Stealing Buddhas dinner

December 5, 2007

Stealing Buddhas dinner

By LINDA BELL
Published: Wednesday, September 26, 2007 4:28 PM CDT
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When Bich (pronounced Bit) Nguyen escaped from Saigon with her family in 1975, she was only eight months old. She had to rely on the memories of her father, grandmother and uncles to tell her about the family’s journey to America. But Nguyen has very vivid memories of her childhood growing up in Grand Rapids, Michigan and her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, is a compelling account of a little girl’s desire to fit comfortably into her adopted country.

The Nguyen family sponsor provides the family a place to live for $100 monthly rent and a job for Nguyen’s father in one of Grand Rapids’ many furniture factories. The rental house on Baldwin Street is no castle, but Nguyen and her year older sister, Anh, play happily on the splintered wood floors with the toys donated by their sponsor’s church. The seven family members crammed into the house are grateful for a place to live, but frequently uneasy in their new home and jobs.

Nguyen and her sister grow to love all things American—Luden’s wild cherry flavored cough drops, Pringles, Hershey bars, Meijer’s Thrifty Acres, Wonder Woman, Sesame Street and music. But they don’t know the answer to the question they are eventually asked by others, “Where’s your mom?”

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After two years in Grand Rapids, their father meets and eventually marries a Mexican-American woman, Rosa, who has a daughter, so the two Vietnamese girls now have a stepsister, new customs to learn and a new branch of family traditions to celebrate.

As they grow older, Nguyen and her sister lose their ability to speak Vietnamese and Nguyen longs to be more like the blonde girls with Dutch heritage she sees at school. Besides all their physical differences, many of her schoolmates are also staunch members of the Christian Reformed Church while Nguyen’s family is Buddhist.

The family expands with the arrival of Nguyen’s brother, Vinh, and they also move to a ranch style home in a nicer part of the city. Nguyen makes a nest for herself and her books on the top bunk in the bedroom she shares with her sister and stepsister.

 
 

As the two older girls move into adolescence Nguyen draws closer in many ways to her grandmother, Noi, and continues in her thwarted efforts to be the perfect American girl. Meanwhile her father is reluctant to give up the party lifestyle he pursued in Vietnam and his marriage to Rosa, a teacher and perpetual volunteer, falters as the family moves outside Grand Rapids to Ada.

Details about Nguyen’s biological mother remain a mystery until she is much older.

You would not want to read this memoir while hungry in a house with an ample supply of junk food. Nguyen’s book is in some ways an ode to American food of all kinds, as she longs for the foods in her classmates’ homes and visits the restaurants that have the most food for the least amount of money with her family.

 
 

I was drawn in part to this book by the locale. I spent my college years in Grand Rapids, leaving about a year before the Nguyen family arrived. Her descriptions of the Baldwin Street neighborhood, Woodland Mall and the stores on 28th Street were vivid reminders of my past, albeit a much different experience than Nguyen’s.

While the author’s struggle to fit in as a new American is in many ways unique, it also resonates with the feelings most of us experienced as we moved from childhood, through adolescence and into adulthood, finding a place in our family, our faith and the world around us.

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