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Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen.

December 8, 2014

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen.  Viking Adult (2007),  272 pages.


A gentle, insightful memoir of childhood by a Vietnamese woman who grew up as a refugee in Michigan in the 1980s.

Bich Minh Nguyen left Viet Nam as in infant in 1975, one of the many refugees who fled the country as the Americans retreated. She came with her father, her sister, her grandmother, and several uncles. Her mother was left behind and never discussed by the family. They settled in Michigan where initially she and her sister were indulged by their uncles and cared for by their grandmother. Their father soon married Rosa, a woman from Mexico who brought her own daughter into the household. Rosa was a strong practical woman. Under her direction, family life was both functional and chaotic, but Nguyen often felt pushed aside in her family and, as the only Vietnamese, at school. She remained a loner, happiest when she was hidden away reading and dreaming of living like the white heroines she admired.

Nguyen had no memories of what life had been like in Viet Nam, but as a child she was acutely aware of how her family differed from those of her classmates. When she visited the homes of other children, she saw just how different they were from her own. Their mothers baked cookies and cleaned house, unlike hard-working Rosa or her birthmother about whom she knew nothing. Like her siblings, Nguyen quickly picked up American snack food and slang, but unlike some immigrants she did little to assimilate into American-style life. She did not reject or rebel against her family or her culture.  She argued back when a white Evangelical classmate tried to convert her to Christianity.

At the core of this book is Grandmother Noi, a devoted Buddhist.   After Rosa took over the household, Noi retreated to her room where she meditated and offered fruit to her statue of Buddha. In the evening, she and the children had a ritual of cutting and eating the fruit. Her room was where Nguyen found the calm and peacefulness to survive the contradictions of her daily life. While she craved the whiteness around her, she held onto her Vietmanese core.   While touching on some common themes of immigrant writing, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is uniquely refreshing. Nguyen writes with sharpness, carefully describing the pop culture of 1970s mid-America as experienced by an outsider. Focusing on the kinds of food, she ate as a child, she brings into sharp detail just how fractured her life was. We do not need to be refugees ourselves to empathize with her confusion and frustration. Despite her family’s quirky behavior, she is grateful to them.

Nguyen writes of what it meant to write and focus on the tensions and conflicts of her childhood.  She makes no claim to speak for other Vietmanese or even the rest of her family.  Her words are a fine statement of her writing and of why reading memoirs can be so rewarding.

If memory is a shifting mirror, then writing is an effort to keep it stilled, at least for a while to try to find a point of focus, some sense of understanding.  This book is my articulation of memories and experiences as I believe them—call it one person’s perspective on being Vietnamese and American, on being a kid in America, growing up with all the wants, frustrations and bright-colored packaging that made up the landscape of childhood.

I strongly recommend this book to readers who like childhood memoirs and those who care about those who have come to the United States in recent decades.




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