Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Stealing Buddha's Dinner (by Bich Minh Nguyen)

I taught this memoir this semester on the advice of a colleague, and I'm so glad I did! It's the story of a Vietnamese immigrant growing up in Grand Rapids, told through rich metaphors about food. A meditation on American pop culture, what it means to be "American," and the complexity of family and identity.

I related to this book a lot as the daughter of Dutch immigrants, which is actually kind of ironic, since Nguyen is growing up living among people in Grand Rapids who are mostly third-plus generation Dutch, and it's a very "normal," "American" community. (I only met my great grandfather once, when he was 96 years old and in a nursing home in Rotterdam, but he talked about moving to Grand Rapids in the 1920s.)

Anyway, I related way more to having that weird family that eats strange foods and buys off-brand soda than to the Dutch kids with Wonder Bread sandwiches. My favorite chapter was 10, with an extended meditation on nascent adolescent sexuality. I also loved the chapter on books, since she grew up loving the same books I did, and turning to reading the way I did, too.

The class agreed that the ending is a little strange--she skips entirely over her junior high and high school years, suddenly jumping ahead to college, and then ends the book without telling us what became of many of the people we've been reading about and are interested in. I tried to find interviews with answers to some of my students' questions, but didn't get anywhere--so I sent her a Facebook friend request.

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