The first nine chapters of Stealing Buddha’s Dinner established not only author Bich Minh Nguyen’s community, and family identity but also her culture and her sense of self. I found myself throughout the reading marking in the margins “Food= (blank)” because Nguyen seems to link food to major themes within the work; for instance, on page 75 I marked “Food=Status,” for a line read: “Here, a student was measured by the contents of her lunch bag, which displayed status, class, and parental love.” The connection is apparent and very vivid in Nguyen’s life: the food you brought to the cafeteria indicated the life you lived and indicated how people should treat you. For me, Nguyen really clarified her life, which at times seems very complicated, by explaining it in plain food terms. It appears that food was not only for survival of her physical body, but her mental body as well.
There were several passages I marked with “food=” such as: memories, leverage, celebration, language, tradition, status etc., and they were concepts I would have never linked to food before. The idea of using food as a mark of status or identity is very foreign to people who are welcomed as part of the mainstream. One equation that I found especially interesting was the passage I marked “Food=Assimilation,” on page 53: “…all I wanted was to sit at the dinner table and eat pork chops the way my friends did. Because I could not, because our household did not, I invested such foods with power and allure.” The theme in this passage may not come across as clearly as the first quote I posed, but I still find it to be a very powerful one. Simply because Nguyen’s family doesn’t eat like the rest of general society, they cannot be considered a part of it. It’s difficult to picture something as simple as food having that much power over a culture or society. It makes me question not only the vanity of society, but also the name-brand mentalities of people today.
Outside of her display of themes, I found Nguyen’s description of food intensely vivid. It made the book incredibly hard to read when I was hungry! Even if I didn’t know the dish that was being presented (usually one of Noi’s), I was still thoroughly engaged in her picture. When Nguyen illustrates the feast celebrating Vinh’s birth, I couldn’t tell when the list was going to stop; she perfectly depicts “shrimp chips dyed in pastel colors, salty Styrofoam that vanished on the tongue,” and “dried persimmons, flat brown each resembling a giant eye,” and the list just goes on and on (36). Her descriptions made me curious about her culture, her national food and also different varieties of food in general. Being someone who doesn’t generally make surprising food choices, the food just sounds exquisite and exotic. It makes me curious to try cha gio, or goi cuon, once I find out what they’re made of first. On an overall basis, Nguyen’s piece so far makes me extremely excited for the second half of the book, and also to be bolder in my own food choice. I wonder if I did try a very exotic food if it would make me want to be more like that culture; then again isn’t America one big “soup” of different delicacies anyway? I guess I won’t have to look too far to find out.