Stealing Buddha’s Dinner—a memoir

By Bich Minh Nguyen

Published by Viking | 2007

Perfume Dreams—Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora

Heyday Books, Berkeley, California | 2005

Reviewed by Jane M. McCabe

Bich Minh Nguyen

In my reading life one thing often leads to another. So it was that while visiting an older sister in Montana last October we went to the video store and she insisted on checking out Clint Eastwood’s Grand Torino. In it he plays a lonely, old curmudgeon of a widower, who is gently befriended by the Vietnamese family who lives next door. Grand Torino is the make of car sitting in his garage in pristine condition. The movie is set somewhere in Michigan.

It made such an impression on me that recently, when out of a book to read (a condition that produces anxiety in me) I was scanning the shelves of my local library and found Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, written by a Vietnamese woman, a refugee, who grew up in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Thinking of Grand Torino, I checked it out.

I couldn’t be more pleased with my choice, for Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is a charming and funny memoir by a truly gifted writer. What is rich about this memoir is its reflection on middle-class America in the early 1980’s, particularly what we ate then.

She is enamored by all the junk food this nation produced and its zippy packaging—the Twinkies, ice cream drumsticks, chicken nuggets, Pringles, Purple Cow ice cream, and such.

The book takes its title from Bich Minh and her sister stealing fruit from their grandmother’s altar to the Buddha. Ms. Nguyen paints an endearing portrait of her family—her father who had been an accountant in Viet Nam finds work at the North American Feather Company stuffing pillows—it’s a step down from the work he had in Viet Nam but allows him to partially support his family. He is a charming man who soon enough romances and marries a Mexican American lady named Rosa, thus adding another cultural influence to the mix.

When I returned Stealing Buddha’s Dinner to the library I checked out another memoir by a Vietnamese American writer, Perfume Dreams by Andrew Lam.

Both families fled South Viet Nam in the wake of the oncoming North Vietnamese forces that poured into Saigon in April of 1975  ̶  Bich Minh was eight years old when her father, sister and grandmother boarded one of the last US ships leaving for Guam, and Andrew was eleven years old when he, his mother and siblings boarded a cargo plane also headed for Guam.

His father, a high-ranking general in the South Vietnamese Army, followed some time later. Bich Minh’s family was settled in Grand Rapids, Michigan, whereas Andrew’s in San Francisco.

Both memories are about their experiences living in the United States as Vietnamese immigrant children. Both write with considerable grace and poignancy—about their sorrow over being displaced people who grieve for the country left behind, the prejudice against them in America, the feeling of being an invisible presence, the difficulty their parents had in adjusting (it was easier for them to adjust and learn English than it was for their parents), the change from being middle-class Vietnamese people of standing, to being helplessly dependent on the United States government, and the humiliation they felt for being on the losing side of the war from which they fled. Both miss the lives they had lived in what, through their children’s eyes, now seems like a tropical paradise…

But the tone of these two memoirs differs. Bich Minh’s is more light-hearted and humorous; Andrew’s is darker with more bitterness. First Andrew writes such passages as, “Our side lost, we became exiles, enemies of history. That despite his [referring here to his father] penchant to tell war stories in the evening, restoring lost glory, it was no longer within his power to restore any one of us, least of all himself, to the nobility that was that was once his… If Father was a defeated warrior, who was I? If he was on the loser’s side of history, whose side was I on? Back in Vietnam I was someone who lived in the center of an ongoing stage, surrounded by servants and soldiers, someone whose father could call thunder down from the sky; in America I was a lonely refugee child whose story is but a footnote in the public consciousness. Vietnamese are faceless in Vietnam War movies in American. They wear conical hats and die shouting as blood spurts from their torsos on the silver screen….”

But those words were written before Mr. Lam as an American journalist in 1991 visited the Whitehall detention center in Hong Kong and witnessed first-hand the lot of Vietnamese boat people who were trapped there.

I didn’t know what happened to the people who had continued to flee Vietnam after the Communist takeover. Mr. Lam’s book enlightened me to the sad truth: the first waves of people who fled were accepted into the United States and other countries, but the later ones who fled when the borders were closed were herded into refugee camps in places like Hong Kong, where they remained living in such inhuman and squalid conditions that some committed suicide and most feared being repatriated to Viet Nam where their lot would be no better.

These were the true victims of the war, a people nobody wanted. If they were returned, they would sent to “reeducation camps” where they would be tortured and forced to work as slaves in the NEZ, or New Economic Zone.

So, as hard as were the lives of those who made it to the United States, they were the lucky ones. In reading of this human tragedy—the lives of all those people who are of no use to the world—my own problems paled in comparison. In the course of history many peoples have suffered such displacements…

So, the question remained in my mind, what has happened to Vietnam since 1975, almost 39 years ago? Here I turned to Wikipedia. I’ll insert its summary here:

1976–present: reunification and reforms
“In the aftermath of the war, the government embarked on a mass campaign of collectivization of farms and factories. This caused economic chaos and resulted in triple-digit inflation, while national reconstruction efforts progressed slowly. At least one million South Vietnamese were sent to reeducation camps with an estimated 165,000 prisoners dying. Between 100,000 and 200,000 South Vietnamese were executed; another 50,000 died performing hard labor in "New Economic Zones.” In the late 1970s and early 1980s, millions of people fled the country in crudely built boats, creating an international humanitarian crisis; hundreds of thousands died at sea.
“In 1978, the Vietnamese military invaded Cambodia to remove from power the Khmer Rouge, who had been attacking Vietnamese border villages. Vietnam was victorious, installing a government in Cambodia which ruled until 1989. This action worsened relations with the Chinese, who launched a brief incursion into northern Vietnam in 1979. This conflict caused Vietnam to rely even more heavily on Soviet economic and military aid.

“At the Sixth National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in December 1986, reformist politicians replaced the "old guard" government with new leadership. The reformers were led by 71-year-old Nguyen Van Linh, who became the party's new general secretary. Linh and the reformers implemented a series of free-market reforms – known as Đổi Mới ("Renovation") – which carefully managed the transition from a planned economy to a "socialist-oriented market economy".

“Though the authority of the state remained unchallenged under Đổi Mới, the government encourages private ownership of farms and factories, economic deregulation and foreign investment, (italics mine) while maintaining control over strategic industries. The Vietnamese economy subsequently achieved strong growth in agricultural and industrial production, construction, exports and foreign investment. However, these reforms have also caused a rise in income inequality and gender disparities. “

Mr. Lam has visited Vietnam a number of times in recent years. He says the youth there are largely ignorant of their history; they are as enamored of new technology, new music and Western clothes as are American youth, actually, as are youth the world over. Tragic irony abounds  ̶  wars have been fought and people have died only to have whatever they were about be rendered in time a moot point—communism as an economic system collapses of its own accord. Even if the government of Vietnam is still communistic, private enterprise is encouraged and Vietnam has been rebuilt.

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