Stealing Buddha's Dinner

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 22 April, 2007, 12:00am

Stealing Buddha's Dinner

by Bich Minh Nguyen

Viking, HK$195

Bich Minh Nguyen left Vietnam on April 29, 1975, the day the last helicopters rose from the roof of the American embassy in Saigon. Less than a year old at the time, she doesn't recall the tumult that resulted in her arrival in the US. But she does remember the 'sea of blond' of Grand Rapids, Michigan, where her family of seven - which included Nguyen's father, grandmother, sister and uncles, but no mother - finally settled as refugees. So surrounded by golden heads she felt she was 'dreaming in wheat', Nguyen sought to assimilate, developing a love affair with American junk food: Pringles, Whoppers and Toll House cookies - fare far more exotic than her grandmother's pho.

It's these campy, preservative-laden American foods that form the metaphor behind this careful, subtle coming-of-age memoir. Often engaging, yet at times hampered by a too-cautious narrative, Stealing Buddha's Dinner is a story about food, family and fitting in.

'As a kid, I couldn't figure out what 'All-American' was supposed to mean,' writes Nguyen. She decides that the answer, in part, is junk food. Devouring potato chips and pop, she 'invested such foods with power and allure', as if eating them could make 'real the dream of the blond-haired girl with a Betty Crocker mother and a kitchen to match'. She memorised words such as 'shake'n'bake', 'pot roast', and 'macaroni helper', feeling that 'the more American foods I ate, the more my desires multiplied, outpacing any interest in Vietnamese food'.

Although her hunger for these foods is never sated, the craving soon plays out against other concerns. Nguyen's father marries and she has trouble adjusting to her strict Latina stepmother, Rosa. The family quickly expands when Rosa's daughter, Crissy, joins them, along with a new baby brother. Nguyen calls Rosa 'mum' and wonders about her own mother, who disappeared from her life when the family left Vietnam.

Rosa prefers to keep silent about private matters, and 'subjects such as Crissy's father, my and Anh's mother, and sex, especially sex, fell into the category of the taboo'. Nguyen seems to have taken her cues from Rosa, brushing against their discord yet clamming up when things get too personal. At times like these, the food metaphor becomes too convenient - a tidy way to hint at emotional friction without delving too deep.

Nguyen sidesteps other issues too, like the tensions in her parents' marriage, which are exacerbated by her father's drinking and gambling. She tells us they get divorced, but not why they continue to live together, remarrying 15 years later. She describes the distance she feels from her sister, Anh: the two 'speak like awkward colleagues', but we have no idea what caused their rift, or their eventual reconnection.

But perhaps the greatest mystery is that of the Nguyen's mother, who reappears when she's in fifth grade. The two don't meet until many years later, and when they do, Nguyen is detached and remote, as watchful as if the mother-daughter reunion is happening to someone else. 'I had always known that whoever my mother was, she was not the stuff of fantasies,' she writes. 'She was, on the contrary, the stuff of too much reality. And I had avoided that reality ... In the end, I realised how easy it had been for my father and Rosa to stay silent, to keep the walls of our family boundaries intact.'

Indeed, it's silence that keeps the narrative pale and subdued. The reader keeps hoping the quiet girl who loves to read in the closet will reveal her emotions. Instead, Nguyen fills major portions of the book reminiscing about 80s pop culture and children's literature, including a long section on Little House on the Prairie.

In 1997, Nguyen travels to Vietnam, visits the house where she once lived and meets a small band of relatives: cousins, great-aunts, great-uncles - and her mother's mother. Hampered by Nguyen's rudimentary Vietnamese, the two awkwardly communicate, with Nguyen feeling not a 'rush of love' but 'regret, exhaustion. I felt like an outsider, and I knew I would always be just that'. Later, visiting distant family in Hanoi, she sits down to a Vietnamese feast of 'crepes stuffed with vegetables, fish heads and herbs floating in a sweet and sour broth, beef stewed with eggs ... and always, for the American girl, a plate of fresh french fries'. In the end, food speaks the message she has always wanted to hear.