Tuesday, September 01, 2009

Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen

A Short Essay on the Role of Food in...
Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
(part of my final exam for a multicultural literature class)

Food is an important metaphor for American culture in Bich Minh Nguyen’s memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. Growing up in Michigan in the 1980s, young Bich adores, even obsesses over, the cultural icons of that decade – from pop music to fast food and candy. She wants to consume it all. In her memoir, the role of the food she sees in commercials (“Hey, Kool-Aid!”) represents the essence of what is truly American.

Her particular family situation is insightful as to why she was so drawn to such convenience foods. While born in Vietnam, her step-mother is Hispanic, and their family lives among neighbors of Dutch descent with their blond hair, blue eyes, and pale skin. To fit in with her friends at school, Bich saw food as the great equalizer. Ethnic food proclaims one’s differences, but fast food means they are all part of one culture.

As a child the author, perhaps passively, disassociates herself from her Vietnamese heritage. While trying to blend in with her surroundings, she slowly loses her connection to her cultural community as she stops attending parties, fails to contact childhood friends, and eventually lets her native language go.

It seems young Bich is looking to the adults in the household for help in finding a middle path of incorporating into her life the variety of these cultures. Sadly, the father can’t be trusted to provide a consistent and stable presence; and her mother is too busy to teach her basic social graces. In addition, there are strong family secrets and taboos that cripple everyone’s ability to relate in healthy ways toward one another.

Her one anchor – both to the past and present – through this difficult acculturation process is her grandmother, Noi. Noi grounds Bich in her Vietnamese heritage via delicious hand-prepared food, her Buddhist faith, and nonjudgmental spirit. Still, it is not enough to overcome the yearning that Bich has for cultural acceptance. Even today, the author, through this memoir, recalls the ache of growing up different in America.

(Note: If you enjoy memoirs, this is a recommended read. I'd rate it 7 of 10.)

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