a force of nature, melding together her Latina heritage with her husband’s Vietnamese family.  Bich visited Vietnam with her grandmother and uncle in 1997 and found herself an outsider there as well. This is not necessarily a book of the typical immigrant experience; it is a portrayal of a young person struggling to fit into her adopted community.

I waited until after I had read the book to see what other reviewers said.  I was a bit surprised to see that there were a number of negative reviews, most saying that the narrator was too whiny. I didn't feel that way, and I certainly enjoyed the book.

The author has also written two novels that are reflective of her experience as a Vietnamese-American:  Short Girls and Pioneer Girl.

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