#55 ~ Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

January 27, 2008 at 1:43 pm | Posted in Books, Childhood Memories, Culture, Disappointment, Family, LibraryThing, LIfe, Memoir, Religion | 4 Comments
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Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen

Sometime toward the end of the year I was adding some books to my library on LibraryThing and wanted to add a book I received from my parents for Christmas the year before. It is a book of vintage postcards from Grand Rapids, my home town. I was sitting in the office at the time and the book was in the living room. I was feeling too lazy to walk into the other room and, figuring that there couldn’t be that many books about Grand Rapids, Michigan, I just used “Grand Rapids” to search for it. Much to my surprise, there were quite a few interesting books about my home town. Of those, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen stuck out when I read the following description:

“As a Vietnamese girl coming of age in Grand Rapids, Michigan, Bich Nguyen is filled with a rapacious hunger for American identity. In the pre-PC era Midwest, where the devoutly Christian blonde-haired, blue-eyed Jennifers and Tiffanys reign supreme…”

I was one of those blonde-haired, blue-eyed (well, slightly green as well) Jennifers and I was very curious to learn how I reigned supreme (it didn’t feel that way at the time). Because I wanted to read this book very badly, I rented it from the library (I’m trying to economize). I figured that if I loved it the way I knew I would, I’d buy it later. In the end, I’m glad that I just rented it.

There is something fun and invigorating about reading about your home town and it was even more exciting for me when the author’s family moved to the Ken-O-Sha area. That’s very close to where I grew up. I recognized many of the locations mentioned in the book as well as the type of people as well. I may have been Dutch, blonde, and named Jennifer, but there are more ways of sticking out like a sore thumb in southeast Grand Rapids than by being Vietnamese: you could be Roman Catholic. In an area heavily populated by members of the Christian Reformed Church, being Catholic is just as “unfortunate.” As Nguyen describes her early experiences living next doors to CRC neighbors, it brought me back to my childhood as well.

This first third of the book felt very authentic to me. I laughed out loud at the way she described her uncle he discovered after enrollment that Calvin College was “serious” about being a CRC school. I related to the scenes where Nguyen experienced orchestrated attempts to “save” her under the auspices of a neighbor girl simply bringing other girls over to play. I know very well the disgusted way those other girls reacted when she made it clear that she was not interested in their God. I was five or six the first time I was told by another child that I was going to hell for “worshiping Mary.” It was so frightening and I can remember the way my chest felt as I ran home crying to my mother. When there aren’t vocal attempts to convert you, there is always the feeling of being held away at an arm’s distance. There was one CRC family that wouldn’t let their children play with my siblings, but they had no problem asking my parents to borrow our camper. That always made me so angry. So, when a scandal rocked our neighborhood in the late 80s, I did take delight in it. The neighbor lady from across the street had apparently been having an affair with one of the husband around the block. I did feel bad for the pain the children and the other spouses experienced, but for me also felt somewhat like a vindication. Although I’m not proud of feeling this way, it was nice to see two people from that group, who made no secret that they were better than my family simply because of their religious affiliation, fall in such a public and shameful way.

While I related to Nguyen’s early experiences, I did not find her memoir enjoyable as a whole. About a third of the way through it went back in time for no apparent reason. From that point forward, the book felt disjointed. There were also large portions of the book that described food and books in such minute detail that I found myself often jumping over large sections until the story picked up again. In the section where she describes the books she read and enjoyed at the time, I was taken back in time to the books I loved so well. Unfortunately, this section began to feel like a book report. Why spend so many pages describing each of the scenes in The Little House on the Prarie that made her wish that was her family? One example would have been so much more effective.

I really wanted to like this butt, but in the end I couldn’t even finish it. I set it aside with only 7 or 8 pages to go. I just didn’t care to continue to read every painful detail of her reunion with her mother. Yes, this should have been a strong way to end her novel. To me, it felt like it was going no where – and very slowly at that. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner would have been more effective if it ended about a third of the way through with the stories about her grandmother from later in the book added to that portion.

Read the first third if you’re interested in what it was like to grow up in the midwest when you’re not a WASP or if you’d like to read about the Vietnamese experience in America in the 70s and 80s. Otherwise, I would pass this book by.

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To buy this book, click here.

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4 Comments »

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  1. Very interesting review. I came to the United States in the early 1980’s and can relate to some of the experiences that you detail were referred to in this book. One of my first recollections of Calvin College was being amazed that there was this much blonde hair in one place…

  2. I think you might really like the first third of the book. It paints southeast Grand Rapids accurately – and I don’t believe negatively. What I saw of Berlin when I was there as an American who spoke no German other than “Ein beer bitta” (thanks, Dad, for your help there!), were not wrong. They were simply that, observations made by someone without the cultural context, etc. They may be viewed as negative to those who live there because you don’t like to have things pointed out to you that you don’t see because it’s so broke. For me, I never thought about the blonde thing because I was blonde. I didn’t notice the massive amount of similarity.

    I only know Calvin College by its reputation to a person who is not CR. I have been on campus once for their January Series back in the early 90s. I can’t remember which author I saw now.

  3. I might look through it the next time I’m in Schuller Books if they have it in stock. Thanks for the recommendation.

  4. The reason why Nguyen describes the books she enjoys in such minute detail is because they are depicting her ideal family. She wishes that her dysfunctional biracial family could be more like those that she reads in her storybooks. At least, that the conclusion I came to.


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