Letters 10-17-2016

Here’s The Truth The group Save our Downtown (SOD), which put Proposal 3 on the ballot, is ignoring the negative consequences that would result if the proposal passes. Despite the group’s name, the proposal impacts the entire city, not just downtown. Munson Medical Center, NMC, and the Grand Traverse Commons are also zoned for buildings over 60’ tall...

Keep TC As-Is In response to Lynda Prior’s letter, no one is asking the people to vote every time someone wants to build a building; Prop. 3 asks that people vote if a building is to be built over 60 feet. Traverse City will not die but will grow at a pace that keeps it the city people want to visit and/or reside; a place to raise a family. It seems people in high-density cities with tall buildings are the ones who flock to TC...

A Right To Vote I cannot understand how people living in a democracy would willingly give up the right to vote on an impactful and important issue. But that is exactly what the people who oppose Proposal 3 are advocating. They call the right to vote a “burden.” Really? Since when does voting on an important issue become a “burden?” The heart of any democracy is the right of the people to have their voice heard...

Reasons For NoI have great respect for the Prop. 3 proponents and consider them friends but in this case they’re wrong. A “yes” vote on Prop. 3 is really a “no” vote on..

Republican Observations When the Republican party sends its presidential candidates, they’re not sending their best. They’re sending people with a lot of problems. They’re sending criminals, they’re sending deviate rapists. They’re sending drug addicts. They’re sending mentally ill. And some, I assume, are good people...

Stormy Vote Florida Governor Scott warns people on his coast to evacuate because “this storm will kill you! But in response to Hillary Clinton’s suggestion that Florida’s voter registration deadline be extended because a massive evacuation could compromise voter registration and turnout, Republican Governor Scott’s response was that this storm does not necessitate any such extension...

Third Party Benefits It has been proven over and over again that electing Democrat or Republican presidents and representatives only guarantees that dysfunction, corruption and greed will prevail throughout our government. It also I believe that a fair and democratic electoral process, a simple and fair tax structure, quality health care, good education, good paying jobs, adequate affordable housing, an abundance of healthy affordable food, a solid, well maintained infrastructure, a secure social, civil and public service system, an ecologically sustainable outlook for the future and much more is obtainable for all of us...

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