Stealing Buddha's Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
If you've been reading my reviews for a while you may be thinking, Seriously? Another immigrant story? And to that I would say: 1) Hey, I like what I like. There will be more. And 2) Bich Minh Nguyen went through a whole lot in her formative years, okay?
She emigrated to the US with her family as a child, leaving her mom behind in Vietnam. She grew up in one of the whitest, most conservative places ever during the 1980s, and didn't have wealth or connections or religious affiliation to help her blend in. Her father remarried, adding a stepmom, stepsister, and eventually a half brother and foster children to a crowded household that already included her older sister, her grandmother, and two uncles. She adopted American tastes and habits to fit in, only to wind up with limited proficiency in her first language, a nearly non-existent connection to fellow youths in the local Vietnamese community, and the biting realization that whiteness would never be hers, no matter how she tried. She couldn't even find reliable friends in her two sisters, since she was younger than them, a bookworm, and supposedly unpretty. And even though she knew her mother was out there somewhere, she couldn't ask about it because her dad and stepmom were the type of parents who didn't talk about anything! Anything that was too real or unpleasant remained grown-folks business or simply wasn't spoken of aloud.
Grand Rapids is much like Ann Arbor, Ferndale, Royal Oak, and gentrified areas of Detroit in that it has a reputation as being one of the "hippest" places in the state. It's attractive, it's changed over the years, and it gets a lot of credence since it's the largest city in west Michigan. But apparently it's also very conservative and can still be a tough place for people who are considered too different. It was so for Nguyen in the '80s, and it has been so for one of my college friends, a young, Black, first-gen American, LGBTQ woman my age who grew up there and now lives in NYC. But this is Michigan after all, so perhaps Grand Rapids is merely emblematic of the state itself. That's another discussion for another day. My point is only that Nguyen's delayed arrival at self-awareness and acceptance is understandable given her surroundings.
I also can't forget to mention Nguyen's ability to demonstrate the bond between consumerism and whiteness. The 1980s saw a huge boom in both advertising and consumer trends, and as an impressionable child Nguyen used popular food/food products, television, and music to try and gain proximity to perceived normalcy and perfection. The title Stealing Buddha's Dinner refers to an incident when Nguyen tested the power of Buddha by stealing a plum from the altar that her grandmother set, and waited to see what consequences would follow (none did). It represents not only her challenging religious convention, but also testing the other tenets that frame her young life: Vietnamese-ness, American-ness, family, what it means to be a good kid, what it means to be beautiful, girlhood, coolness, and the taboo of confronting the past.
If you are interested in reading about Vietnamese culture and food, refugee experiences, blended families, 1980's American pop culture, Grand Rapids history, or young outcasts, then read this book!
"Nonetheless, drawn to what I could not have, I kept seeking out landscapes in which I could not have existed. Deep down, I thought I could prove that I could be a more thorough and competent white girl than any of the white girls I knew... I thought if I could know inside and out how my heroines lived and what they ate and what they loved—Harriet in New York, Laura in Dakota, Jo March in Massachusetts, Elizabeth Bennet in England—I could be them, too. I could read my way out of Grand Rapids" (163).
"In the end, I left my questions unanswered. I couldn't comprehend the loss, the nearly twenty years' absence, the silence and unknowing, the physical distance literally impossible to break. I didn't know what to say to make anything different. I didn't know what to do with so many years between us... In the end, I left my mother all over again" (237-38).
Beijing Doll by Chun Sue
when I bought it, so I'm going to hope that it was hers. Chun Sue wrote this autobiographical novel when she was 17 years old, got it published when she was only 20, and it was banned in China not long afterward. Wow, wow, and wow.
An ode to her teenage years, Beijing Doll contains an abundance of typical teenage angst, impulsiveness, idealism, sense of loss, and disappointment with the world. What is atypical about Chun Sue, however, is that she is able to act on her impulses in ways that few teenagers have the freedom to do. She quits high school twice and spends most of her time hanging out with friends and having dalliances with boys, sometimes staying out all night. She's an avid rock music fan, a wannabe musician, and a skilled writer, so in the midst of her escapades she also has somewhat of a career in music journalism, interviewing various bands and artists in the underground rock scene. Beijing Doll might not be considered a literary masterpiece, but it made a considerable impact when it was published, and it does offer a fascinating look into what urban youth culture was like in Beijing at the turn of the millennium.
The kicker is that despite acting out, she still had a home to go to at the end of the day! Chun Sue came and went as she pleased, did almost whatever she wanted, disobeyed her parents time and time again, even got in trouble a couple of times, and her parents never kicked her out or punished her harshly. Which was surprising to me, as I'm used to hearing or reading stories about traditional Asian parents being notably strict. Her father was a no-nonsense military man, but her mom dealt with her most often, and I don't know if she was ahead of her time as a parent or simply exasperated by trying to rein Chun Sue in. As much as the girl expressed feeling alone and misunderstood, she didn't face that many consequences to her actions.
This novel is also an implicit reminder that men can be predatory no matter where on earth you look. All of the men that Chun Sue gets involved with are older than her, and she was even fielding advances from college students when she was only a middle school student (became sexually active at around 14 years old). Sure she tried to act grown and often lied about her age, but I refuse to believe that it's really that hard for men to tell how young a girl actually is. Like y'all know. And y'all know that y'all know.
Anyway, if you like coming-of-age stories, rock music, or contemporary Chinese literature, then read this book!
"Jelly said I asked too much of life. But how was I to ask too little?" (60).
"I didn't know how to go about finding my lost passion, but my dreams had not been fulfilled, and so I was still young" (164).