Saturday, July 24, 2010

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: Food as Culture

Bich Minh Nguyen’s Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a memoir of one Vietnamese refugee’s path to self discovery, oriented around food. Nguyen hardly remembers the time before she lived in America – her father escaped the fall of Saigon with her older sister, her grandmother and two uncles when she was just two. Her life in Grand Rapids, Michigan, continues to be dominated by her outsider status long after she has lost the ability to speak fluent Vietnamese, however. The idea behind the memoir is to reflect on the author’s evolving conceptions of family, cohesion and identity through the one element of culture most accessible to outsiders: food.

A lot of the book focuses on what Nguyen is not: mostly, she is not white. And in her youthful view, white would be better. Conveniently (perhaps too conveniently), her frustration at not being American enough is in direct juxtaposition to the feelings of her 1st generation La Raza stepmother, who eschews everything “white.”
But Rosa didn’t want to be like the Vander Wals next door. She called the Midwestern dinners bland, sticking out her tongue for emphasis.” (p. 52)

As a communications scholar, I was particularly interested in the way media constructed Nguyen’s world. She does share some remembrances of media, but they do more to catalog the television commercials of the late 70s than to illuminate Nguyen’s feelings toward them, for the most part. There are some gems of self-reflection scattered through the text, however:
To me, life in commercials was real. Commercials were instructions; they were news. They showed me what perfection could be: in the right woman’s hands, the layers of a cake would be exactly the same size. In the right woman’s kitchen, a cartoon rabbit would visit the children and show them how to slurp down a tall glass of Nestle Quik with a straw. A shaken cruet would spill a stream of Good Seasons over hills of lettuce leaves. Commercials had a firm definition of motherhood, which almost all of my friends’ mothers had no trouble fulfilling.” (p.125)

That’s the kind of perspective-driven self-reflection I would have liked to have read more about. Instead, I found the food metaphor grew thin, and finally stretched toward incredulity. In trying to present her young self, Nguyen tried to divorce herself from the present, and her current realization of self in a multi-cultural America. But without knowing where she wound up, the memoir had less resonance.

Bottom line: because of my love of both food and culture, I wanted to love this book, but I only liked it. This is a good book. Nguyen is a talented writer. I would recommend it to anyone looking for a personal memoir of contemporary America. I just wish the author had dug a bit deeper, and offered more adult perspective – what does she think of living in the United States now? One hopes her conceptualization of being “white” has evolved as much as her conceptualization of being “American” or “Vietnamese-American,” but Nguyen never deals with anything but the caricatures. Her thesis remains undeveloped. The fact is we can only imagine the children we were. Who we are now seems so much more important.


  1. This does sound good...even if she only scratched the surface. Great review! Where did you learn of this title?

  2. Thanks, Amy. It was a good book, and I found it serendipitously. An SRC task asked participants to look at the last book you had given 5 stars (at that point, Garlic and Sapphires), find someone else who had given it 5 stars, and then find a book you hadn't read that the other reviewer had rated a 5-star read, to see if your tastes were similar. Convoluted, but it did result in reading a book I might never have found!


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