Stealing Buddhas dinner

December 5, 2007

Stealing Buddhas dinner

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?”


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.

B1-3bw-tinyurl.jpgBich Minh Nguyen’s first book, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner (Viking Penguin, February 2007), received the PEN/Jerard Award from the PEN American Center. Her work has also appeared in publications such as Gourmet magazine; Jane magazine; Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing up in America; and Watermark: Vietnamese American Poetry and Prose. She also coedited three anthologies: 30/30: Thirty American Stories from the Last Thirty Years (Penguin Academic); Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: I & Eye (Longman); and The Contemporary American Short Story (Longman). She is currently at work on a novel, Short Girls.

Nguyen was born in Saigon in 1974. On April 29, 1975, the night before the city fell, her family fled Viet Nam by ship. After staying in refugee camps in Guam and at Fort Chaffee in Arkansas, they settled in the conservative, mostly white town of Grand Rapids, Michigan. In Stealing Buddha’s Dinner Nguyen writes about growing up in a Vietnamese household in an “All-American” city in the deep 1980s.

She received an MFA in creative writing from the University of Michigan and currently teaches creative nonfiction, fiction, and Asian American Literature at Purdue University. She lives in Chicago and West Lafayette, Indiana with her husband Porter Shreve.

Nguyen’s first name, Bich, is pronounced like “Bit.” Nguyen, the Smith of Viet Nam, is pronounced something like Ngoo-ee-ehn (said quickly, as in one syllable), but most people tend to say “Win” or “New-in” instead.

Behind the Cover: Bich Minh Nguyen
Online Assistant Editor James Grasselli

Bich Min Nguyen plans to read from her PEN/Jerard award-winning memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, on Thursday at 7:30 p.m. in the JC Gold Room. Want more? Take a look at her website. Not enough? Here’s a Behind the Cover look at the writer behind the memoir.

What inspired you to start writing Stealing Buddha’s Dinner?

Before I even had the thought to write a memoir, I had written a few essays
about childhood, immigration, and Asian American identity. Eventually it
dawned on me that those essays, when reworked, could become part of a
larger, book-length manuscript about growing up in a multicultural

You talk very little about your birth mother in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, what prompted that decision?

When I was growing up much of the world seemed steeped in mystery. The minor mysteries–how exactly did Pringles get their shape?–weighed almost as much as the major mysteries, like the question of what had happened to my mother. The subject of her life was shrouded in secrecy–no one in the family wanted, or dared, to talk about her–and in my book I try to recreate that sense of silence. The structure of the book mirrors my experience of not knowing, and not even really allowing myself to think, about her. She was an off-limits subject, and I not only bowed to that, I was a part of that pact. It sounds awful, but the reality was that I had never known her; I didn’t know anything about her. And since I had a mother, Rosa, in my life, and my grandmother Noi, I wasn¹t lacking maternal figures. When I fantasized about having the perfect family, I dreamed of mothers I could not have, like Marmee March or Maria Von Trapp; they represented, or so I often thought, lives of perfection. In Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the truth about my mother is not revealed until the near end–again, the narrative structure reflecting my experience–when, no longer a child, I face the mother I had all along feared to know.

behind the cover
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Behind the Scenes of Fall for the Book

A large portion of “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner” is about your obsession with American snacks and foods, are you still as fascinated by non-Vietnamese cuisine as you were then?

The food theme emerged as soon as I started the project, since food truly was a literal and figurative marker of my childhood. I planned my hours around what I would get and hope to eat. I thought of food as something wonderful and transformative. I also thought: if I could eat what normal Americans were eating then I could be one of them. In the book, that desire
is meant to be seen as both comical and sad.

I still love all kinds of candy, from fancy chocolates to Nerds. But the other processed foods of my youth–all that Chef Boyardee–appeal to me now only in a campy, nostalgic way. They have become symbols and ideas, signposts of a previous self, a past-tense time, place, and identity. Such foods, for me, are inextricable from their context, their role in my 80s childhood.

Do you have a favorite food these days, American or otherwise?

I love all kinds of food! I’m basically guided by cravings: one day it might be steak frites, the next, mapo tofu. I¹m always on the lookout for the perfect cherry pie, the perfect potato chips… the list is endless.

How did you end up working as an editor on three anthologies?

The anthologies emerged and evolved from coursepack ideas. We (my husband Porter Shreve and I–we coedit the anthologies) also wanted to put together anthologies that were as diverse and wide-ranging as possible.

Do you have any short stories, fictional or non-fictional, that will be appearing in magazines or anthologies in the near future?

I’m working on a couple of new essays as well as my novel, Short Girls.

Your next book, Short Girls, is fictional. Why the genre shift?

Fiction was the first genre I started writing in so, in a way, nonfiction seems like more of a shift for me!

Writing fiction after writing nonfiction has been very freeing. I keep thinking: I get to make stuff up! I¹ve always enjoyed working in more than one genre and thinking about places where one genre bends toward another. I have found, for myself, that subject matter is the primary element that decides which genre a work is going to veer toward. Short Girls does draw on
what I know in that it’s partly set in Michigan, and depicts characters who are Vietnamese American, but that’s pretty much where the autobiographical involvement ends. Well, except for the title.

What drew you to George Mason’s Fall for the Book?

It’s a terrific celebration of books. So many writers I admire have participated in the event.

At Fall for the Book you’ll be reading from Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, do you already have a selection planned and what, if any, interaction will you have with the audience before/during/after the reading (i.e. Q&A time)?

I will be reading a section from Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, with a Q&A after
the reading. After that, I will be signing books if anyone wants one signed.

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.”