Can you imagine leaving your country and your whole life behind because of war? In the book, “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui, Thi had to leave Vietnam because of the ongoing Vietnam war. She had to put her whole life behind her and come to the United States to start a brand new life. Throughout her difficult journey, her family were the only ones who were able to keep each other together. Parent and child relationships are important because you learn countless life lessons that will live with you forever and they are the people with whom you will be able to count on for the rest of your life.
At the beginning of the memoir, Bui gives birth to her first child, and she writes of the lessons that she learns as a first-time parent. “ Family is now something I have created, and not just something I was born into. The responsibility is immense. A wave of empathy for my mother washes over me” (Bui, 21). Thi Bui explains that she began writing “The Best We Could Do” in an attempt to better understand and connect with her Ma and Bo to better understand them and to be able to love them. Throughout this book she thinks about her parents’ many experiences and struggles when they were refugees while also finding her identity as a parent. She wants to be the best mother she can to her son. While her experiences growing up are way different than her parents, she can still relate to them. She tries to understand how families love each other so much and why she wasn’t able to love her family that way. Bui then realizes what binds families together is the sacrifice and labor that they put towards each other. She recalls the sacrifices of her parents and she decides that she wants to do the same with her child. “But if I surrender, I’m afraid I’ll want a full retreat—to go all the way back. To be the baby and not the mother” (Bui, 4). She is expressing that she’s afraid of not being able to be a mother and she’ll rather seem like she was the baby if she had quit.
When she gets older, like many kids in America do, she decides to move out of her parents house. Many years later when her parents get ill, she decides to come back with her husband and her son so that she can take care of her ill parents. Her entire family lives a small drive from each other, however, she is still emotionally separated from her parents because she doesn’t understand their inner lives. Her parents also have been separated for a long time, although they are still friends. Bui says that her parents have always been this way and that she never learned about their history. Ma ignores her when she asks and Bo says he had no parents. “My parents are retired, in good health, and free to do as they please but also lonely, aging, and quietly wishing we’d take better care of them. In Vietnam, they would be considered very old in their seventies. In America, where people their age run marathons or at least independently,
my parents are stuck in limbo between two sets of expectations and I feel guilty.” (Bui,33). She feels guilty because she felt like she could’ve done more to help them not be stuck and for them to have a better life. In America people in their seventies do many athletic activities, however, her parents are unable to. Her parents are expected to do these things at their age and she feels guilty about not taking better care of them.
Bui begins to learn about the profound sacrifices that her parents made so that she and her siblings could live the most comfortable lives. She is shocked when she finds out that Bo’s parents abandoned him. His dad, who was very abusive, kicked his mother out and then decided to join the Viet Minh. “Every casualty in war is someone’s grandmother, grandfather, mother, father, brother, sister, child, lover” (Bui, 157). Bo’s mother decided to head for China which meant that Bo had to stay with his grandparents. “I grew up with a terrified boy who became my father. 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” (Bui, 128-129). Years later Bo had the choice of going back with his father or moving to Sai Gon with his grandfather. He eventually decided that since his father abandoned him, his grandfather deserved his loyalty. Bo never took family ties for granted but he understands that his grandfather had no other choice but to take care of him. He is deeply grateful for his sacrifice and will always be indebted with him. Ma, meanwhile, grew up with distant parents and wanted education and a career rather than a family of her own. Their stories serve as a reminder to Thi that show her that her parents were focused on their futures despite the hardships they were going through.
Ultimately, Ma married Bo out of sympathy, because he was severely ill with tuberculosis and everyone expected him to die. When he survived, Ma was forced to let go of her free life and she eventually had to take care of a family that she loved but didn’t want . But, when retracing her own childhood, Bui realizes that she had never seen Ma as anything but her own mother. In comparison to Ma’s selfless labor, Bui says, being someone’s child is like having a lifetime pass for selfishness. Bui learns two very important lessons from her parents life stories: first, that family is not given and should never be taken for granted and second, even though you didn’t intend to be part of the family, you should always value their sacrifices.
Building on these two lessons and her own experience as a parent, Bui realizes that what holds family together is not blood, but sacrifice, specifically, the selfless labor of raising children, which can never fully be repaid but calls for unconditional affection and care in return. Throughout these few chapters, Bui exemplifies the different ways that she has learned to overcome the difficulties in her and her parents lives. She hopes to continue to set an example to her son by showing them what she wishes her parents have taught her.