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Bich Minh Nguyen writes about the intermingling of cultural desire through food in her memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. The obsessions with unobtainable foods and everyday foods come across clearly in indexes of American junk foods and experientially local family foods. Nguyen’s childhood – at least as indicated in her memoir – was filled with a cross-cultural desire that at first was met by her father, yet later restrained by her stepmother Rosa. Although this restraint of junk food induced a certain resentment, Rosa also introduced her family’s foods to the Nguyen family. Food experience and culture are intimately linked to common family experiences of mealtimes and celebrations. And as with any childhood, Nguyen was exposed to desires outside her control, as well as culture to which she had to adjust. Unlike Americans generations deep in the U.S., however, Nguyen’s father did not have the cultural awareness to ground her new experiences, as many of them were new to him, as well. Nguyen’s ambivalence for this liminal state of being pulled in two (or even three) cultural directions is represented by the nostalgia with which she writes about the various food obsessions she had as a child. As many American writers, Nguyen writes about her obsession and her family, creating a space in the literary tradition for her multivalent existence in a multi-cultural immigrant family.
Nguyen writes nostalgically in several places throughout the memoir, always focusing on the experience of food in relation to her identity. The yearning to fit in with other children, to become fully American, is highlighted in her litany of candy brands (50-51). Important to note is that this litany comes after a meditation on being unlike the other kids, and she begins it with, “I wanted what the other kids had,” as if opening a prayer (50). The words “memorized,” “dream,” and “knew” take center stage, a mix of grounded and ethereal states that reflect her in-between place in America. She dreams of these sugary salty snacks, willing to literally become what she eats: American, the same as other children she interacts with on a daily basis.
Nguyen writes nostalgically about some of her home-culture’s food practices as well, especially in relation to the spiritual habits of Buddhism. As in Keller’s Comfort Woman, food has a special link to spirituality, and though Nguyen’s grandmother Noi executes those practices, she never really explains to Bich why the fruit is offered to the Buddha first. This is in parallel to the practices of meditation that Bich observes, yet never truly understands as a child. Nguyen’s nostalgia here is limited to that of observing the ceremony and the experience of eating the fruit after a few days on the altar. She writes in memory of the experience, “when Noi took up two pieces of fruit…we held onto them like lifeboats…smoothing the varnish of the apples…cradling the mottled green pears in our arms” as if they were babies (19). This reverence for the altar’s offerings displays a respect for the sisters’ spiritual background, but not necessarily a full comprehension.
Nguyen continues in this vein, offering readers a child’s perspective of the assimilation process into a new culture through food. She writes of the themed restaurants her family goes to, the large celebrations at Christmas and Thanksgiving with Rosa’s family, and the dismal experience of “American food” at the Ponderosa and Denny’s. It is this dismal experience at Denny’s that finally begins to unveil the value of the different food cultures Nguyen must participate in with her family. She writes that in this “year of change…I thought I would never get tired of Denny’s, but after only a few weeks I grew irritated,” beginning to display the disillusionment she would eventually feel about cultural assimilation (200). Once they moved to what Rosa described as a “dream house,” Nguyen found that “the definition of family, of what it meant and determined, had been shifted” (209, 212). Even the initially wonderful excursions to Ponderosa turned into a “gristly lump” that “filled [her] with sadness” (212). Despite the eventual full realization of “American” in her parents’ divorce, Nguyen continues to write through the struggle of acculturation as though she still does not feel at one with society around her. In fact, however, her experiences with diverse food cultures and her inability to move out of the liminal existence is perhaps more American than she realizes. Her nostalgia for childhood and the magic of so many different foods mirrors that of many American memoirists, but her multivalent, multicultural experiences explore unique territories of America.
Nguyen, Bich Minh. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner. New York: Penguin, 2007. Print.
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