A few weeks ago, a cart of free books appeared in the entryway of Campbell Hall, the building that houses the Linguistics Department. It wasn’t the first time it had happened, but this time the books were all the same, and the cart was stuffed with them. After making certain the books were really free for the taking, by anyone, I slid one out to take a look. The book was Thi Bui’s illustrated memoir The Best We Could Do, and when I leafed through it, I realized I’d read an excerpt of it online a while ago. The books were a special edition with a UCLA Common Book seal on the cover and discussion questions inside. I took the copy I’d picked out up to the phonetics lab and told two friends about it. When they saw the book was graphic (a comic book, if you will), they both immediately went downstairs to snag copies for themselves. The book cart was replenished in the days that followed, and I think the campus is actually swimming in copies of The Best We Could Do.
I read the book soon after, over the course of two days. The Best We Could Do is the story of Thi Bui’s family. It opens with her giving birth to her son in a hospital in New York with her husband and her mother. Then it goes back to tell of her mother’s experiences of giving birth, to six children, four of whom survived. The narrative skips around in time, but it traces her mother and father’s very different childhoods and youths against the backdrop of the end of French colonial rule and the beginning of the Vietnam War. It also follows what became of her parents’ parents and grandparents, especially on her father’s side. Thi, her two older sisters, and her parents left Vietnam on a boat, spent time in a refugee camp in Malaysia, and then immigrated to the United States. Thi depicts many different threads of family history, complicated relationships and choices, willingness and reluctance to speak, closeness and distance, and her own inherited fears and instincts and her desire to know her parents better.
I enjoyed Thi Bui’s book, and it also made me envious. She writes about starting the work for this book as a graduate student, trying to interview her parents. It didn’t work that well; they didn’t seem to want to answer her questions. She also writes about how her mother was more willing to tell her (Thi’s) husband things about her past, in English, than she was willing to tell Thi things directly. These difficulties were on the page, but at the end of the day, Thi Bui had produced this family memoir that contained the histories of her parents and some of her grandparents and great-grandparents. She found out what there was to find out. And I envied her because I don’t know much about my family members’ history before they arrived in the U.S. from Hong Kong, and before they arrived in Hong Kong from China, and I’m not sure it would be easy for me to find out more. Generationally speaking, I correspond roughly to Thi’s mixed race son while my mother corresponds to Thi.
Last week, Thi Bui was on campus for an author event, part of the UCLA Common Book/First Year Experience programming. I went with Meng and ZL, two friends from the department, both of whom had also gotten the book. The audience appeared to be heavily Asian-American, kind of like at the panel with MILCK, Yumi Sakugawa, and Krista Suh last year. The first part of the evening was a conversation between T.K. Le, from Asian American Studies (down the hall from Linguistics!), and Thi Bui. T.K. had prepared a number of questions, and the discussion was fairly wide-ranging. Thi said something that made me feel less disappointed that I hadn’t learned everything about my family history: her parents were talkers, that is, willing to talk about the past, and the more she spoke with other Vietnamese-Americans the mroe she realized this wasn’t typical. So, maybe not everybody can write a family memoir if only they try hard enough! Thi also said that before The Best We Could Do was a book she took the first chapters to zinefests as zines!
After the conversation, an audience Q & A began. The very first question came from the person sitting right behind me, and when she introduced herself, my heart leaped. It was the film student I’d met at Yumi Sakugawa’s meditation workshop last June, the one who had been working on a documentary on Yumi! After the Q & A (lots of questions from Vietnamese-American students), I turned around and reintroduced myself to the film student. My friends decided not to stick around for the book signing, but the film student and I stayed, and somehow we ended up practically at the tail end of a very long line. During the hour and a half we waited to meet Thi Bui, we more or less told each other our life stories. And she sent me her documentary!
I’m glad I got to meet Thi Bui and get my book signed, but the most delightful part of the evening was the serendipity of meeting the film student again. Also, in the coming weeks, the campus collective AAPI Dialogues is hosting a zine-making workshop and a lunchtime book club on The Best We Could Do. I’m hoping to make the workshop and at least some of the lunch discussions, so you might hear more about that.