May 2007

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner – Bich Minh Nguyen

About: 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. Beginning with Nguyen’s family’s harrowing migration from Saigon in 1975, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is nostalgic and candid, deeply satisfying and minutely observed, and stands as a unique vision of the immigrant experience and a lyrical ode to how identity is often shaped by the things we long for.

My thoughts: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Nguyen earnestly explores and ties together some of my favorite topics: food (!), marketing, adolescence, family, and identity. I haven’t read much literature about the Vietnamese-American experience, but this memoir has definitely piqued my interest in the genre. Growing up I’ve always wondered whether my family’s traditions were our own or an all encompassing Vietnamese way. Comparing and contrasting my experiences with the author’s, I’ve concluded that all Vietnamese grandmothers cut up fresh fruit for their grandchildren after school, every kid wanted the Kool-Aid guy to burst through their kitchen wall, and balancing assimilation with cultural traditions will always be difficult. I highly recommend this book to everyone regardless of background because figuring out the world and where we fit in it is a universal theme.

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6 thoughts on “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner – Bich Minh Nguyen

  1. I got it from ebay for 99 cents. It took two days to read. I’m not as enthusiastic about it as you were. It felt unnatural and forced somehow. I had difficulty relating to so much thought on food. I’m Vietnamese and came to the States as a child in 75, too. But my experiences were nothing like Bich Minh’s. I can’t relate to her story at all.

    Have you read We Should Never Meet by Aimee Phan? Very soul searching. I like her writing style.

    Keep eating and running. As for me, I eat and swim.

  2. Hello Angela – I think what was unique and most enjoyable for me about Bich’s story was her Midwestern perspective. Oh, and the fact that her father married a Latina. How crazy is that? I definitely couldn’t relate to a lot of her story, but found it fascinating anyway. I have not read “We should never meet,” but will check it out from the library ASAP. Thanks for the rec, and keep on swimmin’.

  3. I guess it is a bit different that her father married a Latina. But I married a white American, and my brother married a Jew his first time around, and now he’s married to a black woman, so that part didn’t strike a note with me.

    By the way, I enjoy a lot of home cooked American fare and an occasional treat of Vietnamese or Italian cuisine. Things that struck Bich Minh to be fascinating like Pringles, Kool-Aid, or Kit Kat never got my attention. It’s very interesting that she thought about them so much when she was a child.

  4. Hi! i just came upon your site today… it’s wonderful! I was actually googling “banh khot” to find a recipe and found your blog instead! I am a fellow foodie and gastronomist, but definitely not as seasoned and well traveled as yourself. Anyway, I came upon this book at this very cool used book store here in SF, and loved it! I could definitely relate to it. Have you read the books by Jeffrey Steingarten? I will check out some of your other suggestions!

  5. Hello Mina! I’m glad that you dig the website. Steingarten is great! I’ve read most of The Man Who Ate Everything (the library wanted it back before I finished it). I love how analytical and precise his approach to food writing is. I also like how he’s not the least bit self-conscious. Dude is hilarious on Iron Chef America.

  6. Really great site! I noticed you were credited at the end of an episode of No Reservations. I really hope someday I can be able to travel like you. At one point Bich Nguyen was actually an adviser for one of my club. We never really got to see her because I think she was always so busy with her book and promoting it. I can’t speak for all Vietnamese from the Midwest but I feel a lot of people around my age can relate to Bich Nguyen’s experience, especially on preserving traditions. Some of my fondest memories took place in Vietnam so I can never really forget my “que huong”. My parents always thought it was weird I had this obsession for Vietnamese food but now I know there are many of us out there!

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