Letters

Letters 09-15-2014

Stop The Games On Campus

Four head coaches – two at U of M and two at MSU – get a total of $13 million of your taxpayer dollars each year. Their staffs get another $11 million...

The Truth About Fatbikes

While we appreciate the fatbike trail coverage, the quote from the article below is exactly what we demonstrated not to be true in most cases last season...

Man Has Environmental Responsibility

I tend to agree with Thomas Kachadurian (“Playing God,” Sept. 8) that we should not interfere with the power of nature by deciding what is “native” and what is not. Man usually does what is better for man (or so we believe), hence the survival and population growth of our species...

The Bush & Obama Facts

Don Turner’s letter to the editor on 8/25/14 stated that there has never been a more corrupt, dishonest, etc. set of politicians in the White House. He states no facts, but here are a few...

Ban Pesticides

I grew up downstate in a neighborhood without pesticides. I was always very healthy. Living here, I have become ill. So I did my research and found out a lot about these poison agents called pesticides (herbicides, fungicides, insecticides, chemical fertilizers, etc) that are being spread throughout this community, accumulating in our air, water and soil...

Respect for Presidents?

Recently we read the Letter to the Editor that encouraged us to stop characterizing President Obama as anything other than an upstanding, moral, inspiring “first Black President”. The author would have us think that the rancor in the press, media and public is misguided. And, believe it or not, this rancor is a “glaring exception to … unwritten patriotic rule” of historically supporting all previous presidents...


Home · Articles · News · Features · Looking from the outside in
. . . .

Looking from the outside in

Anne Stanton - October 12th, 2009
Looking from the
Outside In
Author to talk in TC about growing up different

By Anne Stanton 10/12/09

In the memoir Stealing Buddha’s Dinner, Bich Minh Nguyen portrays herself as a shy, but keenly observant little girl, often bewildered by the world around her. Now at age 35, she is an author and associate professor, with speaking engagements across the country. She’ll be here in Traverse City on Wednesday, October 14, at the City Opera House to talk about the struggles of growing up in Grand Rapids with a funny name and a funnier religion--at least to everyone else.
Her story begins in Saigon the night before the city fell in 1975. Amid the rocket fire, her father, grandmother and uncles fled with eight-month-old Bich and her two-year-old sister, Anh. They left without a note for Bich’s mother, who lived apart from her father’s family, and about whom Bich often wondered while growing up.
The family ultimately landed in a barbed-wire refugee camp in Arkansas, where they stayed for months before being allowed to move to Grand Rapids. They had five dollars and a knapsack of clothes. Bich found the city strange and cold, and gradually became painfully self-conscious of her family’s differences. As she grew up in this conservative and cliquish city of tall blue-eyed, blond Dutch descendants, the diminutive Bich felt mocked and treated as an outsider. Many of her schoolmates and neighbors came from the strict Christian reformed faith and acted with disgust when she told them she wasn’t interested in their God.
Her award-winning memoir relies heavily on the metaphor of food to express her longing to fit in. She began to look askance at the green sticky rice cakes her grandmother would serve, and even her grandma’s ritual of placing fruit before Buddha’s statue. She deeply envied her friends for their Chef Boyardee meals served up by stay-at-home moms, who spent their days dusting and mopping floors.
Nguyen, who earned a Master’s in Fine Arts at the University of Michigan, has just published her first novel, Short Girls, which draws on many elements of her life. She now lives in Chicago and West Lafayette. She teaches creative writing and Asian literature at Purdue University. Express reached her by phone last week for an interview:

NE: Your story is largely about an outsider looking in. Interestingly, in the daily paper today, there was an article by a girl who moved to this area from Chicago. Her trauma begins at snack time when she took out her veggie sushi to eat. The kids couldn’t stop staring at her.
Nguyen: It’s a rite of passage for a lot of kids. I didn’t realize, until I was an adult, that it’s a rite of passage of all kids to feel that they don’t fit in, and their belief that everyone else has these happy, really wonderful lives.
It took the maturity of adulthood to know that everyone else goes through this in one way or another. … My instinct is that the feeling of wanting to belong is pretty universal. It was a pretty gradual process to realize that everyone is different. The point is to embrace it, rather than reject it.

NE: When I read your book, I thought about my own embarrassment over food. I grew up with seven brothers and sisters, and baked about 12 loaves of bread a week. I yearned for Wonder Bread sandwiches at lunch. I remember even throwing my sandwiches away. Pretty ridiculous.
Nguyen: It’s so true—it’s the condition of childhood; you don’t appreciate all the good things your family has to give to you.

NE: Do you hear this same kind of confessional in many of your interviews?
Nguyen: I do, I definitely do. It’s a common bonding experience we adults can have. I had great access to Vietnamese food, and I didn’t want it. What was wrong with me? … I don’t think I had a bad childhood. I think it was pretty normal. I think what it means is as a kid you have to figure out your identity.

NE: With the frequent description of food in the memoir, I wondered if you were an overweight child?
Nguyen:: No, I wasn’t actually. As much as I wanted to eat all this junk food, my mother (a second-generation Mexican-American woman whom her father began dating when Bich was four) was sensible enough not to buy it. We watched the commercials and salivated, but we didn’t have much access to it.

NE: I totally identified with your love of Pringles.
Nguyen: They are very magical.

NE: Any food you love in Traverse City?
Nguyen: I’m totally addicted to sour cherries.

NE: You eat them plain?
Nguyen: Yes, I do. I know that’s weird.

NE: So how do you cook now? Do you make Vietnamese or American dishes at night?
Nguyen: I don’t cook Vietnamese very much. Most of what I cook is in the Alice Waters tradition.

NE: In your memoir, it seems that reading was your childhood salvation.
Nguyen: Definitely. I read a lot of books. They were a huge refuge for me. An important one was the The Woman Warrior by Maxine Hong Kingston – published in the ’70s. She grew up as a daughter of Chinese immigrants in San Francisco. That was published sometime ago, and it was a big inspiration.
I also remember reading The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros (a coming-of-age memoir) in college and how it contributed to my thinking. “Oh yea, I get it now. Everyone has his or her own experiences, and yet there are similarities between all of us.”

NE: Another problem, of course, is that Americans fumble with foreign names. You wrote about how you’d hold your breath every time the teacher was about to call your name. So how do you pronounce your first name?
Nguyen: It’s a very common and popular name in Viet Nam, where the real pronunciation is Bic. But throughout my life, everyone has called me Bit. I’m further confusing everybody. [laughs]

NE: And how do you pronounce your last name?
Nguyen: It’s almost impossible for someone who doesn’t speak Vietnamese to say it. Most Americans just say “Win.”

NE: As a kid, did you ever fantasize about changing your name? I think every kid does that.
Nguyen: My parents wouldn’t let me. There’s that. And when I got to legal age, I found out it’s really complicated. You can’t just fill out a form. You have to go to court, pay all these fees, put an ad in the newspaper. I guess I was too lazy. Plus I couldn’t find a name I liked.

NE: Speaking of the desire to belong, do you think television has an undue influence on making people feel like outsiders?
Nguyen: Growing up, I was really enamored with commercials. I loved commercials. They were much more uniform back in the 1980s of the families they portrayed. There wasn’t a lot of diversity going on. They tended to promote a pretty standard nuclear family kind of model. I took these commercials literally. “Oh wow, this is how people should live!” They had these wonderful cozy kitchens. Mothers making all this food, children happily enjoying the Hamburger Helper. “Hamburger Helper helps her make a great meal!” The woman is always the one making the meal; it was an idealized view. I didn’t realize they were just getting us to buy what they were selling.

NE: What probably had made you a great writer was your shy nature, which allowed you to observe so much. Are you still shy?
Nguyen: Am I still shy? I think, yes and no. I’m definitely not shy the way I was as a kid.

NE: Well, I’m hoping there’s a big audience for you. Is it nerve wracking to speak before a crowd?
Nguyen: No not at all! In high school, I joined the debate team. I recognized that I needed to be more courageous in terms of speaking, and that was very helpful. That was one of the best things I did in high school.

NE: Your memoir was also, obviously, the story of your dad and uncles trying to cope. Do you think it’s harder for older people to immigrate here?
Nguyen: Yes, I do, I do. I think it’s much harder for adult immigrants than for children. Children can adapt more easily. Adults have to adapt, but learning a new language is really hard. That’s why people say, have your kids learn languages when they’re really little. As an adult, it takes a lot of work, a lot of time. Trying to make a living, raise kids, just to get by, and trying to learn a new language is tremendously difficult.

NE: And the whole effort to make new friends.
Nguyen: Oh yeah, they had to literally start over their lives in a completely different and strange new environment. I often imagine what it was like leaving the country. You have five minutes to get your stuff together, go, and never come back. It’s unimaginable to me. It was so brave. And adults did it for their children.

NE: So many people aspire to get their work published. Any advice for them?
Nguyen: Publishing is nice, but the writing process is what’s more important. The writing is central. It’s very, very rare to write for a living—very rare and very difficult. It’s so daunting. I would guess I have been always writing for writing, for its own sake, rather than writing for a living.

The October 14 presentation at the Opera House is $10, or free to students with ID. Nguyen will be available to sign copies of her book after her talk. Her talk is sponsored by the Michigan Humanities Council’s Great Michigan Read, a statewide initiative that encourages Michiganders to read and rediscover authors with ties to Michigan. Tickets are available at treatickets.com.

 
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