From Pho to Fast Food, an Immigrant's Tale In April 1975, Bich Minh Nguyen and her family fled Saigon and settled in Grand Rapids, Mich. Her memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner, captures what it was like to be Vietnamese in the conservative, largely white town — and the role that food played in her assimilation.
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From Pho to Fast Food, an Immigrant's Tale

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From Pho to Fast Food, an Immigrant's Tale

From Pho to Fast Food, an Immigrant's Tale

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It's a familiar tale in literature - an immigrant struggles with assimilation. Some find acceptance through music or sport. Others find solace in hard work.

Vietnamese immigrant Bich Minh Nguyen thought cultural salvation would come through junk food. Her memoir, "Stealing Buddha's Dinner," describes growing up in what she calls a tall sea of blonde.

Her family fled Saigon in 1975 and wound up in Grand Rapids, Michigan, a city filled with tight-knit Dutch and German families. America was disorienting, but the food, Nguyen says, was absolutely dazzling.

Ms. BICH MINH NGUYEN (Author): For one thing, the packaging is so shiny. So whenever my father would come home from work he would bring some new American item, bubble gum or candy. And they were just the same thing as toys for my sister and me and they held this exotic appeal.

At home, we ate Vietnamese food that my grandmother cooked, things like shrimp curry and pho, Vietnamese soup, spring rolls, things like that, and that was very ordinary. But you know, Ho-Hos and Twinkies and all that junk food, that made up an exotic landscape and I wanted to participate in that landscape.

NORRIS: You describe, for instance, the pies at McDonald's as being deep-fried and gorgeously oblong and brown and burning hot as they slid out of their thin cardboard sleeves. It's not just the obsession. It's the way you write about it. If you have your book, I would love if you could actually read from a portion of the book for us.

Ms. NGUYEN: Sure.

NORRIS: It's a section of the book where you're describing all of the different meals that you wish that you could have.

Ms. NGUYEN: And that was back when McDonald's really did deep-fry their pies.

"For I could hardly name all the different meals I wished to have - dinners of sirloin tips and Shake 'n Bake, beef stroganoff and shepherd's pie, Gino's pizza and thermoses of Spaghetti-O's, great squares of Jello, bouncing through the air as they did in the commercials, bundt cakes, chocolate parfaits.

"I wanted all the dinners from 'Little House on the Prairie,' all those biscuits and salt pork, grease seeping into the fried potatoes. I wanted every packaged and frozen dinner from the grocery store. Noodle Roni, Hamburger Helper, Hungry Man, Stouffer's, Swanson and Banquet."

NORRIS: In your childhood mind, did you actually think that if you could just eat some of this food that you might be transformed into a real American, an all American in some way?

Ms. NGUYEN: I did, which is really comical to think about now. But I did. I would want to surround myself with the popsicles and everything that had a brand name that every other kid on the playground would recognize. If I surrounded myself with those things then I could, you know, ignore who I really was.

NORRIS: You know, you were writing that as an outsider trying to tell an immigrant's tale of a girl's desire to fit in. On the other side of it, seems that the flipside of that coin is your stepmother, Rosa, who's also an immigrant - proud, doesn't really want to fit in and doesn't give in at all to your desires to have the most popular junk food or all the, give in to your desires to buy what you're seeing in all the commercials that are on television. You're really hard on her in this book.

Ms. NGUYEN: Well, part of the issue for me was that my stepmother, who entered our lives when I was about three years old, my stepmother is Mexican American. And at the time, you know, when I growing up I thought of her as someone who was blocking my desires to become, you know, what I thought of as a true American.

Now I take it differently. And what I was trying to convey is how misguided I was and not understanding, you know, what she taught me about education and what she taught me about migrant workers and ideas and justice and so on, equality. I have sort of ignored those when I was a kid, but now I have those lessons and now that I see what she was trying to teach me.

NORRIS: Are you still obsessed with American food?

Ms. NGUYEN: Not in the same way. I only see that the junk food as having camp value. I'm interested in it. I'm interested in how culture is created through products and commercials. But I'm not as obsessed with it anymore in that I don't have to eat it all the time, although sometimes the craving does strike.

NORRIS: Bich, thank you very much.

Ms. NGUYEN: Thank you.

NORRIS: Bich Minh Nguyen is the author of "Stealing Buddha's Dinner," a memoir.

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