by Hanna Bobrowicz
It was what we had first bonded over, my boss, co-worker, and I. It was my first day at Pacific Atrocities Education and after nervously making small talk we began listing our favorite Asian American authors. It is unclear who first mentioned Thi Bui’s Memoir, The Best We Could Do, but the second the title was uttered we simultaneously began to gush about the story and how it impacted us.
(continued) Thi Bui released her illustrated memoir in 2017, weaving her narrative with her parents. Bui details her parent's stories of survival, the families pilgrimage from Vietnam to Berkely, California and the growing pains of living in a new country. Two years after consuming Bui’s story, what lingered in my mind was the trauma that had spread from Bui’s parents to their children, and how learning about their lives and stories allowed wounds of the past to finally heal.
The initial conversation my co-workers and I had, spawned a summer-long discussion about intergenerational trauma within refugee and immigrant families, especially for the Vietnamese-American community. The Best We Can Do is an essential example of living history and demonstrates the importance of learning about Vietnamese Boat people, and other refugee stories. Bui’s story reveals an unspoken truth about the American Dream; that trauma often accompanies immigrants on their journey and continues to impact them while they make a new life. In America, this struggle is compounded with racial prejudice and prevents a path for rehabilitation and stability. Bui’s novel serves a vital memory project for American society, as it encourages all who read her words and consume her images to think about the trauma refugees and immigrants face. Two years on, The Best We Can Do, is a vital read for every American as it informs a history on the Boat people while also forcing the reader to contemplate how the United States treats its newcomers.
The term ‘Boat People’ is a blanket term used to describe the refugees who flee their countries by boat. The Vietnamese Boat People refers to the influx of refugees who left Communist Vietnam in 1954 and throughout 1975-1992. The reasoning for each refugee varies, some were vocal capitalists, others were simply escaping dire living conditions and hoping for a better life. Whatever their reasons where, these refugees would take boats to either Southern Vietnam (while the Vietnam War was occurring) or to nearby countries such as Thailand, the Phillippines, or Malayasia. The journey, as Bui demonstrates in her book, was extremely dangerous. Pirates would routinely pillage boats stealing their valuables and sometimes taking refugees as slaves. This danger in combination with the risk of getting caught by Vietnamese police and treacherous weather conditions led to many deaths on board. Yet, Bui’s family survived and were able to then emigrate to the United States. Many Vietnamese-Americans have a similar story to Bui, after the fall of Saigon in 1975, the United States allowed certain Vietnamese refugees to emigrate. The number of migrants increased in the 1980s and 90s, allowing Bui and her family to live in America. Today, Vietnamese-Americans are the sixth-largest ‘foreign-born’ population in the United States, making stories of the Vietnamese Boat people American stories. Therefore, Bui’s narrative of intergenerational trauma and immigration must be at the forefront of American consensuses.
The Best We Could Do is framed around the universal need for children to understand their parents. The novel begins with the birth of Bui’s son and then quickly threads throughout time, to her adolescence to Bui’s mother and father. The book is a quest to understand herself by learning about her family. She states in one chapter, ‘to understand how my father became the way he was, I had to learn what happened to him as a little boy.’ Bui’s parents could not be ‘typical American parents’ as they were struggling to abandoned their past and embrace American culture and customs. This struggle was observed by Bui, she felt their pain but did not know the details of their past. Bui explains in her book, ‘in America where people their age run marathons or at least live independently, my parents are stuck in limbo between two sets of expectations...and I feel guilty.’ This guilt is a product of living in a new world. Ironically America is a country founded by immigrants, yet little is done to help newcomers adapt and heal from the trauma they experienced. The Best We Could Do demonstrates that when learning about one’s family history it is vital to recognize the trauma that was endured, and see if it still lingers in the present.