Cartoonist Thi Bui’s graphic memoir The Best We Could Do (2017), is a 329 paged graphic memoir which documents the detailed history of her family’s escape from Southern Vietnam in the 1970s to their new lives in America. Published by Abrams ComicArt in New York City, Bui narrates the text of the graphic memoir in a poetic fashion alongside engaging illustration. Bui titled the memoir The Best We Could Do, from her perspective as an aging mother and in recognition of the two paternal generations which the timeline of her memoir follows. The structure of the memoir begins from the birth of her first born son, backwards through memories of the war in the eyes of her siblings in the United States, in a refugee camp, to Bui’s birthplace in Vietnam. In this timeless story of immigration and the Vietnamese diaspora, Thi Bui examines the importance of identity and the meaning of home.
The most accessible narrative of the Vietnam War portrays the American solider heroically fighting the communist super powers of Northern Vietnam. These depictions are drawn predominantly from perspectives of American soldiers and circulate within American popular culture. 1960s McCarthy age of postwar America sustained a culture of conformity and anxiety towards communism in the United States. In this age of McCarthyism, the U.S. government deemed any act which challenged the preservation of American culture as untrustworthy or inherently communist. Fear in the spread of communism from Southeast Asia prompted U.S. military involvement. Antiwar movements followed in the late 1960s when a recorded 500,000 plus American soldiers were documented fighting in Vietnam.
Upon arrival into the United States, Bui’s family moves into a two bedroom house with her aunt, her husband, their five children and one dog in Hammond, Indiana. From an impressionable age, Bui sensed the societal pressure to assimilate into American culture. Bui’s older cousins, who immigrated three years earlier, often scolded Bui for behaving like “such a REFUGEE!” when for example she ate cereal out of the box (285). In response, Bui blamed herself for “probably embarrassing” her cousins for appearing “fresh-off-the-boat” (285). The words of her cousin invoke the fragility in their identities as Vietnamese-American immigrants (285). Similar interactions at school inform self-consciousness in her identity. Bui’s cousin reveals the precarious nature of her American identity when she reprimands Bui for harmless mannerisms such as eating cereal out of the box.
The metaphor of appearing “fresh-off-the-boat” threatens Bui’s cousin, who has already gauged the sacrifice she is expected to make in order to find comfort in the contrasting binds of American culture. Vietnamese people have historically named themselves “boat people”. This title reclaims aspects of the shared refugees experience of escaping Vietnam in boats. The boats provided the Vietnamese refugees a means of survival and an opportunity for escape. Floating for weeks at a time in a wide expanse of ocean water, most families were split apart or never had the opportunity to reach land. Bui foreshadows themes of assimilation and the model minority in this scene when her cousin threatens her for her dress and mannerisms which don’t align with American culture. Boats which were once sought-after for protecting refugees, now represent a discarded narrative as an foreigner subject to alienation. Assimilation now dictates how Bui will craft a home for herself in the United States. The although the boat represents a concrete Vietnamese identity distinguished through war history, the drifting boat also connotes an emotional and physical sense of unidentifiable weightlessness. Despite actions of assimilation, the boat in “boat people” is symbolic of the American identity which Vietnamese refugees will never claim.
Bui, Thi. The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir. Abrams ComicArts, 2018.