Table of Contents
About the Author
1 - Pringles
2 - Forbidden Fruit
3 - Dairy Cone
4 - Fast Food Asian
6 - School Lunch
7 - American Meat
8 - Green Sticky Rice Cakes
9 - Down with Grapes
10 - Bread and Honey
11 - Salt Pork
12 - Holiday Tamales
13 - Stealing Buddha’s Dinner
14 - Ponderosa
15 - Mooncakes
16 - Cha Gio
PENGUIN BOOKS STEALING BUDDHA’S DINNER
Bich Minh Nguyen (first name pronounced Bit) teaches literature and creative writing at Purdue University. She lives with her husband, the novelist Porter Shreve, in Chicago and West Lafayette, Indiana. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, her first book, was the recipient of the PEN/Jerard Fund Award. She is currently at work on a novel, Short Girls.
Praise for Stealing Buddha’s Dinner
“A charming memoir . . . Her prose is engaging, precise, compact.”
—The New York Times Book Review
“[D]eftly crafted . . . Far from being a memoir or what could be described as fitting into the kitschy ethnic-lit genre, her story is at once personal and broad, about one Vietnamese refugee navigating U.S. culture as well as an exploration of identity. . . . [S]he pays equal attention to the rhythm and poignancy of language to build her story as she does the circumstances into which she was born.” —Los Angeles Times
“Nguyen . . . succeeds as an author on many levels. She is a brave writer who is willing to share intimate family memories many of us would choose to keep secret. Her prose effortlessly pulls readers into her worlds. Her typical and not-so-typical childhood experiences give her story a universal flavor.” —USA Today
“Hilarious and poignant, her words will go straight to your heart.”
“Nguyen brings back moments and sensations with such vivid clarity that readers will find themselves similarly jolted back in time. She’s a sensuous writer—colors and textures weave together in her work to create a living fabric. This book should be bought and read anytime your soul hungers for bright language and close observation.”
—Star Tribune (Minneapolis)
“It’s the premise that makes the book relevant not only to anyone who’s ever lusted after the perfect snack, but anyone who’s ever felt different. Clever turns of phrase make Nguyen’s book read quickly, and children of the ’80s will be able to reminisce about pop culture along with her. The story resonates with anyone who’s ever felt like an outsider.”
—San Francisco Chronicle
“Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is beautifully written. Nguyen . . . surely knows how to craft and shape sentences. She understands the evocative possibilities of language, is fearless in asserting the specificities of memories culled from early childhood and is, herself, an appealing character on the page. I believe Nguyen is a writer to watch, a tremendous talent with a gift for gorgeous sentences.” —Chicago Tribune
"The story of how one young girl could absorb all these cultural influences and assimilate drives Stealing Buddha’s Dinner and Nguyen makes the journey both fiercely individual and universal.” —Detroit Free Press
“Nguyen is a gifted storyteller who doles out humor and hurt in equal portions. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner [is] a tasty read. This memoir, which is also a tribute to ‘all the bad [American] food, fashion, music, and hair of the deep 1980s,’ feels vivid, true, and even nostalgic.”
—The Christian Science Monitor
“[A] pungent, precisely captured memoir.” —Elle
“[Nguyen] makes the inability to fit in the springboard for a gracefully told remembrance that mixes the amusing and the touching to wonderful effect. She writes with Zen-like wisdom.” —The Hartford Courant
“The author’s prose is lovely and her imagery fresh. And in her re-creation of a world populated by Family Ties [and] Ritz crackers . . . she has captured the 1980s with perfection. . . . This debut suggests she’s a writer to watch.” —Kirkus Reviews
“Only a truly gifted writer could make me long for the Kool-Aid, Rice-a-Roni, and Kit Kats celebrated in Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. In this charming, funny, original memoir about growing up as an outsider in America, Bich Nguyen takes you on a journey you won’t forget. I can hardly wait for what comes next.” —Judy Blume
"At once sad and funny, full of brass, energy, and startling insights, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a charmer of a memoir. Bich Nguyen’s story ranges from the pleasures of popular culture to the richness of personal history, from American fast foods to traditional Vietnamese fare. It is an irresistible tale.”
—Diana Abu-Jaber, author of Origin and The Language of Baklava
“Bich Nguyen’s Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is an irresistible memoir of assimilation, compassion, family, and food. Who would have thought that SpaghettiOs, Nestlé Quik, and Pringles could seem as wonderfully exotic to a Vietnamese refugee as shrimp curry and spring rolls seem to the average Midwesterner, but that’s part of the tasty surprise of this wonderful debut.”
—Dinty W. Moore, author of The Accidental Buddhist: Mindfulness, Enlightenment, and Sitting Still
“Frank, tender, unsettling, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen moves the reader with each event and image. Bich’s grandparents ‘gathered up the family and fled Vietnam to start over on the other side of the world’ in 1975. Her own and her family’s subtle and brutal collisions in Grand Rapids, Michigan, are rendered true and palpable by the writer’s candid imagination. In fiction and nonfiction, the reality of a character’s life lies in how it is experienced. Nguyen’s immigrant childhood resonates, as she captures the experience of two cultures’ clashing smells, religions, hairstyles, clothes, habits, and, especially, foods. As she writes it, her grandmother’s gathering toadstools in their backyard garden sets them apart from their neighbors absolutely but also ineffably. America’s foundational story is the immigrant’s tale, and, with its new citizens, the country continuously remakes itself. Similarly, Nguyen’s unique writerly vision, her innovative and pungent voice, reinvents and renews this venerable theme.”
—Lynne Tillman, judge for the PEN/Jerard Fund Award
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First published in the United States of America by Viking Penguin, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc. 2007 Published in Penguin Books 2008
Copyright © Bich Minh Nguyen, 2007
All rights reserved
Portions of this book were published as the selections “A World Without Measurements” in Gourmet; “Toadstools” in Dream Me Home Safely: Writers on Growing Up in America, edited by Susan Richards Shreve (Houghton Mifflin, 2003); and “The Good Immigrant Student” in Tales Out of School: Contemporary Writers on Their Student Years, edited by Susan Richards Shreve and Porter Shreve (Beacon Press, 2001).
eISBN : 978-0-143-11303-4
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for my family
WE ARRIVED IN GRAND RAPIDS WITH FIVE DOLLARS and a knapsack of clothes. Mr. Heidenga, our sponsor, set us up with a rental house, some groceries—boxed rice, egg noodles, cans of green beans—and gave us dresses his daughters had outgrown. He hired my father to work a filling machine at North American Feather. Mr. Heidenga wore wide sport coats and had yellow hair. My sister and I were taught to say his name in a hushed tone to show respect. But if he stopped by to check on us my grandmother would tell us to be silent because that was part of being good. Hello, girls, he would say, stooping to pat us on the head.
It was July 1975, but we were cold. Always cold, after Vietnam, and my uncle Chu Cuong rashly spent two family dollars on a jacket from the Salvation Army, earning my grandmother’s scorn. For there were seven of us to feed in that gray house on Baldwin Street: my father, Grandmother Noi, Uncles Chu Cuong, Chu Anh, and Chu Dai (who wasn’t really an uncle but Cuong’s best friend), and my sister and me. Upstairs belonged to the uncles, and downstairs my sister and I shared a room with Noi. My father did not know how to sleep through the night. He paced around the house, double-checking the lock on the front door; he glanced sideways out the taped-up windows, in case someone was watching from the street. When at last he settled down on the living room sofa, a tweedy green relic from Mr. Heidenga’s basement, he kept one hand on the sword he had bought from a pawnshop with his second paycheck. My father had showed my sister and me the spiral carvings on the handle. He turned the sword slowly, its dull metal almost gleaming, and let us feel the weight of the blade.
On Baldwin Street all of the houses were porched and lop-sided, missing slats and posts like teeth knocked out of a sad face. Great heaps of rusted cars lined the curbs, along with beer bottles that sparkled in any hint of sunlight. I spent a lot of time staring at the street, waiting for something to happen or someone to appear. Chu Anh got a job working second shift at a tool and die plant, and sometimes he and my father would meet each other on the street, coming and going from the bus stop.
My sister was also named Anh, but with an accent no one pronounces anymore. A year older than I, she was the ruler of all our toys. We amassed a closet full of them, thanks to the bins at our sponsor’s church. We had so much, we became reckless. We threw Slinkies until they tangled and drowned paper dolls. Someone gave us tricycles and we traveled the house relentlessly, forgetting our uncles sleeping upstairs. We didn’t know that they had to get up in the middle of the night, or that our father competed for pillows and comforters from the reject pile at work. We didn’t know that we were among the lucky.
I remember bare feet on old wood floors; shivering after a bath. Noi knitted heavy sweaters from marled-colored rayon my father bought at Kmart. Puffs of steam rose from the kitchen stove where she cooked our daily rice. One blizzard morning, Noi let my sister and me run outside in our pajamas and fuzzy slippers. The snow fell on my face and for a moment I laughed and waved. Then a gust of wind sent me tumbling into a snow-bank and I screamed so much, Noi thought the weather had turned into an attack. She snatched us up and ran inside.
We had been living on Baldwin Street for almost a year when Mr. Heidenga invited us to dinner at his family’s massive, pillared house in East Grand Rapids. The Heidengas had a cook, like Alice on The Brady Bunch, and she must have fed us—me, my sister Anh, and the Heidenga daughters, all sequestered together in the kitchen. But I don’t remember eating anything. I only remember staring, and silence, and Heather Heidenga— who might have been Marcia, with that oval face—opening a canister of Pringles. Anh and I were transfixed by the bright red cylinder and the mustache grin on Mr. Pringles’s broad, pale face. The Heidenga girl pried off the top and crammed a handful of chips into her mouth. We watched the crumbs fall from her fingers to the floor.
Mrs. Heidenga swished into the kitchen to see how we were doing. Later, my father would swear that she served them raw hamburgers for dinner. Mrs. Heidenga was tall and blond, glamorous in a pastel pantsuit and clicking heels. When she touched her daughters’ hair her bracelets clattered richly. Nicole Heidenga, who was younger than her sister but older than mine, waited for her mother to go back to the dining room. She shoved her hand into the can of Pringles and said, “Where’s your mom?”
Anh and I made no answer. We had none to give.
We had left Vietnam in the spring of 1975, when my sister was two and I was eight months old. By then, everyone in Saigon knew the war was lost, and to stay meant being sent to reeducation camps, or worse. The neighbors spoke of executions and what the Communists would do to their children; they talked of people vanished and tortured—a haunting reminder of what my grandfather had endured in the North. My father heard that some Americans were going to airlift children out of the country, and he wondered if he could get Anh and me on one of those planes. Operation Babylift it was called, and over the course of April would carry away two thousand children. But on April 4 the first flight crashed at the Tan Son Nhut air base, killing most on board. My father decided he had to find another way, though time was running out for Saigon. Americans were fleeing. Wealthy Vietnamese worked bribes to get any route out. Masses of would-be refugees mobbed the airport.
On the morning of April 29 the last helicopters rose from the roofs of the American Embassy. The North Vietnamese were closing in, firing rockets at the downtown neighborhoods, where looters were still smashing in windows. Tanks would be rolling into the presidential palace by the next day. Chu Cuong, who was based at the naval headquarters, called Chu Anh at the army communications center. Two dozen ships had been waiting at the Saigon River for the past month, preparing for the end. Now it was time. I’m getting on a ship, Chu Cuong said. You get the family on any one you can. Go now.
He had been to the United States for training missions— there’s a photograph of him confident and grinning in hip-slung bell-bottoms, his hair windblown while the Statue of Liberty rises up behind him—and he was certain that we would all be able to meet up there. We’ll find each other, he said casually, as if America were a small town.
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