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February 7, 2007

Professor's memoir recalls life as a young immigrant girl

Bich Minh Nguyen
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A new memoir from a Purdue University English professor shares her story about growing up a Vietnamese immigrant in the Midwest in the 1980s and how she tried to be "more American" by consuming snack food, pop culture and music."Stealing Buddha's Dinner" (Viking Penguin, $24.95) is written by Bich Minh Nguyen (pronounced Bit Men Ng-win), an assistant professor of English. Nguyen's family left Vietnam in April 1975 when she was 8 months old. The family eventually relocated to Grand Rapids, Mich., where Nguyen grew up surrounded by images of the idealized blonde-haired American girl.

Her stories are about trying to fit in with American children, especially by eating American junk food such as Pringles, bubble gum and Hostess cupcakes instead of the traditional Vietnamese fare that her grandmother made.

"I think I had this fear that eating too much Vietnamese food would keep me from becoming American," Nguyen said. "I knew every commercial jingle because I was obsessed with American food... and with trying not to be different."

Nguyen's memoir evolved from essays about her family's emigration from Vietnam and culture clashes in a conservative town. The book also was a personal family research project for Nguyen; during her childhood, much of her family's past in Vietnam was not discussed, in part because some family members, including her mother, stayed behind.

"Our story remained such a mystery, and my father did not like to talk about it," Nguyen said. "There was always this silence, and I assumed it was because of the trauma of what he had been through."

In writing the memoir, Nguyen came to a better understanding of her family's past and her own struggles with issues of identity, immigration and assimilation.

Nguyen received the PEN/Jerard Award in 2005 for the memoir's manuscript-in-progress. She teaches creative writing and Asian American Literature in the Department of English, which is housed in the College of Liberal Arts

Writer: Amy Patterson-Neubert. Please contact Maggie Morris, (765) 494-2432,

Source:  Bich Minh Nguyen, (765) 494-3740,

Purdue News Service: (765) 494-2096;

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