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From Pho to Fast Food, an Immigrant's Tale

Feb 6, 2007 (All Things Considered)

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The immigrant's struggle to figure out what it means to be a true American is a familiar tale in American literature. Some find a path to acceptance in music or sports. Others find solace in hard work or family.

Vietnamese immigrant Bich Minh Nguyen thought her cultural salvation would come through junk food. Her new memoir, Stealing Buddha's Dinner is a story of a young Asian girl's struggle for acceptance growing up in "a sea of blonde."

Nguyen's family was among the last wave of refugees to flee Saigon before the city fell in 1975. They landed in Grand Rapids, Mich., a largely white, largely conservative city filled with Dutch, German and Irish families.

Nguyen tried desperately to fit in. She dreamed about designer jeans and dances filled with rock 'n' roll music. And she was obsessed with America's abundance of snack foods.

Family dinners in Nguyen's house consisted of shrimp curry, pho (Vietnamese soup noodles) and spring rolls prepared by her grandmother.

Junk food such as Ho-Hos and Twinkies made up an "exotic landscape" in which Nguyen wanted to participate.

"I thought these foods were so American in a very essential way," she says now. "If I surrounded myself with those things, then I could ignore who I really was."

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