In Bich Minh Nguyen’s memoir, “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” she narrates her experiences growing up as a Vietnamese refugee in a predominantly white, conservative community of Grand Rapids Michigan, in effort to assimilate to the American culture. Emigrating from Vietnam and experiencing the new American culture, she desires to fit in and be accepted as an American when her ethnicity inevitable marks her as different, being colored Vietnamese and non-Christian Buddhist. Nguyen’s journey toward her self-realization and reconciliation can be traced through her complex relationship to food.
Her selfdiscovery is genuinely embedded in her responses to the food she is exposed or wishes to have. Unfortunately, not all of her responses are beneficiary to her self-discovery as her responses often brings her to the reality of her dysfunctional family. Nguyen responds in silence, further marginalizing herself from the only home and culture she knows and remembers. Though through her silence, she is able to adapt to her environment as she consequently learns the ability to control silence and display her own independent choice.
In this way, her silence represents both her struggle and success in assimilation to the American Culture, showing the power of silence in the lives of refugee children. Silence is Nguyen’s method in effort to assimilate to the American culture. However, not all of her silences are by choice, but instead they are inevitable responsibility conserve by her parents. There are many times when she wants to learn about certain American tradition but she is often told not to ask and many times she receives the answer “no” that leaves her in silence.
In her family’s home, she has to ask for permission to eat snacks like cookies or ice cream, and often, she is declined by her step-mother as she preserves that she should eat healthy. For that reason, she has to get out of her conformity and resist her house rules. In relations to food, she began to fight her way out of her silence, she mentions, “So I began Stealing Food… So I had to move silently… then hoist myself up onto the counter, open the cupboard, reach for the cookies – | knew exactly where they were, of course” (Nguyen, 41) essentially resisting the fact that she is repressively forced not to ask and stay silent.
However, when she tries to resist a situation like this she often finds herself enigmatic trying to “fit in. ” Her curiosity to be able to understand the aspect of American language and culture is hindered since she compares herself with other children who are able to do what she could not do. This demonstrates the effects of children taking risk on actions that they are not certain about. Stealing is not something a normal kid would do but Nguyen, a brave soul, took the risk, merely because she is aiming for something she usually has, which is freedom to eat snacks but, now that privilege is taken away.
When silence became the continuous answer to her questions, Nguyen starts to self-reflect and realize that silence is not the only way people repress her but it is also a way she represses herself. In her food memory of going to burger king, listening to her father’s instructions on how to order a Whopper, she was in silence. She had never ordered food from the counter where everybody seems to quiet down the line which creates an “audience” for each person’s statement. The silence in the quiet line held her back from her comfort zone and she started feeling anxious, as she mentions, “I froze.
Suddenly it felt like everyone was staring at me, and I lost the ability to speak. For one terrible minute I was the stupid, funny looking-girl to mock and deride. ” (Nguyen, 55) implying that even silence that is not by caused by her parents but by her surrounding affects her negatively. Even under excitement of being able to eat what she has been dreaming of, Fast Food Burger and fries, she was still kept in silence. This silence makes her anxious in a way that she thinks she is incapable of doing what common Americans do.
This silence makes her compare herself to others. Hence, damaging her sense of self instead of bettering herself and expanding her awareness of what she intends to acquire, American culture. With her letting fear of people affect her negatively signifies that she is not allowing her to accomplish her goal. Thus making her losing the battle of fighting repression and attempting to overcome it. In effort of conquering her silence, Nguyen becomes more comfortable with her own silence as she gets engage in reading more books.
She began using silence as an advantage of creating fantasies and self-reflecting on her identity. For instance, when she retreats to Noi’s room because she could not join Crissy and Anh in their exploration since she is younger than them, she reads and writes in her diary, something that gives her peace and comfort. Also when she goes on road trips, she takes her books everywhere as the silence it gives, makes her feel safe and at ease. Nguyen says, “I never embarked on a trip without a supply of books, they were my safety blankets, my stay against boredom, conversation and interaction. (Nguyen, 168) implying that she was able to discern her values from the values of the others and remain confident in her sense of self rather than feeling incompetent. She finally valued that her silence is no longer a sign of repression or shame, but instead confidence and independence.
This occurs as well in her food memory of holiday tamales, which is her favorite Mexican food. In her food memory, she says, “I always wished dinner could last longer, for when it was over I had no purpose in Fruitport. (Nguyen, 175) Entailing to opening her mind in a more vivid point of view, not being scared of voicing her opinion and what she has to say. She is overcoming the condition of silence negatively through food that makes her feel better about herself. This ultimately defines her in a way that finding something she feels securely about gives her more sense of self and success in her attempt to assimilate to the American Culture. Once Nguyen discovers the purpose of silence in her life, she started to realize more things she had never thought before.
Especially when she met her real mother, she was able to selfreflect on how it has been for her and the family she grew up with. Yet, there are still moments in her life when she unexpectedly becomes silent, but her response are different. She comes into realization and deeper understanding of what she has been through. In this case, when her and her mother hen to shop, and ended up at a cake store, Silence came again, “It was the fat Buddha… A map of his body in golden dough relief. Before I knew it my mother had ordered and paid for one. (Nguyen, 233) essentially implying that even in her comfort in food, she was silenced her once again simply because her mother was there. She was left in silenced, that she forgot to ask her mother questions that she has been longing to ask for years, she says, “In the end, I left my questions unanswered, I couldn’t comprehend the loss… the silence… ” (Nguyen 237) regretting the feeling of being a stranger and a ghost in which she felt regretful that she never really fantasize about meeting her real mother.
However, despite the silenced she faced again, she was able to realize something important in her life. She realized how her stepmother had been a great support for her. “I’m very thankful… for the fact that they raised me and Anh. “(Nguyen, 234) essentially realizing the moments that she thought were repressive has come back and it realize that it was something that made her be the way she is, an open minded person and accepting of any situation. As Nguyen became aware of her realization about herself, she accepted her identity. She mentions, “In just a few minutes, in half a night, our lives changed.
Our Identities Changed. We were Vietnamese, we were refugees, we were Americans. “(Nguyen, 251) Essentially implying that she is grateful for all the decisions her and her family have made. She is thankful for the silence inevitably implemented to her. She do not regret anything that had happen to her. Her silence that first marginalized her from her surrounding, became her comfort. She let her ability of understand to adapt to her surrounding and have her own safe space to develop the differences in silence, the repressed and independent.
Her social status of Vietnamese refugee was confusing to her and therefore she wanted to be able to understand. Being silenced by the community around her, unfortunately added another layer of complexity to her identity. Yet, she was able to learn to adapt to her environment which allowed her to properly use the repressive silence and use it on her advantage when she becomes aware of her choice in silence. Ultimately, being able to identify the choice in silence gains her power and control to transform repressed silenced into independence and freedom.