The second half of this book, at least for me, was much easier to relate to than the first part. I think I understand the first part better from our class discussions on Tuesday (thank you McKenna) about why Bit would have wanted to separate herself from her Vietnamese origins, and that understanding prompted what I wrote about during the in-class writing, which I am hereby dubbing The Bosco Breadstick Incident and which I promise to expand upon and post this weekend. The second part of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner has, as a couple of people mentioned in class, several moments that are like looking at a reflection of myself that is eerily accurate yet part of someone else’s life, especially the parts about books and giant family gatherings.
Several times in the book, Bit mentions her love of books and reading. This was a bit odd in her family, but not in mine. In school, however, we were eerily similar. She talks about staying quiet and getting good grades so that the teachers would leave her alone; this was also one of my tactics, especially in middle school. I had friends, but they were mostly people I only saw at school. Like Bit, I rarely went to friends’ houses, and they almost never came to mine. I especially hated lunch periods, when my school crammed everyone in one grade into the cafeteria at once. I learned very quickly that the cafeteria was someplace that I did not want to be. I was too ignorant of computers and video games to fit in with the serious geek crowd and not pretty enough or outgoing enough to fit in with the popular crowd. I had no ego to speak of, so using my intelligence to impress my greatness upon my teachers and classmates along with the rest of the teachers’ pets was useless, and I was too independent to fall in with the rest of the misfits who banded together in their shared exclusion from everything. So most days, especially in sixth and seventh grade, I would wolf down my homemade lunch and then I would escape to my school’s library. I had a corner I would sit in, at the junction between the more advanced fantasy and fiction novels (a.k.a. the Harry Potter books, Eragon, things of that nature) and the series aimed at younger kids like Boxcar Children and the series about racehorses that began with the book A Horse Called Wonder. Bit writes about her habit of bringing books with her wherever she went, saying “they were my safety blanket, by stay against boredom, conversation, and interaction” (168). This is exactly what books did for me. With books, I did not have to keep my mouth shut for fear of becoming a character not unlike Hermione in the eyes of my classmates. In the words of the author, “I read to be alone. I read so as not to be alone” (152). Like Bit, I had a need to be something other than what I was, and so I borrowed the lives of the characters in my books.
The author also talks about being highly uncomfortable during the large gatherings with Rosa’s family. This I also understand. Every four years my mother’s family gets together and has a massive reunion, which for me is an exceedingly uncomfortable and slightly frightening event. The author says she and her sister “hesitated, overwhelmed by the great number of people we were suddenly supposed to claim as our aunts, uncles, and cousins” (166). It’s a similar situation with my mother’s family. Firstly, my mother’s family is absolutely enormous, thus the author’s line about suddenly having “all these tías and tíos to keep track of” (167) is something easily relatable on my part, minus the whole language barrier problem. On the one hand, I know I’m biologically related to them somehow, they actually are my aunts, uncles, cousins and so on, which is different from Bit’s position as a relation by marriage. On the other hand, they are people I hardly ever see, and then suddenly for a week every four years they expect me to hug them and be all lovey-dovey-let’s-all-be-one-big-happy-family, and I just can’t do it. I don’t know how to act around people I don’t know—and despite the fact that they are somehow family, I don’t actually know them—so I shut down. Bit tries to explain this phenomenon without success to Rosa, stating, “I couldn’t explain to her that it wasn’t dislike; it was unfamiliarity. Her family didn’t know me as I didn’t know them” (176). At the last one I did exactly what Bit did every time she and her family went to visit Rosa’s parents: I brought a stack of books with me and buried myself in them. I emerged from the cabin I shared with four other women supposedly around my own age but in reality all at least five years older than me for meals and mandatory events like Sunday Brunch or Game Night, and I even made an appearance for Talent Night, which is always a distinctly uncomfortable experience even though I’m never the one performing because my mother’s family is very…boisterous. (Meaning: most of those who are performing are either already drunk, or well on their way to getting drunk.)
Anyway, to wrap up this large amount of nostalgic story-time about my life, the point is that the second half of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner was much easier to relate to, and in my opinion, more interesting. The reader gets to see Bit as she becomes her own person and comes to the realization that “in truth, everything that was real lay right in front of me: oranges after dinner; pomegranates in winter; mangoes cubed off their skin” (247). She relates her own attempts at cha gio to her grandmother’s: “When the mixture was ready I tried to help shape some cha gio: a forkful of the filling on a triangle of banh trang spring roll wrapper; the left and right corners folded in; a quick roll and it all came together, smooth and slim, sealed with a dab of egg yolk” (248), the keyword there being tried. Just like she tried so hard to be white, to be normal, her attempts at cha gio didn’t work. The author says she was “trying to know what her grandmother [had] always known: this amount of pepper, that amount of fish sauce. She had always been there to show me this world without measurements” (248). To me, this means that normalcy is not something that can be measured, but is subjective to each of our own experiences.