Vietnamese native writes book about growing up in G. Rapids

April 7, 2007

Published April 5, 2007

(Photo by Erin Mash/Associated Press)
Coming of age story: Author Bich Minh Nguyen signs a copy of her memoir, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” last month at a bookstore in Chicago. Her book is about growing up in Grand Rapids with a feeling of “missingness.”
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Author used food to try to fit in a city full of ‘tall’ blonds
By Terri Finch Hamilton
Associated Press

GRAND RAPIDS – Everybody’s been asking Bich Minh Nguyen about her favorite junk food lately, which is what happens when you elevate Pringles to poetry:

“The Pringles glowed by window light, their fine curvatures nearly translucent,” she writes. “So delicate, breaking into salty shards on our tongues.”

What must she think about Ding Dongs? Nutty Buddies? Kit Kats?

Nguyen’s new book, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” has a candy-laden cover that belies the sadness inside.

Nguyen, 32, writes about the isolation of growing up a Vietnamese girl among “the tall people” of Grand Rapids, a city so blond “I could swear I was dreaming in wheat.”

More than anything, young Bich wanted to be a “real” American. To her, that meant forgoing the shrimp and vegetable spring rolls and green bean cakes her grandmother made and consuming “real” American food:

“At home, I kept opening the refrigerator and cupboards, wishing for American foods to magically appear. I wanted what the other kids had: Bundt cakes and casseroles, Cheetos and Doritos. My secret dream was to bite off just the tip of every slice of pizza in the two-for-one deal we got at Little Caesar’s.”

Readers love the food

Her book is getting good buzz. The New York Times raved. The American Booksellers Association lists it among its top picks for March. National Public Radio featured it on “All Things Considered.”

“People love the food in it,” Nguyen says, sitting on the couch in the Ada home where she lived as a student at Forest Hills Northern High School. “But for me, it wasn’t just food. It was a way to become part of a world that I wanted to be part of.”

It wasn’t easy. She was Vietnamese with a Mexican-American stepmother and a name that brought cruel taunts on the playground. She felt as though she belonged nowhere. In her book, she calls the feeling “missingness.”

Climbed out

Nguyen is now an assistant professor of English at Purdue University. She was in Grand Rapids last month on a book tour that included stops in New York, Washington, Seattle and Los Angeles.

She has a handsome writer husband, Porter Shreve. But Nguyen spent her childhood feeling ugly, different and alone. It took her a while to climb out.

Her family arrived in Grand Rapids in 1975 with five dollars and a knapsack of clothes, after fleeing Saigon the night before the city fell. She was 8 months old; her sister, Anh, was 2.

The voice she heard from Grand Rapids, she says, said, “Come on in. Now transform. And if you cannot, disappear.” So she did – into a life of junk food, 1980s TV and books. She came of age in the 1980s, “before ethnic was cool,” she says.

As she talks, her stepmom, Rosa Fraga, pours tea.

Fraga and Nguyen’s dad, Dung Nguyen, who married in 1979, are prominent figures in the book. The picture Nguyen paints of them is not always flattering, as seen through her childhood eyes. She writes of silence, secrets and standoffs.

‘Put-together family’

“A complicated, put-together family” is how she described them at her reading at Schuler Books.

“They’ve been very supportive,” Nguyen says. “We all recognize that the time I’m writing about was a different time, seen through the eyes of a confused child. Past tense. I think it’s OK to acknowledge that there were complications. Every family has them. Otherwise, life would be really boring.”

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