Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

April 7, 2007

Bich Minh Nguyen’s memoir “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is the story of young immigrant trying to find her place in 1980s America, but it also the story of every young person trying to fit in at a time and place where differences were more often than not used as a weapon rather than something to be celebrated. We should be grateful that Bich eventually found her place and has recorded her story in this well-written and touching memoir.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

Bich arrived in Michigan in 1975 from Saigon by way of a refugee camp Arkansas. It was her grandmother’s choice based on rumours passing through the camp about the three options- California (warm, but the most lunatics), Wyoming (cowboys), and Michigan (the blank unknown). They arrived in Grand Rapids, Michigan with five dollars and a knapsack of clothes- a humble new beginning for a family of Vietnamese Buddhists in city of tall blond conservative Christians.

Food is central tool throughout the story. A canister of Pringles potato chips or the smell of a hot pan of Tollhouse cookies, juxtaposed over the lot line with cha gio or banh chung, serves as a constant reminder throughout the memoir of the cultural differences impacting this young girl and her family making their way in a strange, sometimes hostile place.

It is not difficult to imagine the struggles, the fear, and the pain of growing up as an immigrant in a “sea of blond.” School years are difficult enough for anyone who stands out as different from the norm. Kids can be, well, downright mean. Things as simple as bringing the wrong lunch to school, or not having the right clothes can lead to sleepless nights. And for Bich, it wasn’t just the kids. As a lover of words and spelling, she won a spelling contest.

That afternoon as I started toward home I remembered that I’d forgotten my rain boots in my locker. I doubled back to school and overheard Mrs. Andersen in the classroom talking to another teacher. “Can you believe it,” she was saying. “A foreigner winning our spelling bee?”

This is not a memoir of complaints. Bich describes it best herself-

I think of this memoir as an homage to childhood, suburbia, and all the bad food, fashion, music, and hair of the deep 1980’s. It is also about an immigrant’s dilemma to blend in or remain apart.

I admit that this book touched my on several levels- I grew up in the same area and many of the settings throughout the book are familiar. I went through school in the 1970’s and still clearly remember some of the struggles and pain caused by the slightest difference from the norm. I believe today we are a more aware and accepting of diversity. This is a first book, but is very well written, and does an excellent job of capturing the challenge for a large group immigrants at a difficult period in our history.

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