Sunday, January 4, 2009

Diversity Book Review: Stealing Buddha's Dinner


The book title, along with the cover’s image of a little girl contemplating a pink snoball, called my attention. Bich Minh Nguyen (first name pronounced Bit) writes a memoir interweaving food as a symbol of belonging. SpaghettiOs, Pringles, and fast food were the stuff of becoming American, of fitting in. Green sticky rice cakes, pho, cha gio, and fresh fruits, were the tastes of family, of home.

Nguyen and her family escaped from Saigon in 1975 and settled in Michigan. Growing up in the 80s, in the Midwest, Nguyen’s immigrant experience was similar to that of so many deemed “different” from the host culture. She struggled to fit in, longing to be like her classmates and neighbors; she fantasized about macaroni & cheese dinners and “homemade” Toll House cookies. Nguyen, however, is comforted by the foods her grandmother continues to prepare, shrimp soups, noodles, and meticulously chopped-up vegetables. She treasures even more the fresh fruits her grandmother lovingly peels and cuts for her; solace is often found in the familiar, the natural. Throughout the story, food seems to satiate different kinds of hunger. As a girl, Nguyen needs attention and encouragement. She appeases these needs in a closet with a candy bar or a ripe pear, stolen from her grandmother’s altar to Buddha.

The foods, music, and clothing styles mentioned in Nguyen’s book were familiar to me, as I was a teen in the 80s. I could connect to the childhood desire to “eat what they eat”, the shunning of that which is familiar, and the happy return to the foods that your mom makes (or grandmother, as in Nguyen’s story). It was also interesting to note that certain foods, considered “delicacies” for some, become everyday fare for others. This is especially true now, when we can regularly enjoy exotic foods in just about any American city, and savor Cheetos, tater-tots, Cozy Shack pudding, and a can of Chef Boyardee any day in the comfort of home.

I highly recommend this book. If you connect food with life's experiences (like me!) you will especially appreciate this story. You may find that you suddenly have a craving for a Pop-Tart, or you may want to try something new and visit any one of the many Asian restaurants in your area.

Personally, I need to find me some cha gio! Looks delicious!

1 comment:

Ali said...

I grew up in a white middle class family but I can relate to not having the same foods as everyone else, too (I had a bake-your-own-bread mom and I don't think a Twinkie every passed over our threshhold). Adapting to the different foods of another culture is definitely a memorable experience, even in the short term. This looks like an interesting book.