[LITERATURE] Bich Minh Nguyen's "Stealing Buddha's Dinner"
- Born in Vietnam and raised in Grand Rapids, author examines culture
BY MARTA SALIJ
When Bich Minh Nguyen finally decided to write about her family's
remarkable journey from Saigon to Grand Rapids, the sentences that
came out were mostly about food.
Vietnamese food, sure, the dishes Nguyen remembers her grandmother,
Noi, making for her when she was a little girl.
But -- maybe most significantly -- American food, too. Let's make
that "American" food, with quotation marks intact, or, as Nguyen the
little girl thought of it, "real people" food.
Burgers. Chef Boy-Ar-Dee. Dairy Queen. SnoBalls. Fries.
A SnoBall stars on the cover of the memoir that resulted, "Stealing
Buddha's Dinner," a series of essays in which Nguyen relives growing
up in the 1970s and 1980s in Grand Rapids and trying to figure out
where she stood on the Vietnamese/American scale.
Each essay spins from a food or restaurant -- "Fast Food
Asian," "Green Sticky Rice Cakes" and "Ponderosa" are a few chapter
titles -- that touched off, for the now-grown Nguyen, observations
about her cultural allegiances.
She hadn't thought at first to build her book around food. She hadn't
thought to write a book at all, really. She'd written a few essays
about being Vietnamese, about immigration, about Grand Rapids. After
studying creative writing at the University of Michigan, she was
plumbing her past for material, as all young writers do.
Then Nguyen noticed recurring themes. And that she had to finish the
"After about 80 pages, I realized it probably did have a full-length
manuscript," she says by phone from Chicago, where she now lives part
of the time. "And once you realize that, there's no going back."
Escape from Saigon
Nguyen's story is, in its broad strokes, so dramatic that you wonder
how she could have ever thought it wouldn't make a full-length book.
She was 8 months old on April 29, 1975, as Saigon was falling to the
North Vietnamese. Helicopters had taken off from the roof of the
American Embassy that morning. It was past the last minute to leave.
Nguyen's father and his brother scooped up Nguyen and her 2-year-old
sister Anh and raced for the Saigon River, where two dozen friendly
ships were said to be docked. They found a way through the barbed
wire, past the armed guards.
"We climbed onto one of the last ships in line, using a ladder that
someone pulled up the second my father touched the deck," Nguyen
The four of them and grandmother Noi made it out of Vietnam that
night. Left behind was Nguyen's mother, an omission that Nguyen
learned to never ask her father about. And he never volunteered.
"He was such a mystery to me and we never talked about anything
substantial," she says. "And it required something very difficult, to
explain why we left my mother behind, and that's something very
difficult to explain to a child."
Her father brought the family to Grand Rapids, mostly because Noi had
once met a woman whose son had studied at U-M on scholarship. He took
a job at North American Feather Co. and, in time, married Rosa,
herself the daughter of Mexican immigrants.
Rosa brought a daughter, Crissy, into the family, too, and introduced
all of them to her own nine siblings and their spouses and children.
The Nguyen family became -- what food metaphor fits? Melting pot?
Casserole? Tossed salad? All-you-can-eat buffet?
The story of how one young girl could absorb all these cultural
influences and assimilate drives "Stealing Buddha's Dinner," and
Nguyen, 32, makes the journey both fiercely individual and universal.
Yes, by the end you'll learn about her birth mother and more about
Today, Nguyen considers herself an American with a rock-solid sense
of home, in part because of her father.
"It's a gift that I'm able to have a life that came out of this
unimaginable decision," she says.
Nguyen credits at least part of her work to the examples of Asian-
American writers before her. Like other bookish girls, she spent her
childhood and teenage years reading the usual American and British
writers: Louisa May Alcott, Charlotte Bronte, Jane Austen. Great role
models, especially if you aspire to be a 19th-Century lady.
Then in college she read "The Woman Warrior" by Maxine Hong Kingston.
"It sounds crazy, but until I got to college I never thought that it
would be possible to write about being Asian-American," she says. "It
gave me permission. I always thought I would be writing about white
Nguyen went on to graduate school, where she studied poetry and met
her future husband, Porter Shreve, himself a novelist. She now
teaches writing and literature, including a course on Asian-American
literature, at Purdue University.
Her name is pronounced BIT MIN n'WIN, by the way. She writes
in "Stealing Buddha's Dinner" about the dread she would feel at the
beginning of the school year when, as often as not, teachers would
butcher the pronunciation, to her classmates' snickers.
But that doesn't happen much anymore, Nguyen says.
"I noticed this last year when I was at the airport, going through
security, and the person at the scanner read my ticket and
said, 'Have a good afternoon, Miss Nguyen,' " she says, with the
"To me, that represented a sea change -- people who are not
Vietnamese know how to pronounce my name."