Wednesday, April 5, 2017

Stealing Buddha's Dinner - Bich Minh Nguyen

Stealing Buddha's DinnerStealing Buddha's Dinner has been on my "to read" list for a while, and when I needed a book written by or about an immigrant for my 2017 reading challenge, it seemed like the perfect time to finally get to it.

Nguyen, her father, sister, grandmother, two uncles, and an uncle's friend all fled Vietnam when she was eight months old in 1975, when the American were clearing out their embassy and Saigon was being bombed.  Arriving as refugees in the United States, they settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan.  Nugyen grew up as essentially American, not really being able to speak Vietnamese and wanting more than anything to be one of the "real" people she saw in commercials and TV shows and in books.  But as one of few Vietnamese or other minority people in "a sea of blond," things weren't as easy as she wanted them to be.  Nguyen wanted to assimilate, deeply, but still cherished the Vietnamese parts of her life.  Sitting with her grandmother in meditation, having fruit from the shrine in her house, the foods that her grandmother would make--Nguyen might have craved Tollhouse cookies and Otter Pops and 7UP and all manner of other "American" foods, but there was still a big Vietnamese part of her life, and she struggled with balancing it with her desperate need to fit in.

Nguyen has a way of making the most junky of all junk foods sound absolutely tantalizing, and she's easy to empathize with.  I didn't grow up an immigrant, but Nguyen manages to draw on the ostracism that most kids face at some point or another.  I was also the kid with glasses who wanted to read more than anything else, who didn't really have a lot of friends and felt like the parents of the friends I did have were always looking down on me.  By drawing on these experiences, Nguyen manages to build a bridge so that even those of us who don't share her exact background can understand her isolation and longing to belong.

The book is written in a non-linear style, which I don't mind, but it does seem a bit scattered in the beginning.  After the first few chapters, the parts of the book become more thematic, but the first few seem to flit from topic to topic with little cohesion.  Things come up and are dropped, never to be seen again or only to be seen at the very end of the book--a mention that her stepmother (who she really does view as her mother, not remembering her mother from Vietnam and not meeting her until she's in college) drew away and left the family, when in fact she didn't, and then the mention of her biological mother being left in Vietnam, which only comes up again much, much later.  It feels like these things were brought up for no reason at the time they were first mentioned, and could easily have been better woven in later, near where the actual exposition regarding them ended up.

Overall, this was a very enjoyable and poignant memoir about wanting to belong and not quite managing to do so.  Despite being born a quarter of a century after Nugyen, I could see a lot of parallels in our childhoods, and that really helped draw me into the narrative.  I've never had to balance two halves of myself like she did, but by evoking those parallels, she made the understanding easier, and that is a real accomplishment.

4 stars out of 5.

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