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For their own good
Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
By ANGIE DROBNIC HOLAN
Published February 18, 2007
Author Bich Minh Nguyen's memoir of growing up Vietnamese in Grand Rapids, Mich., celebrates the food and music of the 1980s while exploring the shyness and isolation she felt as an immigrant.
Bich (pronounced "Bit") gradually puzzles out her own identity, drawing on American culture, her Buddhist grandmother and her nonconformist Mexican-American stepmother. She lives in Chicago and West Lafayette, Ind., with her husband, novelist Porter Shreve.
How did you summon up such vivid memories from the 1980s, especially of brand name products?
When I started working on the book, all those names and details just flowed onto the page. Those brand names were reality to me. Just the word "Pringles" would conjure up feelings of legitimacy and belonging, to have such a wonderful word or name attached to oneself. I invested a lot of power in those kinds of names. Something simple, such as giving me Oreo cookies as opposed to generic, made me feel that I was anchored to American culture.
A lot of your memoir is about feeling like an outsider as an immigrant. Do you think it's easier for immigrants today than it was then?
I think it is easier, in terms of how Asian-Americans are more in the media and in the culture. There are Asian restaurants everywhere now. Just the sheer visibility of Asian-Americans gives Asian immigrants more comfort. But at the same time, I teach at Purdue, in the middle of cornfields, and I know Asian-American students here still struggle quite a lot with issues of assimilation.
You have a delightful chapter about children's books, like Beverly Cleary's Ramona books and the Little House series, viewed from the perspective of race and class. Why did you include that?
Books were one of the most important parts of my childhood. Sometimes I think that books saved me. That sounds like a dramatic thing to say, but they did. They gave me an escape. They gave me language. They are the reason I became a writer. . . . I actually love rereading the books I read as a kid. There are nuances you miss as a child. As an adult, you remember who you were when you were little.
Who are your favorite authors now?
I do a lot of rereading of old books. This past summer I reread a lot of Charles Dickens. I love his language, his wit, his fantastic plots. You know the idea of comfort food? For me, there's also comfort reading, and Dickens and Jane Austen are my comfort reading. For contemporary literature, I adore Joan Didion. . . . Her prose has such a clarity. I'm also teaching This Boy's Life by Tobias Wolff, a classic of the memoir genre, justifiably - talk about someone who is sad and lonely as a child.
Angie Drobnic Holan is a Times news researcher.
From Stealing Buddha's Dinner, by Bich Minh Nguyen:
(My grandmother) Noi was the holdout. She might go along with us to Burger King, and would even accept a few fries, but her disdain for the place was as visible as the paper crowns Ahn and I wore while we ate. Noi had little use for American food. She would have preferred to avoid it completely, but she couldn't ignore the way I started pushing her beef and onion sautes around my plate. I hadn't stopped liking her food - cha gio and pickled vegetables still held an iron grip on my heart - but now I knew what real people ate. And in my mind I used that term: real people. Real people did not eat cha gio. Real people ate hamburgers and casseroles and brownies. And I wanted to be a real person, or at least make others believe I was one.
The closest Noi came to cooking American food was making french fries her way, wedge-cut, served with vinegar and lettuce, and thin steaks pan-fried with onion and garlic. These, along with a bowl of my favorite mi soup - shrimp-flavor Kung-Fu ramen - made lunches and dinners to dream about. Still, I knew that no one at school had homemade french fries, or ramen. No one at school knew how I really ate. They didn't know how much time I spent thinking of dinner, of stolen Popsicles, of ways for a Whopper to rise up and beat, once and for all, the Big Mac.