Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 403
The memoir tells of Bich Minh Nguyen’s childhood and adolescence in Grand Rapids, Michigan. She identifies with being American, but is growing up in a Vietnamese family that emigrated at the end of the Vietnam War. Although Bich was born in Vietnam, she was only one year old when they left, so has no memory of her “native” land. Her internal conflicts between desire to possess American material goods, especially to eat American food, and to stay true to her family’s way of life form much of the book’s substance. Cultural as well as inter-generational clashes are dominant themes. It is the role of food, however, that structures the narrative and goes deeper than a convenient metaphor. The idea that one can identify more strongly with the unknown than the familiar is stressed throughout, using the term “missingness” that the author coins.
The contrast between American and Vietnamese foods is not merely of types, such as noodles versus potatoes. Nguyen learned to believe in the instant gratification idea of consuming prepared foods as contrasted to the slowly and lovingly home-made foods of her family. Outside the home, Doritos might be ubiquitous, but failed to appear magically when she opened the kitchen cupboards at home. The fake familiarity that advertising promoted altered her way of thinking, as she turned her back on other aspects of Vietnamese culture as well. In the book, she uses foods to organize the narrative, with sections using American and Vietnamese food names, such as “Toll House” and “Green Sticky Rice Cakes.”
Adjusting not only to the United States in broader society, including school, but in her changing home as well is another extended theme. As her parents separated before leaving Vietnam, her mother becomes a stranger while in Michigan her father marries a Latina woman so Nguyen grows up with a stepmother from the age of three. An additional set of cultural adjustments is required, and gradually she starts to understand that this mixture helps make her even more American.
As Nguyen grows to respect and crave knowledge of Vietnamese culture, as well as reuniting with her mother, we finally read of that reunion in another part of the United States, and see her quest come full circle as she travels to Vietnam as a young adult and meets more family members than she had even dreamed of having, and didn’t know she was missing.