Monday, May 05, 2008

In Real Life

"To me, life lived in commercials was real life. Commercials were instructions; they were news. They showed me what perfection could be: in the right woman's hands, the layers of a cake would always be exactly the same size. In the right woman's kitchen, a cartoon rabbit would visit the children and show them how to slurp down a tall glass of Nestle Quik with a straw. ... Commercials had a firm definition of motherhood, which almost all of my friends' mothers had no trouble fulfilling. They swept floors and scrubbed bathtubs. They cooked casseroles and washed dishes. They had smooth, sensible pageboy hairstyles and serene smiles. They set the dinner tables every night and sang Cinderella songs and taught their children where to sit."

In her actual life in 1980s Grand Rapids, Bich Minh Nguyen -- author of the memoir Stealing Buddha's Dinner -- was defined by her origin as a Vietnamese refugee. Her father, working in a factory, was more and more distant. Her older sister was adjusting better than she was. Her step mother Rosa was a native-born American, whose parents had been Mexican farm laborers in Michigan agriculture: she taught ESL, worked on an advanced degree, and was a Cesar Chavez fan, a boycotter of grapes, supporter of teachers' strikes and starving refugees. Rosa, too, created a vast gap between the family and their white Republican Grand Rapids neighbors. Rosa reminded them that they too had been refugees, boat people, threatened with starvation.

American food memories define the author's culturally confused childhood. Pringles. Nestle's toll-house cookies. Big Mac vs. Whopper. Kool-aid popsicles. 7-Up. Hostess cupcakes. Frozen pizzas. Jiffy-mix muffins. A famous dish like beef stroganoff or simple American whole pork chops that needed to be politely eaten with a knife and fork. For each of these foods and many more, the author presents a vivid story of how she first tried it, how she coveted it, or how it showed the character of a girl who ate it.

She also loved salty Vietnamese pickles, lychees, green sticky rice with pork in neat packets, and steaming soups that her grandmother cooked. The descriptions are vivid: I wonder how they relate to anything I've eaten. Probably nothing similar to the scallion pancakes or spring roll I tried on my last time at a Vietnamese restaurant. Her food is not symbolic: you can almost taste it.

While the author loved her grandmother's pho and didn't mind the Mexican roasts her step-mother occasionally made, she longed to fit in with the American kids, characterized by what they had in their lunch boxes or what their families ate. Her family bought in bulk or on sale, while she longed for widely advertised brand-names.

Although she had arrived as a toddler and learned English essentially as a native, the author could never be assimilated into blond, Christian, mainstream Grand Rapids elementary school life. Even her name was impossible: Bich. How could she get even teachers to call her Bic or Bit? Not a good life on the playground or in the lunch room.

This is my favorite kind of memoir: vivid tastes tell the story. Yes, there was a spelling bee triumph that the teacher begrudged her because she was an immigrant. Yes, there were children's put-downs because she was not Christian. Yes, she was forgetting how to speak Vietnamese, so she also didn't fit in with that crowd. Her father gambled; her step mother divorced him but didn't move out. Her step sister shoplifted. Yes, she felt isolated. Her closest family member seems to be Noi, her grandmother, whose room she shares along with a Buddha statue -- they sleep with their heads towards Buddha, in respect, and her grandmother presents food to Buddha and to the ancestors. Once, she took a plum from Buddha's dinner and ate it herself, but usually she just looked hungrily at Buddha's dinner.

Finally, nearly an adult, she discovers that her unknown birth mother had had contact with her father and step-mother for years, but they never spoke of her. As it has been throughout her life, when she meets her birth mother, food is the issue. The first thing they do is go for Dim Sum: "our table filled up with tin and bamboo steamers of shrimp shumai... We ate spare ribs, shrimp balls, and sticky buns stuffed with red pork... my mother kept the food coming, anxious to show [her] welcome through generosity." This is their one and only contact, and it seems sad but not profoundly so, with a hint that her mother had not really wanted to raise the author and her sister.

Even her memories of children's books are dominated by food memories: "Ramona Quimby, Encyclopedia Brown, The Great Brain, Mrs Piggle-Wiggle ... I lingered over my favorite food parts -- descriptions of Turkish Delight, fried chicken, hamburgers with onions, thick hot chocolate, even the beef tongue the Quimby family once had for dinner." As I read the book, I remembered the meals in Little Women and the Little House books as well as she does. I also appreciate her growing recognition of Laura Ingalls Wilder's attitude towards outsiders -- and how this attitude still affected her life -- "I didn't have any nonwhite literature, anyway," she remarks. And her hope: "I could read my way out of Grand Rapids."

This is a remarkable memoir, not the least because of its incredibly skillful and consistent use of food to tell the powerful story of an immigrant experience.

(Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen. Quotes: pp. 125, 151, 160, 232, 163)

Update, August, 2017: This was the selection of my Culinary Book Club. All participants seem to have enjoyed it quite a bit.

1 comment:

Jen said...

This sounds like something I'd love to read. Thank you for the post and review!