Book Review: "Stealing Buddha's Dinner"

After a too-long absence from the blogosphere due to the lack of home Internet access, I'm glad to say I'm back and ready to write.

I was going to toss around some thoughts about President Obama's speech on education from earlier today, but in keeping with the spirit of this blog, let me deviate to something I've been thinking about since last night.

A couple of weeks ago while editing the Sunday books page at work, I stumbled across a review of a local Vietnamese author, Bich Minh Nguyen, who just released her second book in two years.

Her second was a novel called “Short Girls.” As I read the review, I noticed her first work was not a novel at all, but a memoir titled “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” about her family's flight to Grand Rapids in 1975 on the heels of the Vietnam War. The title alone was enough to intrigue me, so (as soon as I had finished editing, of course) I immediately scouted it out on

I just finished reading it last night. It wasn't the kind of book that made me leap for joy; it was more of a thought-provoker. Nguyen's writing is by turns concise, conversational, emotional, comedic, descriptive and understated — yes, it can be all those things — but it left me so sad, hungering for something elusive she never quite served.

And that is ironic, because food was her primary narrative tool. All of the chapter headings (Pringles, Dairy Cone, Toll House Cookies, Ponderosa, etc.) and all of her primary childhood memories revolved around experiencing new foods, from her native Vietnamese staples, to the campy American packaged fats and sweets she looked upon as delicacies, to the Mexican variety her stepmother introduced.

It made me sick to read the lists and lists of food she wove into every chapter as she described how each family she met made their food differently.

But it wasn’t until today I began to pinpoint the exact cause of my uneasiness. When Nguyen arrived in Grand Rapids, she took in her first doses of two things: Christianity and capitalism. The “upward mobility” of her Christian neighbors in the perfect house with the perfect yard and the Stouffer's insta-meals became inextricably linked, in her mind, to the meaning of Christianity. All she saw was a striving toward perfectionism and success, and it both fascinated and repulsed her.

The result: She rejected Christianity and embraced Buddhism even more fully.

I finished the last page feeling so utterly sad that her neighbors, so terrified by the Nguyen's living room altar to Buddha that little Jennifer Vander Wal was not allowed to go inside, completely missed the fact that this precious little Vietnamese girl, who wanted to understand Christianity, turned away from it because of what she saw in them.

In the book’s quintessential passage, Nguyen decides to steal a piece of the fruit her grandmother set out as an offering to Buddha, and she takes it with her and hides in the neighbor’s tree while they are away from home. Here is how she describes that memory:

As I sat in the Vander Wals’ tree, Christianity seemed about as real to me as the Agapaopolis (a Sunday School musical in which Jennifer had a role). It seemed as distant from my person as blond hair and blue eyes. It also seemed manipulative, what with all that fire and hell. When Jennifer talked about the Lord it was with equal parts love and fear. Noi (Bich’s paternal grandmother) didn’t fear, or even really love, Buddha. She didn’t worship him; she gave him her respect. … When she bowed and chanted she wasn’t praying out of fear, or to save herself, or to ask for something good to happen for her. The Christians were God’s minions, but Noi was not Buddha’s.

It is entirely possible, even very likely, that the Vander Wals were sincere, well-meaning Christians. But if so, how is it possible the major impressions left on young Nguyen were of a twisted, subservient Christianity, manipulative in its intent, and primarily connected to consumer culture?

It’s possible because the things we value — the things we work for and guard carefully — these are the things we actually love, regardless of the message we think we are projecting. And if the things that frighten us most are people different from ourselves, as with the Vander Wal’s perpetual terror of and hatred for the Nguyens, then maybe it’s time to step back and reevaluate if we really know the heart of Jesus.

Is He one whose selfishness turns away little children? Is He one who advocated climbing the social and economic ladder above all else? No.

Thank-you, Bich Minh Nguyen, for painting such a vivid picture of the things that break my Savior’s heart. May I never forget.

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Pam Elmore said...

Thanks for this review, Rachel.

She definitely missed the real message of Christianity, associating it so closely with American consumerism.

But it seems what repulsed her (if I'm reading your summary right) was their display of legalism and works-based religion. The talk of hell and fire and being God's minion is certainly ridiculous out of context of the basis of the gospel message: we are sinners in need of a savior.

Rachel E. Watson said...

She did miss the message, it's true, and I think that was partly her neighbors' poor portrayal of it, and partly -- mostly -- her own heart being unwilling and eyes wanting to stay blind. I don't excuse Nguyen at all... but neither do I excuse her neighbors, who, as called out ones, were given more, and therefore had more responsibility.