“We arrived in Grand Rapids with five dollars and a knapsack of clothes…” So begins Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen (bit-min-win). Arriving in Grand Rapids in 1975, Ms. Nguyen and six family members converge “in that gray house on Baldwin Street” amidst an unknowable cold and an unrecognizable world. With minimal knowledge of the English language and even less of American culture, the Nguyen family narrates the story of the immigrant, or less poetically, the refugee, through the eyes of a young Bich Minh Nguyen.
I have always been fascinated by the valiant, desperate courage inherent to the immigration experience. Having been born into the American cushion, I have no comprehension of what it might be like to “flee” one’s country. I’ve always pictured the literary “chaos” or “under cover of night” scenario, yet Nguyen takes it to the next gut wrenching level with this passage:
At Saigon River my father and uncle abandoned their once fiercely protected bikes only to see thousands of people already gathered at the headquarters gates, where guards patrolled with automatic rifles. They began searching for another way to the docks, pushing through the screaming crowd. A full panic had hit the city, the kind that sent people racing after airplanes on the runway, that made people offer their babies to departing American soldiers.
With luck and perseverance, when “fear pushed into fearlessness”, the Nguyen family squeaked their way onto a ship which would lead them from the Philippines to Guam to a refugee camp in Arkansas, only to finalize their trek in the unlikely location of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Vietnam to Grand Rapids – an ocean’s divide of language, custom, religion, habits, and ideals, “…with five dollars and a knapsack of clothes.”
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is riddled with food as metaphor. From a winking Mr. Pringles to the degrading term of “Twinkie”, Ms. Nguyen utilizes the foods of her childhood to mark the passage of time and her undying need to fit in. Used “to appease, to distract, to mark happiness,” the foods of her youth represent the sheer abundance of choice and society’s pervasive dictation of what products have the ability to make one more American.
To me, life lived in commercials was real life. Commercials were instructions; they were news. They showed me what perfection could be: in the right woman’s hands, the layers of a cake would always be exactly the same size… Commercials had a firm definition of motherhood, which almost all of my friends’ mothers had no trouble fulfilling.
That Nguyen’s own biological mother’s existence was shrouded in secrets and mystery only served to exacerbate her already addled self-esteem. As her own family members confidently expand, we conversely watch young Bich Minh grow smaller. It is through this paradox that Ms. Nguyen finds her soul in the vast world of literature. “I had only one thing to call my own: I read. Reading was my privacy…I read to be alone. I read so as not to be alone.”
After reading Stealing Buddha’s Dinner I knew I wanted to share it, for as much as this memoir entertains, it excels in its sheer provocation of thought. Only having a few years on Ms. Nguyen, I easily identified with her 1980’s adolescent references: the untamed hair, the Madonna-inspired fashions, and the questionable music… but that isn’t what hooked me.
What hooked me was the book’s ability to make me stop and consider the truth and beauty within our own ethnicities. Despite the gray palette from which Ms. Nguyen paints the story of her childhood, the bold colors of culture can’t be subdued. I loved the musty green smells of the Vietnamese market, the brassy reds I saw in step-mother Rosa, and the tranquil blue hues of grandmother Noi. It made me think about my own whiteness and what assimilating might truly mean to a young Vietnamese girl growing up in a largely white, Christian, Midwestern state.
Nguyen’s memoir is deeply honest. It is a story of complex familial love pieced together over the circumstances of place and time. Clever, witty, insightful and poignant, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner serves as an instrument of awareness and compassion one carries away long after the last page is turned.
-Post by Megan Shaffer
*Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is the 2009-2010 Great Michigan Read. For details see my Whimsy post titled Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Great Michigan Read.