A Vietnamese family’s refugee story, told through comics

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Artist Thi Bui was just 3 years old when she came to the US from Vietnam. She didn’t remember much about her home country.

“I had always been looking for a mirror in stories that I was told of my own experiences. I didn’t really find it. Instead I found a lot of very bad misrepresentations of what the Vietnamese experience was during the Vietnam War,” Bui told Press Play.

Bui, who now lives in California, was born three months before the 1975 fall of Saigon, when the South surrendered to communist forces. Her family fled to Malaysia by boat, then made their way to America.

She decided to ask her parents about their histories in Vietnam — how they survived the war, and life under French colonialists and then communists.

Thi Bui teaches at California College of the Arts, and is a founding teacher of Oakland International High School. (The original image is no longer available, please contact KCRW if you need access to the original image.)

Her new graphic memoir, “The Best We Could Do,” tells their stories.

Bui’s father grew up in north Vietnam during a time of war, chaos, and people trying to make a living any way they could. “My father, when he was about 4 or 5 years old, was watching people around him die of hunger. And that famine caused a lot of having to move back and forth in his family so they could survive,” Bui said.

Her mother, on the other hand, came from a wealthy and educated family, and excelled in private French schools. Her parents eventually met in college in Saigon.

After the fall of Saigon, the family made several failed attempts to leave the country. “If you left and you were caught, you would all go to jail,” Bui explained. “By the time that we actually got on a boat, it was a minor miracle that we survived because we were in a — not a seaworthy vessel at all. It was meant to just be a riverboat that carried sugarcane up and down the river. It was not meant to go out to sea at all. So we were lucky we didn’t all drown at sea.”

She said her mother was eight months pregnant during that journey, and when they landed in Malaysia, she went straight to the hospital. She stayed for three days and didn’t give birth, so she went back to the camp to take care of her three other kids. Days later, she went into labor but she couldn’t make it to the hospital because it was too far from the camp.

Bui recalled, “My uncle and another man and my dad made a makeshift hammock, and carried her in the dark to the midwife’s house a couple of kilometers away. And she gave birth at the midwife’s house.”

Bui said her own labor (which opens and closes the book) was cushy compared to her mother’s.

“I didn’t feel like I had any right to tell their story until I actually made that transition and became a parent myself. And I realized oh gosh, that it’s such a big responsibility, and how can you not mess up?,” Bui says. “So any feelings of resentment that I might have been hanging on to — the way that a kid hangs onto stuff about their parents — all of that went out the window. And I was able to just talk to them as people, and try to figure out who they were as people before they became my parents.”