The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui

My parents escaped Việt Nam on a boat so their children could grow up in freedom.

Our parent-child relationship is one that we seldom reflect upon. In the illustrated memoir, The Best We Could Do, Thi Bui examines her relationship with her parents and how their history of having to live through the Indochina wars have impacted who they are today.

Thi Bui is a novelist born in Vietnam, three months before the end of the Vietnam war. In an effort to become closer to her parents, Thi began to inquire about her family’s background and their journey of escaping to the United States as refugees in 1978.

The Best We Could Do started with Thi in labor and concluded with Thi and her son, however the plot is mainly revolved around Thi’s parents, Bố and Má (father and mother in Vietnamese). The lives they led before they met each other were very different. Má’s father was the chief of public works for the government so she grew up living in a big house in Cambodia with servants, cooks, and gardeners. Má was always the top student in class and won many awards. On the other hand, Bố’s family had to survive by whatever means they had during the Second World War. One night Bố watched his father beat his mother and threw her out. As a result, Bố was never able to develop a close relationship with his parents.

Afraid of my father, craving safety and comfort. I had no idea that the terror I felt was only the long shadow of his own.

There were trouble in Cambodia where Vietnamese people were being killed, which forced Má’s family back to Vietnam. Bố looking to avoid joining the army, applied and passed the exams to join a teacher’s college, where he met Má. Even though Má’s family was not fond of Bố, they still ended up married. During the Vietnam war, bombings happened regularly and they had to survive skyrocketing inflation with fixed teachers’ salaries. Friends, neighbours, and students were killed and people including children were incentivized and taught to spy on each other including their parents.

There is no single story of that day, April 30, 1975. In Việt Nam today, among the victors, it is called Liberation Day. Overseas, among expats like my parents, it is remembered as the day we lost our country.

After South Vietnam lost the Vietnam war, living conditions were still poor. People in the south were name called and distrusted. Families were constantly monitored and could at any moment be separated. With the changed currency and inflation once again, there was a daily survival for food. Bố and Má then decided to flee Vietnam and was able to escape via boat and reached Malaysia in 1978.

The Best We Could Do is the first illustrated novel I’ve ever read. It’s an easy read and the graphics helped visualize the living conditions during the wars. The plot is well told and I’m impressed at how truthful Thi was at examining her vulnerabilities and her relationship with her parents. I enjoyed reading this book and I’ve learned a lot about Vietnam and got a glimpse of life during the Vietnam war.