“We are people without a country…Until we walk out of that gate…And then we are American.”
I want to write like Bich Minh Nguyen. Her memoir, Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is gorgeous in its detail, but economical in its language. Nguyen addresses the push and pull of the immigrant experience. Many refugees come to these shores escaping horrific conditions in their home environment. Nguyen is no different – she escapes Vietnam with her father, sister, and grandmother as it fell to the Communists in 1975.
In her journey to find belonging she uses food as a metaphor for identity, “Real people ate hamburgers and casseroles and brownies. And I wanted to be a real person, or at least make others believe I was one.” Nguyen struggles to fit in as she watches her older sisters welcomed into popular circles. She blames her short stature, large glasses, and unattractive hair as she seeks solace in books. She finds friends in characters from her favorites and often cannot even haul all the books she wants from the public library.
One of the most poignant lines for me as an introverted bookish-type growing up was, “I read to be alone. I read so as not to be alone.” It made me remember all those times I would climb the tree in my backyard with my latest book and lose myself in that world. I found friends in Bilbo Baggins and Jo march. I found peace in their lives away from my own.
I picked this book up for two reasons. First, I was writing an essay for Write or Die Tribe about the Intersections of Food Writing & Race. You can check the article out here. Second, I was accepted to the Key West Literary Seminar & Workshops, and specifically to Nguyen’s memoir workshop. I wanted to read her work before we started working on mine.
I really loved this book. Even though it is a memoir about a Vietnamese refugee trying to find her place in America, it felt personal. Every awkward little girl is looking for belonging, and can find a kindred soul in Bich.