Stealing Buddha’s Dinner – Bich Minh Nguyen

About: A vivid, funny, and viscerally powerful memoir about childhood, assimilation, food, and growing up in the 1980s.

As a Vietnamese girl coming of age in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bich Nguyen is filled with a rapacious hunger for American identity. In the pre-PC era Midwest, where the devoutly Christian blond-haired, blue-eyed Jennifers and Tiffanys reign supreme, Nguyen’s barely conscious desire to belong transmutes into a passion for American food. More exotic seeming than her Buddhist grandmother’s traditional specialties — spring rolls, delicate pancakes stuffed with meats, fried shrimp cakes—the campy, preservative-filled “delicacies” of mainstream America capture her imagination. And in this remarkable book, the glossy branded allure of such American foods as Pringles, Kit Kats, and Toll House cookies become an ingenious metaphor for her struggle to fit in, to become a “real” American. Beginning with Nguyen’s family’s harrowing migration from Saigon in 1975, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is nostalgic and candid, deeply satisfying and minutely observed, and stands as a unique vision of the immigrant experience and a lyrical ode to how identity is often shaped by the things we long for.

My thoughts: Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is one of the best books I’ve read this year. Nguyen earnestly explores and ties together some of my favorite topics: food (!), marketing, adolescence, family, and identity. I haven’t read much literature about the Vietnamese-American experience, but this memoir has definitely piqued my interest in the genre. Growing up I’ve always wondered whether my family’s traditions were our own or an all encompassing Vietnamese way. Comparing and contrasting my experiences with the author’s, I’ve concluded that all Vietnamese grandmothers cut up fresh fruit for their grandchildren after school, every kid wanted the Kool-Aid guy to burst through their kitchen wall, and balancing assimilation with cultural traditions will always be difficult. I highly recommend this book to everyone regardless of background because figuring out the world and where we fit in it is a universal theme.

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