In Stealing Buddha’s Dinner Nguyen describes the most typical of all American experiences growing up in the Midwest. She describes cold and snowy days and belting out Air Supply. Her context is however very unique, as it is mixed with Vietnamese and Mexican influences that are somehow both exotic and American at the same time.

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I both sympathize and empathize with Nguyen. I sympathize with her when she describes her face as being irritating to her father and stepmother, or when she describes her mean aunts. I sympathize with her when she describes her loneliness as a little girl. I empathize with her when she connects with my own experiences of being an outsider, or not being able to explain my lack of fit with others. I empathize with her frustration in dealing with her father or her stepmother, as it reminds me of my own experiences.

Nguyen’s appeal to our emotions is successful, in part because of how she presents the distance between her expectations and what she feels during the experience. A good example of this is when Nguyen goes to Vietnam. She can sympathize with how her grandmother must have felt, and she wants to feel the warm glow of family, but instead she feels like an outsider. Nguyen states “Sitting with my aunt and grandmother, I did not feel a rush of love. I feel regret, exhaustion. I felt like an outsider, and I knew I would always be just that” (Nguyen, 245). The appeal succeeds as well because it is a continuation and yet a contrast to how she felt as a young girl when she was attending large Mexican-American gatherings. There she was just as much of an outsider; by going back to Vietnam she discovers, and we discover with her, that she is an outsider to all of the labels that could be applied to her at the cause of her genetics and her upbringing. This appeal to our emotions works, and when Nguyen invites us to feel rejected, exhausted and lonely with her, we do because she has taken us on an insider’s journey of those feelings. We are then prepared to go to the next level, to imagine her mother in Saigon, and Nguyen’s guilt at living a Midwestern life that leaves her with little understanding of the Vietnamese experience and the experience of her mother. She tries to capture it by running the images through her mind, but what she knows is that she does not know that experience, and that she cannot know her mother’s experience. This leaves her feeling even more distant, despite the long travel she has taken to come “home”. Now her appeal to our emotions has a great depth, and by taking us on stepping stones to understand that existential grief of a void of experience, we can feel her loss.

Nguyen makes her specific experience of family relatable to the reader by describing those general events that we have all experienced such as the long drive to visit family for holiday meals, the irritation and boredom we can feel when we are children as guests in the home of another. It is through those shared experiences that we are able to stay with Nguyen when she describes those events and experiences that we do not share with her whether eating cha gio or tamales, or returning to Vietnam as a stranger. Nguyen has had such a wide range of experiences that there must be at least one that any American shares with her. The experience of the American family, with its tensions and obligations, as well as its joys and comforts, is one that is easy to relate to.

  • Nguyen, Bich Minh. Stealing Buddha’s Dinner: A Memoir. Penguin, 2008.