At first glance, Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir tells the story of her family fleeing Vietnam in the 1970s to start life anew in California. But on a deeper level, the book transcends the stereotypical refugee plot line. The Best We Could Do is the story of parents and children: the sacrifices that Bui’s parents make, and the struggles their children don’t fully understand until much, much later.
Through gorgeous illustrations and rich prose, the Berkeley artist crafts an homage to her parents’ complicated lives, weaving it through the backdrop of Vietnam’s own complicated history.
At first, Bui’s thick inked lines show a mother overworked at her $3/hr. assembly-line job, and an unemployed father angrily chain smoking in the corner. But then Bui paints the fuller picture of her parents’ past, showing a well-educated, French-speaking mother who aimed to become a doctor, and a working-class father abandoned by his own parents who witnessed executions and violent uprisings as the war unfolded around them.
Bui says she didn’t fully understand her parents until she gave birth to her own son. “I appreciated them a lot more because I realized how hard it was to be a parent and not mess up,” she says. In the end, she paints her parents as deeply human: flawed yet persistently hopeful in their own ways.
She explains that the book’s title is rooted in that very contradiction: “Sometimes the best we can do isn’t good enough, and sometimes the best we can do is very heroic and amazing. And both those things can come from the same people.”
In your memoir, you talk about how your parents were very private about their past. But you also reveal incredible details about their youth — even very painful parts. How did you get them to open up?
I just got better and better at asking questions. A big part of it was becoming a parent. It was a big change in my own perspective. I became a better oral historian and got better at putting myself in their shoes, and understanding what it was like to be them, rather than asking from the point of view of being their child.
I noticed the perspective of your dad changed over the course of the book. You started off painting him as very cold and angry, that he felt trapped at home unemployed and babysitting the kids. Then you go back in time, and show how his parents abandoned him, and later how he rescued a boat full of refugees while crossing the ocean. Why did you portray him as more empathetic in the end?
I thought a lot about representations of Asian men and Asian fathers both in American literature and Asian-American literature, and Asian fathers really get a bad rap. It was really important to me to be able to let him be a hero — and the chapter when he drives the boat, that really comes through.
You write about “intentional lessons” and “unintentional lessons” that one learns as an immigrant to a new country. What do you mean by that?
What I realized about my father is he a very afraid person. All though my childhood and life, he’s been very afraid of everything and it’s very crippling. It makes him dependent on my mom and his children to be his ambassadors in the world, and it’s left him feeling unfulfilled in the United States. When I was a child, it was terrifying to be taken care of by someone who was always terrified. That passing on of fear was an unintentional lesson that the world is a terrifying place.
You say you’re worried that the scars your parents have from war and trauma is something you “inherit” as the second generation, as the child of immigrants. In the book, you write, “How much of me is my own, and how much is stamped into my blood and bone, predestined?... That being my father’s child, I, too, was a product of war.” How do you break free of inheriting that burden?
Maybe being American isn’t always a bad thing. We grew up with our parents saying we were Americanized, and they took it as a bad thing since it meant loss of our Vietnamese side. But there is something to be said about that American lens: feeling the right to be happy, speak our opinions… and sometimes that is a useful trait when you need to combat that feeling of helplessness as a refugee.
I've read that you worked on a special art project with your students who are also immigrants.
I’m on leave right now, but I’m an art teacher in Oakland at a school I helped start that is 100-percent for immigrant teens. Ten years ago we opened this school, and students came with so much life experience they couldn’t express in English. I thought if I taught them some simple things about comics, they could tell their stories and surprise me. We raised funds so each student could have a copy of his or her own "book."
What were some of your favorite stories?
Oh gosh, so many! There’s the story of the boy who worked as a farmer in El Salvador and would wake up really early to study, then work on the farm, then rush to school, then rush back home — miles of travel. He had sort of plodded along in school since he hadn’t had [the time to study] because of that double life he lived. So when he wrote his story, he honored farmers he knew he had to work so hard.
Another girl dubbed her story “The Odyssey” and talks about coming with a coyote and riding a train through Mexico to the U.S. and getting caught by immigration. They had lots of stories about missing friends and family back home, and how things were different when they came here. But they were very guarded about it. I think the language barrier keeps them from expressing everything they want to say. And maybe because in an environment where all the students are immigrants, they think it’s not that special, what they went through.
Did helping them shape those narratives affect your own storytelling?
It made me more hungry to write this book. And working in my free time really sharpened the hunger to get it done. Storytelling is my form of therapy.
What do you want people to think about when they finish reading your book?
The lessons that we learn are not that profound, and we keep learning them over and over again. It boils down to what I say with the book. Vietnamese people are people, too. It’s easy to romanticize or demonize or dehumanize other people in war. My hope is that people can see the humanity of others and the value of other lives rather than just our own.
Thi Bui appears Thursday, Sept. 14, at Books Inc. in Berkeley in conversation with Lauren Markham; details here. She also appears Sunday, Sept. 24, at Eastwind Books of Berkeley; details here.