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[LITERATURE] Bich Minh Nguyen's "Stealing Buddha's Dinner"

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  • madchinaman
    Born in Vietnam and raised in Grand Rapids, author examines culture via food BY MARTA SALIJ http://www.freep.com/apps/pbcs.dll/article?
    Message 1 of 1 , Feb 25, 2007
      Born in Vietnam and raised in Grand Rapids, author examines culture
      via food

      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
      her father.

      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.

      Asian awakening

      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
      perfect pronunciation.

      "To me, that represented a sea change -- people who are not
      Vietnamese know how to pronounce my name."
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