Thi Bui

The Best We Could Do

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The Best We Could Do Summary

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The artist and writer Thi Bui published her autobiographical graphic memoir, The Best We Could Do, in 2017. Alternating her narrative between her present day experiences as a new mother in New York City with her parents’ past growing up in and then escaping from Vietnam, Bui builds a complex web of intergenerational trauma and love. This is Bui’s first venture into comic book illustration – as she puts it, she had to “learn how to do comics” while crafting this work – but she found this format to be the ideal way to answer “the storytelling problem of how to present history in a way that is human and relatable and not oversimplified.” The artwork that accompanies her narrative is based on the black and white starkness of Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis. But Bui adds to her facially minimalist ink panels a wash of peachy-pink watercolor, sometimes saturated and sometimes pale, depending on the strength of the memory with which it is associated.

The memoir opens with Bui in labor in the hospital in 2005. When her mother is suddenly so overcome that she can’t stay in the delivery room, Bui thinks about the ways families are built – she is literally in the process of constructing her future family out of her own body. The process connects Bui emotionally with her mother, and she tells the reader the story of her family: her mother and father (only ever called Ma and Bo in the text), her older sisters, Lan and Bich, and her younger brother, Tam.

Bui knows that she and her older sisters were born in Vietnam in the 1970s. Together with their father and their eight-months pregnant mother, they escaped the country in the aftermath of the Vietnam War as refugees known as “Boat People.” Bui also knows that Tam was born once they made it to a refugee camp in Malaysia. However, because she was only a toddler, she has no memories of these places – and only knows the most basic outlines of her family’s story.

When Bui was a child, her father stayed at home to take care of her and her brother, but she and Tam never grew close to Bo. Instead, their relationship was full of the frustrations and challenges of immigrant life, and she mainly remembers being afraid of her father and his moods. Later, to connect to her parents, Bui goes to Vietnam when she is in her twenties, trying to find information about what happened. Through research and by asking her parents questions, Bui pieces together her origins, the lives of her parents, and the suffering and chaos that overwhelmed their family during and after the war in Vietnam.

Bui learns that Bo grew up with a violent and abusive father, who eventually left the family to join the Viet Minh, the independence coalition formed by Ho Chi Minh as an organized anti-French and anti-Japanese resistance group. Bo was then raised by his grandparents, in a childhood marked mostly with barebones survival as conflicts ravaged the country during and after WWII. Never fully over this traumatic upbringing, Bo would later transfer his anxiety and fear onto his own children.

On the other hand, Bui’s Ma grew up in a much more wealthy, secure, and loving family. They had enough resources to send her to French schools, which were a higher status place to be educated while France occupied Vietnam. Nevertheless, Ma grew up with a strong sense of herself as Vietnamese and with patriotic pride in her country.

Bo remembers visiting his father and growing dismayed by what life under a communist regime would be like. Eventually, he was able to move south and attend a French school, away from the conflict-ridden northern part of the country where he had spent his childhood. He and Ma meet when they both enroll in the same teacher’s college. Although Vietnam has by now repelled the French occupation and is an independent country, its communist North and the capitalist South are increasingly at odds with one another. Once the civil war starts, the U.S. gets involved in order to forward its own agenda to fight communism at all costs anywhere in the world without much reason.

Ma and Bo marry, graduate, and become teachers. However, the civil war makes disrupts making daily life untenable. Eventually, South Vietnam and the U.S. are defeated by the North, and the country falls under Communist rule. All those who were on the side of the South face danger and reprisals. Bo and Ma decide that they must leave despite the fact that she is eight months pregnant. They become “Boat People” refugees, following thousands of other people who also want to flee. After a perilous boat journey, they end up in a refugee camp in Terengganu, Malaysia. Camp life is harsh but safe, and Tam is born without a problem. The family lucks out in that they only have to stay in the refugee camp for a few months before receiving permission to immigrate to the U.S. – fortunately, they have family in Chicago that can sponsor them.

The adjustment to American life is hard for Ma and Bo, especially since there is no time to process what they have just lost – not only the trauma of losing their home and country, but also the more personal loss of two children who died as babies. Bui’s parents are unable to be teachers since the U.S. doesn’t recognize teaching degrees from other countries. Instead, they take whatever jobs they can while enrolling in continuing education courses. Meanwhile, Bui and her siblings adapt to new schools and a new language with the greater ease of children. Eventually, the family moves to California to be in a climate that’s more familiar to people who have always lived in the heat.

The memoir ends as Bui reflects that some of her personality and character were shaped by her parents’ experiences of loss and damage. When she thinks about what she will pass onto her own son, she hopes that he won’t feel the family’s history so heavily and will, instead, be the first generation of the Bui family who is totally free.