Author to talk in TC about growing up different
By Anne Stanton 10/12/09
In the memoir Stealing Buddhas 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. Shell 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 Bichs mother, who lived apart from her fathers 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 familys 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 wasnt 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 grandmas ritual of placing fruit before Buddhas 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 Masters 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 couldnt stop staring at her.
Nguyen: Its a rite of passage for a lot of kids. I didnt realize, until I was an adult, that its a rite of passage of all kids to feel that they dont 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: Its so trueits the condition of childhood; you dont 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. Its a common bonding experience we adults can have. I had great access to Vietnamese food, and I didnt want it. What was wrong with me? I dont 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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: Im totally addicted to sour cherries.
NE: You eat them plain?
Nguyen: Yes, I do. I know thats weird.
NE: So how do you cook now? Do you make Vietnamese or American dishes at night?
Nguyen: I dont 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 youd hold your breath every time the teacher was about to call your name. So how do you pronounce your first name?
Nguyen: Its a very common and popular name in Viet Nam, where the real pronunciation is Bic. But throughout my life, everyone has called me Bit. Im further confusing everybody. [laughs]
NE: And how do you pronounce your last name?
Nguyen: Its almost impossible for someone who doesnt 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 wouldnt let me. Theres that. And when I got to legal age, I found out its really complicated. You cant 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 couldnt 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 wasnt 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 didnt 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. Im definitely not shy the way I was as a kid.
NE: Well, Im hoping theres 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 its harder for older people to immigrate here?
Nguyen: Yes, I do, I do. I think its 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. Thats why people say, have your kids learn languages when theyre 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. Its 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 whats more important. The writing is central. Its very, very rare to write for a livingvery rare and very difficult. Its 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 Councils Great Michigan Read, a statewide initiative that encourages Michiganders to read and rediscover authors with ties to Michigan. Tickets are available at treatickets.com.