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  • Rachel Egoian

The Best We Could Do by Thi Bui: The Gap Between First and Second Generations of Vietnamese American

Thi Bùi’s graphic novel, The Best We Could Do, offers an illustrative perspective that reflects on the gap between first and second generations of Vietnamese Americans. Bùi questions the distance that she has with her parents in which her reflections delve into the traumatic history of war and escaping Vietnam as refugees. Through the process of understanding ancestry, Bùi breaks down the barriers she has with her parents and herself. She begins to see why her parents are the way they are, and what anxieties they hold within themselves.

Throughout the process of documenting her family’s history as part of her illustrated memoir, Bùi encourages readers to find out their familial background, which further educates the second generation in understanding Vietnamese culture and history as a source in gaining a perspective on generational trauma. With visual and written presentation, the graphic novel genre preserves an authentic form in processing a cohesive narrative that provides an altering perspective. Putting together written and visual elements as pieces to a puzzle or fragmented memories is the goal of Bùi’s journey in self-discovery to figuring out the origin of her people.

Bùi carries her own anxieties that were placed upon her through the guilt and resentment of her parents. Frustration shifts to persistency in exploring her parents’ trauma from the Vietnam war as well as revealing the sacrifices and decisions that the parents made in migrating to America. She breaks down the history of Vietnam through her parents’ stories that are shared to give us a specific shape to actual experiences of the tragedies that happened during wartime.

The character takes the position in documenting and digesting the parents’ experiences in which the author reveals the importance of looking at their journey in reverse, meaning that generational trauma has a beginning (Bùi, 40). She first explores her father’s childhood, which references to the layers of suffering starting at an early age, suggesting that “to understand how my father became the way he was, I had to learn what happened to him as a little boy. It took a long time to ask the right questions. When I did, the stories poured forth with no beginning or end – anecdotes without shape, wounds beneath wounds” (Bui, 92-93). The images convey that Bui’s character has a chance to peel back the layers of her father’s memory of decay and trauma. First and second generation Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans struggle to take the time of talking to their parents or children to establish strong bonds and relationships as well as carrying on the stories of their ancestors, traditions, and even culture. Bùi admits at first that it was scary and a struggle to ask the right questions, but in the end her father was eager to share his past in order to benefit their relationship with each other as father and daughter.

Transitioning to her mother’s stories of the past, Bùi resurfaces hindering feelings that contribute to the tension of their mother-daughter relationship. She provides an opportunity for herself to finally give in and listen to her mother’s experiences growing up, slowly beginning to see her mother differently as a way of breaking down an idealized image of her mother. Bùi’s parents had different upbringings, where her mother came from a wealthy family that reinforced a French educational background; later, challenging the mother’s Vietnamese identity during the most political and societal change of her time. Learning about her mother dealing with issues of cultural identity, echoes Vietnam’s political struggle of gaining independence from French regime. The French Indochina War had its effects on both North and South Vietnam, where groups such as nationalists and communists and even the Việt Minh fought to end the French regime and establish independence. However, democracy in North Vietnam had its limitations, which required many Vietnamese to leave the North Vietnam border. Bùi’s father reestablished himself in Saigon, meeting her mother due to their educational background and career driven choice: teaching. However, the Vietnam War broke out forcing her family to escape Vietnam and migrate to America as refugees.

The experiences living in a refugee camp are documented from Bùi’s perspective in which she expresses that refugees have the choice to reinvent themselves. The idea of reinventing yourself plays its interesting role in which her perspective on refugee camps represents a transformation on identity as a symbolic reference of leaving behind their past and giving the chance for refugees to start their new lives. Does this affect the deeply rooted generational trauma in which changing family history lengthens the gap between first and second generations? Or does it allow a sense of freedom breaking away from the anxieties and trauma of war in Vietnam by having the choice of reestablishing identity? This comes to a full circle as to why Bùi wants to trace her origin story; that generational trauma consistently has its way in bridging the gap between first and second generations of Vietnamese and Vietnamese Americans, where a refugee’s journey encounters great strain on their culture and self-identity. If you like stories like this, subscribe to Chopsticks Alley.

Rachel Egoian - Pleasant Hill, CA


Originally from the Bay Area and a recent graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.

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