"Food is the thing, sometimes the only thing, that the immigrant will not give up," says Bich Minh Nguyen. Arriving in Michigan in 1975 at the age of 8 months, Nguyen says she never thought of herself as Vietnamese and yet there was plenty to remind her in tall, blond, Dutch Reformed Grand Rapids, that she was not, as she put it, "real people."
So from an early age, Nguyen tried to fight her way into Americanness through food. She was profoundly impressed by the revelation that "you are what you eat." She begged her stepmother for Beefaroni, pot pies and, best of all, the boxed lasagna kit from Chef Boyardee. "I wanted to savor new food, different food, white food," she writes in her memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner. "I was convinced I was falling far behind on becoming an American, and then what would happen to me? I would be an outcast the rest of my days."
Buddha's Dinner is a sometimes amusing, sometimes painful, sometimes revolting reminder of the role played by food in the materialism of the '80s. Many of the foods that the child Bich (pronounced bit) longed for then are still with us: cream-filled wafer cookies dyed pink and orange, Filet-o-Fish, Pop Tarts, Hamburger Helper. And Pringles: an engineering triumph in which every chip looks and tastes exactly like every other chip.
Now a teacher of creative writing at Purdue University, Nguyen tells Metro Times, "I thought that Pringles were a great embodiment of American success and happiness. When I looked at Pringles, I thought of happiness. You could be normal, like everyone else. They were a treasure everyone wanted them. When I had them it made me feel that I belonged.
"The way they are shaped is so magical. How did they get them in that shape? A potato was transformed into this magical, delicate creation." Equally fascinated by the Pringles can, she writes, "Mr. Pringles was like Santa Claus ... a big white man, gentle of manner, whose face signaled a bounty of provisions."
Without a lot of money for the other signifiers of assimilation, Nguyen found that "in the school lunchroom, you could get by status-wise by having a certain kind of candy bar or potato chips. I would've liked to focus on clothes, but they were so much more expensive. Food was the most accessible thing to me."
And so she led a double life: craving Trix, Luden's wild-cherry cough drops and Carnation Instant Breakfast, and yet also profoundly comforted by the pho (oxtail noodle soup with star anise) and cha gio (spring rolls) deftly made by her adored grandmother, Noi.
"I don't know any immigrant that isn't attached to the food of his or her country of origin," says Nguyen. "You can have a house and clothes and everything that looks 'American,' but inside the house, what you eat that really speaks to your identity, what you really are and what you long for."
Did pho and cha gio symbolize a safe place, but at the same time a risky place because they had to be kept hidden from "real people"?
"I would never have talked about those foods with my girlfriends out in the world," says Nguyen. "No one at school knew how I really ate." When Noi offered next-door-neighbor Jennifer Vander Wal something to eat, the reply was always "No, thank you," hands behind the back. "But the foods my grandmother made were very important in our household. They were ritual foods that we associated with important family times.
"My family left Vietnam suddenly, with absolutely nothing. There are no baby pictures of me and my sister, nothing. Vietnamese food is the only heirloom that my grandmother has to give. I think it's precious."
Detroiters who've been to our best Vietnamese restaurant, Dearborn's Annam, find serenity, grace and tranquility. The owner believes customers are drawn to the place because it's "pure, and that's relaxing. It's not overwhelming." Nguyen's crowded household was the opposite: bachelor uncles playing the hi-fi at all hours, dog barking, her father's temper flaring, children riding trikes inside the house. Nguyen's idea of American-style serenity was Holly Jansen's house, where the "rooms possessed remarkable calm, as if no one had ever raised a voice there. ... The house was free of all bacteria, dirt and excess noise. I felt that I could lie down and sleep comfortably, forever, on the creamy carpet that blanketed the second floor."
But she couldn't feel at peace at Holly's, ever fearful of making a mistake. Invited for a sleepover, she writes, "I felt lightheaded with nervousness; I was terrified of disappointing her, of making a mistake that would show the low errors of my upbringing and very self." At dinner, presented with an unaccustomed pork chop, Nguyen sawed away with knife and fork until "the stub of meat, cleaved free of its chop, sailed through the air and dropped onto the carpet near Mr. Jansen's chair." As the earth did not then open to swallow her up, Nguyen survived. Back at home, where Noi always cut everything into bite-size pieces, she dedicated herself to practicing American table manners and American slicing skills.
For serenity, Nguyen depended on a nightly ritual of eating fruit in Noi's room: "Apples and pears ... would be whittled into symmetrical slices. The presentation meant a winding down into bedtime and made me feel warm, safe. ... It would be years before either my sister or I ever bit into a whole apple."
Although she longed to fit in imagine how it felt for both teachers and kids to call you bitch Nguyen knew from an early age that Grand Rapids' ways were not the only ways. She describes a scene that did not make it into the book: a trip to sophisticated Detroit. When she was 8, an aunt and uncle took her to yes! the Summit. As she ate frog legs in the revolving Ren Cen restaurant 71 stories above the river, "it was the most glamorous thing I ever had ever done. I thought Detroit was the city of dreams."
Today Nguyen speaks dreamily of Vietnamese food: banh xeo, delicate pancakes stuffed with meats, herbs and bean sprouts; shrimp cakes; beef satay marinated in fish sauce, sugar and lemongrass; dough balls stuffed with spiced pork and Chinese sausage; pastel shrimp chips; coconut curls and dried persimmons.
Think, in contrast, of the cheap, gaudy foods that Nguyen fell in love with as a child. They bombard the senses, though usually only two of them there's no smell to a packaged food. A Hostess cupcake, with its raw, sugary taste, doesn't even resemble chocolate. The color and flavor of Chee-tos are the culinary equivalent of bad trailers at the movies.
Nguyen agrees: "The other day I was in the grocery store and I felt like the packages were screaming at me." She says diplomatically that "any well-prepared food that focuses on good ingredients and produce is going to be antithesis of all that packaged stuff." She now nominates, as the worst food of the ones she used to crave, Cool Whip: "It's not even a dairy product! It says right on the package, 'nondairy product'!"
Nguyen writes of the years she spent dreaming of being someone else: "a blond-haired girl with a Betty Crocker mother and a kitchen to match." And yet, "When I scorned [Noi's] food, reaching for Jays potato ships or Little Debbie ... she did not scold my wayward desires. She knew I would return, night after night."
Bich Minh Nguyen is writing a novel, Short Girls, and a nonfiction book about immigrant restaurants that open in the middle of nowhere. Her Web site is bichminhnguyen.com.
Jane Slaughter writes about food for Metro Times. Send comments to firstname.lastname@example.org