First Impressions: The Influence of Popular Culture on New Immigrants

As we kick off another great year of Silicon Valley Reads where this time the Immigration Experience is the topic of discussion, I think back to my own immigration experience and see a lot of parallels to Bich Minh Nguyen’s memoir “Stealing Bhudda’s Dinner.” The central theme is culture and how one is influenced by culture in order to carve out a new identify in order to fit and belong.

Nguyen spent a lot of time reflecting especially on how American pop culture has influenced her former years when she moved at the tender age of three in 1975 with her family as a refugee from Saigon, Vietnam to Grand Rapids, Michigan. Everything made a big impression on her, including American food (e.g. Hostess cupcakes, SpaghettiOs, Nestlé Quik, Pringles, Toll House cookies, TV dinners, fast and fried food) as well as 1980s pop music, fashion and hairstyles. It all comes alive in her book as she seeks a way to fit in.

I too got a taste of American culture when I first moved here in 1990 as a teenager from Munich, Germany. Nguyen and I could have been sisters from another mother. In my case I was heavily influenced by American cinema and television that “told” you what everyday life must be like. When landing at San Francisco airport for the first time, I expected the streets to be lined with palm trees and people to be driving big and wide vehicles like the Cadillac. I thought of people spending endless hours by the beach, sipping cocktails and going surfing.  I was eager to be part of it all. This “popular” message was sent to me by mass media.

Culture encompasses so many elements, including language, customs, religion, food, clothing, music, and so on. Nguyen touches on all these aspects as she tries to carve out a new identity for herself. Culture is central to the way we view, experience, and engage with all aspects of our lives and the world around us. American culture can be at times confusing to a new immigrant. “Culture shock” is a common phrase that is referenced when confusion happens.

Popular culture especially can be regarded as confusing and deceiving. It often encompasses superficial, consumerist, and sensationalist elements. Nguyen goes through great lengths explaining how a little girl got swept up by it all. Being dazzled is just a mechanism for coping with what is different. It’s important to still retain your own identity. As the old proverb goes not everything that glitters is gold. Nguyen’s memoir is well written and quite poignant for anyone that has ever felt different. 
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