By Jian Ping
Last week I read Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, a memoir by Bich Minh Nguyen. She came to the U.S. with her family in 1975 from Vietnam as a refugee and grew up in Grand Rapid in Michigan. I enjoyed her writing style, resolving around food, culture, and her alienation in the midst of predominantly white girls with blond hair and blue eyes, girls she desperately wanted to be as a child. She renders her family’s immigrant stories without self-pity and reveals her childhood experiences with a light touch, enough to draw a smile from me, with a certain level of resonance, as I thought of raising my daughter as a first-generation immigrant mother.
I was with the author, especially through her early childhood. What surprised me was the ending, when she, as an adult, visited Vietnam with her grandmother. After growing up in Midwest, being fully conscious of her yellow skin and black hair, witnessing her grandmother’s devotion to Buddhism, and enjoying the Vietnamese food her grandmother cooked, she found no resonance with Vietnam or her relatives in the country. “Sitting with my aunt and grandmother, I did not feel a rush of love. I felt regret, exhaustion. I felt like an outsider, and I knew I would always be just that. I would fly back home to the United States and perhaps never see them again.”
I found myself flared up in disappointment, or even anger. While I understand that she left Vietnam as an infant, I expected her to identify more with her roots. I felt like hearing my daughter tell me she was all American, and her being born Chinese was irrelevant. I closed the book with a feeling of distaste. Was I too judgmental or biased? I wonder.