Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Book Review - Stealing Buddha's Dinner: A Memoir

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir


Bich Minh Nguyen

Category: nonfiction, memoir, childhood, Vietnamese-Americans, refugees

Synopsis: Nguyen details her childhood as a Vietnamese refugee in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Date finished: 27 March 2013

Rating: ****

Comments: I was surprised at just how sad this book was. There were no major crises or traumatic events, per se, but overall there was a gloomy gray cloud always hovering. The tension, secretiveness, and dysfunction of her blended-family home and the normal difficulties of growing up, was all compounded by their refugee status. Bich and her sister Anh learned to be American via television, but they never learned to be Vietnamese. Nguyen lost the ability to speak Vietnamese as she gained the ability to speak English, everything a tradeoff, the balance never quite right. This was another book about identity and home and what refugees—what we all, really—sacrifice to define who we are. It didn’t have the luminosity of Kao Kalia Yang’s The Late Homecomer, nor the intellectualized poise of Azadeh Maoveni’s Lipstick Jihad and Honeymoon in Tehran, but it stood its own.
     My main complaint is the skips and gaps in time. The book is obviously composed of essays that were unsuccessfully hobbled together. There is no chronology, but in most of the chapters (essays) she’s either seven or twelve. Her high school years are skipped altogether, and in the last essay she’s in college. This jolting from one age to another and then back frustrated me. The gap of her teenage years made me wonder.
     At times the passages hit a little too close to home. As the San Francisco Chronicle endorsement says on the front cover, “This story resonates with anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider.” Although I don’t have the experiences of a refugee, the feeling I remember most from childhood was the feeling of not fitting in. Like Nguyen, I spent my time alternating between working to be the smartest girl in class and wishing to be invisible. I also watched a lot of television. Being the same age, the television shows, snack foods, and songs she mentioned were my childhood, too.
     The breaths of relief came when she talked about holing up in her top bunk and reading. She writes, “I read to be alone. I read so as not to be alone….I plowed through books as fast as possible in order to read them again.” I often wonder what my childhood would have been like had I found reading during it.
     Although I wondered about her high school years, I was glad to know she reunited with her mother during her college years. Her father, his mother, and his brothers fled to America with Nguyen and her older sister, leaving her mother behind without so much as a note. No one talks about her to the girls after that. One of my favorite passages comes when Nguyen is considering her mother: “I had always known that whoever my mother was, she was not the stuff of fantasies. She was, on the contrary, the stuff of too much reality. And I avoided that reality—my whole family had—for years.”
     Another favorite passage, in fact the passage that distills her entire identity struggle, comes when Nguyen looks back on a conversation she had with her Mexican stepmother, Rosa, about visiting Rosa’s family: “I couldn’t explain to her that it wasn’t dislike, it was unfamiliarity. Her family didn’t know me as I didn’t know them. It was too much for me to synthesize white American culture, Mexican-American culture, and my own Vietnamese culture all at the same time. I couldn’t explain, either to Rose or myself, that in wanting to belong everywhere I ended up belonging nowhere at all.” 
     This wasn’t exactly the book I had anticipated. I thought we’d see more of a progression instead of just a childhood. I expected more issues with barriers—language, cultural, and otherwise. But what was presented was an honest, interesting, story of isolation, uncertainty, and the difficulty of growing up American while most people around you don’t consider you American. I can see why this is required reading in college classrooms around the U.S. The ideas presented are important ones to explore.

Would you recommend this to a friend?
Yes, especially to those interested in refugees, assimilation, and culture. Would be good for teen and college-age readers.

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