Throughout the first part of Nguyen’s novel “Stealing Buddha’s Dinner,” I noticed that both she and her sister Anh discover American culture through the food that they encountered and in turn use these certain “American” foods to determine whether or not they had achieved a certain status among their peers.
Even being born and breed in the United States, I can still remember wanting to consume what my friends were eating and what was popular. It was not cool to eat at Burger King or get the hot meals, especially in elementary school. Nguyen eludes to this saying “the Whooper had a long way to go to beat the Big Mac” (56). For most kids, there was the transition from actual lunch boxes to brown paper bags, which Nguyen makes a reference to, as well as the idea that name brand items such as Chef Boyardee and Hostess were the cream of the crop.
It’s funny to think about how when I think back on any grade, my mind wanders to the lunchroom. In elementary school it was cool to have a packed lunch with dessert, preferably homemade. If you had to buy a hot lunch, it meant that you either your mother didn’t have time to make it for you and in the mind of a nine-year-old, didn’t care about you, or the school paid for it because your family didn’t have enough money. The opposite was true in middle school. If one could afford hot lunches, you were seen as popular.
Just like for Nguyen, social status was seen through school lunches. People were ostracized based on the excellence of their meal “choices” which were mainly determined on the incomes of their parents. For Nguyen, it was not only money that was keeping her away from becoming a “true Americanized” person, but also her step-mother’s reluctances to conform to the belief that name-brand food would change the status of a refugee. Nguyen thought otherwise as she talks about her want “for what other kids had: Bundt cakes and casseroles, Cheetos and Doritos” (50). She also felt that that by not possessing these things, she was falling far behind in becoming an American and felt as though she “would be an outcast for the rest of [her] days” (52).
The correlation between food and status in society has been something that has been present for centuries, but I find it odd that it is something that most don’t think about as often as they should. We, as humans, consume food throughout our entire lives, yet it is not a hot topic of conversation. Now, with this realization, I will always have this idea cross my mind as I continue to purchase and consume food throughout my life.