Sunday, December 27, 2009

Women Unbound: Stealing Budhha's Dinner

Stealing Budhha's Dinner:a memoir
Bich Minh Nyguen
Viking
2009

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a good and uneven story of a Vietnamese girl who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan in the early 80s. Bich’s family escapes Saigon in 1975 and are sponsored by a Christian Reformed Church family in what Bich describes as a sea of blonde and blue-eyed people. The memoir chronicles how the narrator struggles to define who she is: a Vietnamese girl who left her native home so young that she only identifies with her culture through her grandmother and her grandmother’s food and faith. Bich desperately wants to be American and for her assimilation is fed by her obsession with American junk food.

I’ve read a few memoirs that use food as a way of showing how we relate to family and how our identities are in part shaped by how food is integral to our culture; a promising vehicle and I was excited to read this. What is most problematic with the memoir however is how tightly Bich binds everything in either lists of food, episodes of eating food or thinking about food. Still in a society that is currently suffering in mass from obesity and our own neurosis with food disorders, Bich’s obsession works for me. While our relationships with food vary, for most of us, food is comfort.

I was expecting what I thought was a typical immigrant story but early on it became clear this would be different. Bich was eight-months-old when her family fled Vietnam. When they moved to Grand Rapids, Bich's family was part of a small, but growing minority surrounded by a largely homogeneous Dutch-descent, CRC community. Because they were sponsored, there was work and the extended family was intact. Every immigrant experience isn't punctuated by strife though assimilation is common factor. Bich’s story is about creating an identity not holding on to one. The memoir isn’t linear and the jumping around can be a bit confusing but overall, the obsession with food and the desire to be accepted unifies the work. Bich’s reluctance to relay her feelings without food to help her is at times tedious yet just when I had had enough of the food, she’d share something personal and intimate like the time she spends with her grandmother while she prays or watching television with her.

In one review, the reader felt the Laura Ingalls Wilder passage was disjointed and unnecessary. I couldn’t disagree more. This passage provides the kind of clarity that was missing for most of the book. Sans the food descriptions, in this section the author describes with incredible clarity the internal conflict of alienation yet an undeniable desire to fit in with people who reject her, will always see her as a foreigner and who frankly are prejudice and unkind; they aren’t perfect. They are not ideal. The Ingall section was an acknowledgment I had been waiting for. I had grown impatient with the child Bich who up to then failed to acknowledge how she willingly glossed over the pain of alienation and prejudice and instead fixated on the fantasy she believed was key to her happiness. And while she didn’t overtly discuss it, her descriptions of the Cleaver homes in the 80s was a juxtaposition I couldn’t stop thinking about. Here’s a child growing up with a progressive though enabler stepmother, idolizing pop icons like Madonna and what this child craves most is a dated model of a mother in a starched apron baking cookies.

Some readers have remarked they wanted to know more about her parents' strained relationship and the author’s relationships with her siblings and uncles, but for me, I get the not sharing too much about her family. This is Bich’s story. Her family didn’t sign up for having their lives opened for examination and speculation. Could Bich have done better to show how she related to them, maybe, but I appreciate her respecting their privacy.

There are moments here that are memorable and well written. Yes, the book is uneven, it’s not a smooth ride but neither is real life. This is non-fiction not a screenplay. It’s one woman attempting to wrangle into words a girl’s tumultuous coming of age and her struggle to reconcile a hunger she couldn’t satiate while growing up. Despite its shortcomings this feels real to me. It feels honest and that is satisfying.

How do you feel about memoirs? Have you read this? If so, what did you think? After reading my take on the work, are you interested or you'll pass?

As I mentioned I have read other memoirs where food was central to family and identity. You might enjoy The Skin Between Us by Kym Regusa or Trail of Crumbs by Kim Sunee

7 comments:

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I pick up memoirs if I am interested in the person and/or the country. It seems like my interest is mostly voyeuristic, however. On this one I would probably pass because I don't really want to read about food issues as the primary focus. On the other hand, I do think there is a really interesting story to tell (or out there somewhere) about Michigan and all the immigrant communities.

I enjoyed your review and appreciate the opportunity to learn about the book.

susan said...

Jill,

I know a few people from Grand Rapids and I know a few towns with concentrated ethnic groups besides Detroit so that was interesting to me.

I've discovered I really like memoirs. Some are better than others.

Jessie Carty said...

I enjoy memoirs even if they are uneven. I likebthe idea of the food motif :)

Amy @ My Friend Amy said...

I really want to read this since I absolutely loved her debut novel this year, Short Girls. I've read other mixed reviews though.

I also really loved Trail of Crumbs. ;)

susan said...

Hi Amy, reviews have been mixed and there is valid criticism. I still recommend reading it. I'm interested in reading Short Girls.

OT, for Social Justice, the religious freedom, does a book have to focus on religion or if religion informs the read can it be included?

Amy @ My Friend Amy said...

I'm glad you still recommend it.

The rules for the SJC are pretty loose, if you think the book is a good fit than please read it! (and recommend it so I can add it to the list. :)

susan said...

Thanks Amy,
There are few I wanted to recommend but wasn't sure if they fit. I like books that include faith but I don't purposely seek out religious theme books but I do appreciate when faith is part of the mix.