For many of us, the culinary skills on display in Bich Minh Nguyen's childhood home would have be a source of intense pleasure: "shrimp cakes; platters heaped with goi cuon, fresh shrimp and vegetable spring rolls; banh exo, delicate pancakes stuffed with meats,herbs, and bean sprouts; beef satay marinated in fish sauce, sugar, and lemongrass; mounds of vermicelli and rice for stewed shrimps; saucers filled with chilies swimming in nuoc mam."
But as a young girl growing up in Grand Rapids, Mich., Nguyen found nothing but embarrassment in such riches. For as an immigrant (and much to her shame, not just an immigrant, but a refugee) to the United States, she quickly learned that "Real people ate hamburgers and casseroles and brownies."
The meals that Nguyen craved were those that she perceived to be the fare of mainstream white America: "Dinners of sirloin tips and Shake 'n Bake. Beef Stroganoff and shepherd's pie. Jeno's pizzas and thermoses of SpaghettiOs. Great squares of Jell-O bouncing through the air as they did in the commercials; Bundt cakes; chocolate parfaits."
Such meals, the young Nguyen believed, could make her "a real person, or least," she says, "make others believe that I was one."
Nguyen's family flees Vietnam in the spring of 1975 as they feel their country coming down around their ears. Nguyen's father, in a desperate act, pushes a wire out of the way to propel family members – his two young daughters, one of his brothers, and his mother – onto an old Vietnamese warship about to leave Saigon. Little Bich was only eight months old.
They arrive in Michigan and are suddenly surrounded by tall Dutch- Americans with blond hair and evangelical Christian convictions. Charitable groups inundate them with used clothing and toys. "We had so much, we became reckless," Nguyen writes. "We threw Slinkies until they tangled and drowned paper dolls."
But what they don't find is peace. Even though Nguyen knows little of her old country, the new one never becomes a comfortable fit. At school, kids with "Kool-Aid mouths" yell "Chop suey!" at her. (It's years before she finally learns what that is.) When she is invited to dinner at a friend's house, she doesn't know how to say grace and – unaccustomed to the use of a knife – shoots a greasy pork chop off her plate like a hockey puck.
To make matters worse, her dad marries a second- generation Mexican-American named Rosa who enthusiastically joins picket lines, is disappointed when her stepdaughters show no signs of becoming Asian violin prodigies, and manages to further obscure the already murky ethnic identity of the Nguyen household.
Nguyen is a gifted storyteller who doles out humor and hurt in equal portions as she fleshes out the plight of the immigrant. In addition to her own story she offers glimpses of the coping strategies of the feisty Rosa – a striver who battles rejection and injustice à la César Chávez – and Noi, Nguyen's grandmother, who retreats from earthly pain into a Zen-like calm.
Eventually Nguyen's twin themes of rejection and insecurity wear a bit thin. By the third or fourth time young Bich rhapsodizes over yet another nutrient-free American snack food or is snubbed for a theological lapse ("Aren't you glad the Lord is always with us?" a little girl in pleated shorts, pink socks, and flowered barrettes queries as a test) her story feels repetitive.
Even so, "Stealing Buddha's Dinner" remains a tasty read. It's more or less impossible not to feel for a young girl so transported by a bite of banana bread made from Jiffy mix ("The taste filled my mouth with a nutty, sweet spice that I wanted to capture again and again") that as a college student she travels to Chelsea, Mich., to see Jiffy's corporate home. Also darkly poignant is Nguyen's eventual reunion with her mother (who was not with the family the day they fled Saigon.)
"How many layers of discovery stood between me and true Americanness?" Nguyen wonders the day she learns about home-baked chocolate chip cookies. And yet somehow she must have arrived at her goal of assimilation, for this memoir, which is also a tribute to "all the bad [American] food, fashion, music, and hair of the deep 1980s," feels vivid, true, and even nostalgic.
• Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor's book editor. Send comments to Marjorie Kehe.