I thought my name singled me out. But try growing up with a name like ‘Bich’ in Grand Rapids Michigan in the ‘80’s. The new memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, chronicles this and other difficulties faced by Vietnamese American author Bich Minh Nguyen. Nguyen has a light, charming voice- at once funny and sad. She obviously has a great appreciation for the inherent absurdity of growing up in the 1980’s.
Nguyen’s family emigrated from Vietnam in 1975, settling in Michigan when she was only 8 months old. Her story is filled with the classic immigrant’s paradox: preserve your own cultural heritage, or assimilate at all costs. Salad bowl, or melting pot?
For children, of course, the pressure to fit in is that much stronger. What little kid doesn’t know the shame of pulling out a bologna sandwich when all your friends are eating PB&J’s? Indeed, for Nguyen, this pressure to conform manifested itself most strongly in the arena of food. Nguyen longed to be eating the Twinkies and Spaghetti-O’s of her peers. She kept her grandmother’s pho and bahn mi a secret. She begged her parents to buy Chef Boyardee and Pringles to stock the cupboard. A trip to Ponderosa Steakhouse was something to be celebrated.
In one heartbreaking scene, Nguyen relates the moment when she discovered the concept of homemade when her neighbor gives her half of a cookie her mother had baked: “I had thought all American food came from a package and some mystical factory process. The idea that a person could create such a thing at home was a revelation. And then, a desire.” Meanwhile her grandmother’s laboriously created dishes were brushed aside.