Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen, teacher of Asian American literature, creative nonfiction, and fiction at Purdue University. Nguyen’s father, sister, grandmother, and uncles left Vietnam the night before the fall of Saigon. After spending some time in the Philippines, the received a sponsor in Grand Rapids, MI to come to the United States, where Bich’s father eventually met and married Rosa, a woman of Mexican heritage. Growing up in a bi-cultural family was difficult for Bich in white, middle-class (as it was at the time) Grand Rapids. Her family’s food, traditions, and ways of thinking were markedly different from those of her not-so-understanding classmates.
The book was definitely different than I expected. I committed the age-old sin of judging the book by its cover and believed that the book would focus predominantly Nguyen’s rejection of her family’s culture through a desire for American junk food and distaste for traditional food. This was both not quite accurate and not quite as predominant a theme as I had guessed. Nguyen’s desire for ‘American’ food seems to be more about understanding and wanting to fit in with her peers. She definitely does not reject the food her grandmother makes, she simply seems to wish that her family could also eat pork chops, roasts, and hamburger helper.
This book was organized differently from most of the memoirs I’ve been reading lately. There was only a very general narrative flow. Nguyen began at the ‘beginning’ and ended at the ‘end’, but the middle chapters jumped around a good bit, organized more by theme than by chronology. This could have easily gotten annoying and was, at some points, slightly confusing, but Bich generally did a good job at providing ages or other sign posts to indicate where you were in her story. The beginning of the book was definitely stronger than the end – there is a conclusion that you as a reader are not really prepared for in the book and isn’t fully explained. However, it is perhaps more authentic that way, it does not seem that Bich was prepared for this resolution either, although I’m not totally sure how it enriched her story of a child’s immigrant experience. Overall I enjoyed this book; it was a fast and engaging read.