Book vividly recalls one immigrant's hunger to fit in in '80s America
by: , ‘Stealing Buddha’s Dinner’
by Bich Minh Nguyen
Penguin Books

In the charming memoir 'Stealing Buddha's Dinner,' loving descriptions of Chef Boyardee and Pringles blend with equally rapturous musings on shrimp stews, pho and beef satay.

The book is a testament to one Vietnamese girl's assimilation into American culture via her love affair with food.

Bich Minh Nguyen was less than a year old when her father fled Saigon in 1975 with his mother, three brothers and two young daughters. They eventually landed in Grand Rapids, Mich., and settled into a working-class neighborhood.

From the beginning, Nguyen found herself mesmerized not only by the excess of 'Smarties, Hershey's chocolate bars, candy necklaces, and pink-tipped candy cigarettes' but by the equally tantalizing offerings of fruit that her grandmother, Noi, placed before the family's golden statue of Buddha.

After a certain number of days, Noi would remove the fruit and put it in the hands of Nguyen and her older sister, Anh. 'The fruit seemed dearer to us than candy, and I believed that the transformation from globe to glistening slices involved some kind of magic.'

As she entered elementary school, surrounded by blond-haired girls named Holly and Jennifer, Nguyen's fierce desire to belong intensified.

In chapters with titles such as 'Toll House Cookies,' 'Green Sticky Rice Cakes' and 'Ponderosa,' the author details her childhood longings, successes and heartaches amid the sound of 1980s rock music and the sights and smells of Burger King Whoppers and her grandmother's spring rolls.

What keeps the tale from becoming stale is Nguyen's ability to pinpoint the fears that all children feel in the competitive nature underlying childhood.

Readers will see themselves in the 'School Lunch' chapter where the contents of a kid's lunchbox determine her social cachet. You immediately are transported back to the time when a Hostess Cupcake beat a bag full of Nilla Wafers, hands down.

There is a universality to these anxieties that, unfortunately, most children see as existing only for themselves.

Nguyen also found solace in books, such as 'Harriet the Spy' and the beloved 'Little House on the Prairie' series by Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Fans of the latter may be startled to revisit all the food references that Nguyen lovingly recalls, such as salt pork and roasted jack rabbit.

Recalling her fascination with books that dealt with 'manifest destiny and white entitlement,' Nguyen notes that she 'didn't have any nonwhite literature … to know what else I could become. … For I had created, if somewhat unknowingly, a group of protagonists - girls I wished I could be.'

Decades later, she has become a writer capable of vividly exploring the immigrant experience by traversing the American culinary landscape. This is a beautiful, original memoir.

Also reading this week

The title of Shelby Steele's latest book is controversial in itself - 'A Bound Man: Why We Are Excited About Obama and Why He Can't Win.'

Steele tackles race and politics in America and how these issues affect the candidacy of Barack Obama. Steele will appear at 7:30 p.m. Friday at Powell's City of Books (1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651).

Jennifer Finney Boylan, the best-selling author of 'She's Not There,' is back with a spooky second memoir.

'I'm Looking Through You' deals with the transgendered author's years growing up in a haunted house in Pennsylvania. She returns as an adult to investigate and deal with family mysteries.

Boylan will read at 7:30 p.m. Monday at Powell's on Hawthorne (3723 S.E. Hawthorne Blvd., 503-228-4651).

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Bich Minh Nguyen

When: 7:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 4

Where: Powell's City of Books, 1005 W. Burnside St., 503-228-4651

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