It’s strange to read a memoir about a young girl who feels like an outsider and to realize that when the author speaks about the group that left her out throughout childhood, she is almost literally referring to you. As I read the first nine chapters of Bich Minh Nguyen’s Stealing Buddha’s Dinner this weekend, that’s what I felt like. I was the insider Nguyen described—she was the outsider. The beginning half of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner resonated with me on a very personal level because it outlined almost exactly how “someone like me” could make “different” children feel at a young age.
My childhood was what I considered “normal.” I grew up in Holland, Michigan, a small, Dutch, Christian-Reformed, West Michigan lakeshore town. I ate Pringles, prayed with my family before dinner, and always went to school with a cold lunch prepared by one of my parents with a little note tucked inside. I remember my mom making banana bread and Jiffy corn bread and Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookies on a regular basis. My dad sometimes took me to McDonalds for an “Egg McMuffin” or chicken nuggets. We even participated in the strange Dutch tradition of, as Nguyen writes, “dredging every piece” of dinner in applesauce.
Nguyen writes of an immigrant childhood filled with Vietnamese food, fascination with Americanism, and cultural tension. She writes of moving to a West Michigan town like mine and having many Dutch, Christian-Reformed neighbors. She longs for Pringles, Jiffy bread, Nestlé Toll House chocolate chip cookies, and McDonalds’ fast food. While she ate lunch from Styrofoam trays in elementary school, she remarks that the implicit lunchtime judgment was that, “if you had to get lunch from the cafeteria, then your mom obviously didn’t care enough.” American traditions like prayer and applesauce at dinner make her uncomfortable.
The contrast between my childhood and Nguyen’s seems remarkable to me, but I know that many other young girls in the Midwest probably experienced the various American customs I’ve listed and that Nguyen describes in her memoir. The connection seems deeper for me though because my dad and his family moved from the Netherlands to a small house on Baldwin Street in Grand Rapids, Michigan in 1956. When Nguyen and her family moved into a house about two blocks down the street in 1975, my dad was a sophomore in college, but the rest of his family still lived on Baldwin in the same neighborhood as the Nguyen family. “I know exactly where the house was,” he said when I asked him about his neighbor.
My dad said he doesn’t remember ever meeting a young girl named Bich. Their age difference and the Nguyen family’s move from Baldwin must have kept them from ever knowing each other. I know, however, that what she writes about her childhood in Grand Rapids must be true. I grew up listening to bedtime stories about all of my dad’s Dutch friends on Baldwin Street. I know that applesauce on meat was a regular dinnertime occurrence in those households because I picked up the trick from my grandparents and my dad. I know that most of the children were blond haired and blue eyed because my dad and his brothers and sisters and their friends were too. Life on Baldwin seems to be just as Nguyen describes it.
While it must have been excruciatingly difficult for Nguyen and her sister to grow up in a neighborhood where everyone was so different from them, I also know that it was difficult for my dad and his brothers and sisters too. I can’t seem to shake the reminder that although the similarities between my family and their Dutch neighbors made Nguyen feel so outcast, my dad’s family was an immigrant family just like hers. Life wasn’t easy for them either. They didn’t speak English well when they started school, they didn’t understand all of the American customs, they were poor, and their parents made foods like banket and oliebollen instead of muffins and chocolate chip cookies.
According to my dad, he and his siblings assimilated to American culture relatively quickly and I’m sure it was helpful for them to have so many Dutch friends nearby. By the time the Nguyen family moved into the neighborhood, the Donk family and all of the other new Dutch immigrants on the street must have seemed as American as anyone else. It’s strange to think that Nguyen could be describing the Donks and their neighbors throughout the book, but I also think this is an important lesson for me. I’m sure that when many of the Mexican immigrants in my elementary school classes moved to Holland, they felt the same way about my friends and I as Nguyen describes feeling about my aunts and uncles and their neighbors in the book. I’d never given this a single thought before. I don’t know whether this new connection is something I should be ashamed of, but I do think it’s important.