Off-topic Serenity quotes aside; the first nine chapters of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner were a bit of an eye-opener. I’m not one who usually reads memoirs, so it amazes me that a complete stranger has placed a large portion of her life and what has made her into the person she is out in words for anyone to read. It strikes me as a quiet but incredibly brave declaration of the fact that she knows with confidence both who she is and where she comes from. It’s as if she took this idea of American perfection through food, kidnapped it, and made it uniquely hers, like she does after she and her sister trash Jennifer’s room and she steals the cookies. Nguyen writes that “no one had noticed the missing cookies, and my sister and I had said nothing. As I pedaled toward Sienna Street I cherished that secret. I knew the cookies would stay with me forever” (71). What fascinates me most about this book however, is the fact that it confuses me. It’s not often I meet a book that can do that.
Perhaps it’s nothing more than the fact that the gap between her generation and my generation has given me a different outlook on food and the way society uses food to help interpret things such as social and monetary standing, or maybe it has to do with the family environment I was raised in, I don’t know. The point is that while I understand what the author is talking about, what she is saying does not make sense to me. Nguyen states of her elementary school lunch room that “a student was measured by the contents of her lunch bag, which displayed status, class, and parental love” (75). I remember similar elements in my own elementary school, but I never really gave it much thought until now. During that time I was confident that what I had in my lunch—as it rarely contained anything packaged in plastic and made at a factory—not only was better for me nutritionally speaking, but also in taste. Don’t get me wrong, I was jealous of the other kids because they got things in their lunches like Little Debbie brownies or Hostess cupcakes, but it was more along the lines of admiring a friend’s mint-condition vanilla-colored 1970 Corvette with leather interiors (ignore me while I drool at that image) while at the same time knowing that your own four-door sedan is safer, more reliable, and gets two and a half times as many miles to the gallon. I think this has a lot to do with how I was raised to view food, which came mostly through my mother.
Unlike Nguyen, I can remember being so small that I had to use a step-stool to reach the counter while my mother taught me how to make bread from scratch. My mother taught me to appreciate the process that is good food, rather than just the product itself. Nguyen has some of the same connection with her grandmother Noi, although less so because of the differing tradition of her culture that dictates the eldest members of the family provides food for the younger members who in turn work for the money that buys the ingredients for more food. So while there was less emphasis on the process, there is a very large appreciation for the final outcome. For example I love the way Nguyen phrased it when she describes what happened when she and her sister took the rice cakes to school for Tet. Their teacher reprimands them, “and just like that, [the teacher] took the banh chung away from [Nguyen and her sister]. We knew then that they would be going to the Land of Sharing, of white people looking and declining. The cakes would grow crusty and stale under the recoiling gazes of our classmates. They would be ruined by the staring” (102). This is similar to something my mother is fond of saying: “I didn’t make it to look at.” However, this brings me back to being confused, because I still don’t understand how someone could love foods that are so bizarrely unfamiliar to them as opposed to the dishes they know. It is an entirely foreign notion to me that a person could want to fit in to a new place so badly that they would give up everything about their old way of life. This could just be my born-an-American-citizen bias showing itself, but to me familiar things—especially home food—have always been comfort mechanisms, things that give new parts of life something to hang onto in a world that might not always be a happy, welcoming place.