Stealing Buddha’s Dinner Summary

Bich Minh Nguyen

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner

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Stealing Buddha’s Dinner Summary

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Stealing Buddha’s Dinner is an autobiographical account of author Bich Minh Nguyen, told in the form of a story – it tells the story of her childhood in America as a young immigrant. Bich’s family fled Saigon in the mid-1970s, on the same day Communism took over, and because Bich’s mother was not at home when they fled, the family was forced to leave her behind. Bich, her sister Anh, their father, their grandmother Noi, and a couple of her uncles all traveled together, and finally arrive in Grand Rapids, Mich. Almost four thousand other refugees from Vietnam also fled with them, and settled in Grand Rapids, too.

Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, the title, points to the fact that beneath the statue of Buddha, it is a common practice to leave delicious foods for him, on the metal plate that holds his statue – foods that the Buddha would never partake of. Food and eating is a very major theme in this book, and not only as story drive, but also as a symbol of what a young Vietnamese immigrant views as American freedoms. Bich partook in a lot of American food, things she craved constantly, like Pringles and Doritos and other products like mac & cheese, and it didn’t help that they were constantly broadcasting ads for them on the television in her home, another thing she wasn’t accustomed to, but grew to love. Bich believed that to be a real American, she had to indulge in American foods such as the ones in those TV ads.

Bich was very quiet in school, and liked to blend into the backdrop. She did her work, achieved good marks and did everything in her power not to make waves or be noticed in any way. She indulged in reading, which was her main pastime when she wasn’t in school or studying, and slowly found herself unhappy when she would compare herself to the other American kids in her school, especially since all she wanted to be was normal. She likened the different worlds of her classmates and hers as “a world of Toll House cookies” and “a world of green, sticky rice cakes,” respectively, another fascinating description of her surroundings that is based on food.

Despite her efforts to fit in, and be part of the norm, the fact that she was small, clearly Vietnamese, and wore glasses was more than enough to have her stick out in a sea of white Dutch-descended Protestants.

As she grew up, she gained a stepmother: Rosa, a Latin woman who also brought with her a daughter, Chrissie, who were now part of the family. Bich was intimidated by Chrissie, as she was more casual and wiser in every way. Along with this new addition, Bich’s father and Rosa decided to have a child of their own, Vinh, giving Bich a baby brother to look after and take care of – this also led to a very congested and loud home, and did not make things easy as far as family was concerned. Bich found herself forced to take the role of a responsible adult as Rosa was a strict woman, but was busy with the all the other kids, and her father was always out, either working into the night, or partying with some friends, similar to Bich’s uncles, who were also always out, working hard or playing hard, making Bich envious of their freedom. Family life became even tougher when Chrissie took a liking to Anh, and Bich found herself rejected again, and unable to fit in, even in her own family. Bich finally sought comfort from her grandmother Noi, who was always at home, never really learned English or acclimated to the foreigner’s life, and it let Bich feel like she belonged.

The more Bich learned about her classmates, the more it bothered her that she wasn’t accepted, and that she didn’t even understand what it meant to be an American, since every person she met had an even more different life than hers. Bich’s stepmother worked full time, but all the kids in her school had mothers that stayed home. The same kids brought with them homemade food, cooked by those mothers, which only confused Bich more as she expected American food to be like the Pringles and the Kraft Mac & Cheese she sees on television ads. All the kids in her school wore expensive clothes and had bigger houses and their own rooms, and every night Bich would climb into her bunk bed, in her small shared room, in her small house, and would sneak in some American junk food with her, either hiding it in Noi’s room or in her own, and she would sit on the top bunk, eat snacks and read, allowing her a slight preview into what it felt like to be an American as well as a moment of peace and silence from her own despair.

Although mention of Bich’s mother is infrequent in the book, it is said that when she graduates high school and begins university she finally meets her mother; she was too young to remember her when they fled Saigon. This brings up feelings of painful yet jubilant realization, seeing a part of her past, causing her to think back to her loneliness as it emphasizes all the feelings of something missing, growing up in a world that she clearly doesn’t belong in. And despite the fact that this honest and poignant recount of a young girl’s immigrant life will bring a tear to a reader’s eye, it is definitely a piece to indulge in, allowing readers to appreciate their culture, and think deeply about those whose culture is often more of a burden and a feeling of exclusion, than anything else.