Vietnamese-American Stories Are Focus for Common Reading Experience 2019

October 18, 2019

By Jake Weber

Thi Bui addresses the audience in Goodrich Chapel. Her graphic novel, The Best We Could Do, served as the 2019 Common Reading Experience.

For the first time, a graphic novel was Albion’s pick for the annual Richard M. Smith Common Reading Experience—but author Thi Bui says Albion was not alone in this choice.

“I’ve visited at least 10 colleges who used my book like this,” said Bui, who was on campus September 26 to discuss The Best We Could Do. The graphic memoir recounts her family’s escape from Vietnam after the war ended, and the challenges of their settlement in the U.S.

An educator and cartoonist, Bui has illustrated many books but The Best We Could Do is her debut as author/illustrator.

“It’s surreal,” she says, of the attention the book is getting, not just from college programs, but readers around the globe. “It’s like a child that grows up and does its own thing in the world and you find out about it later.”

And while she’s excited that so many people are reading her story, Bui is deeply appreciative of what happens after they put it down.

“I’m so happy about reading programs that make conversations—not necessarily about the book, but about our society. A book can be the conversation starter and I’m happy that my book seems to do that for a lot of people,” she said.

Alan Headbloom (right) with education students before his film screening.

Bui’s story of her family’s life in 1980s California was paired with the screening of Newcomer Legacy, a documentary by Alan Headbloom, ’75, recounting the immigrant experiences of nine Vietnamese refugees who settled in Grand Rapids in the 1970s. An author, applied linguist and talk-show host, Headbloom says his career working with immigrants—and his interest in Vietnamese refugees—is directly related to his time at Albion.

“In college, I was very much anti-Vietnam War; I marched against it and mercifully, the war ended just before I might have had to go,” he recalled.

But while Albion might have wanted the troops out of Vietnam, it welcomed students from around the world to its International House, an immersive language and cultural experience for all its residents. “I lived in the International House and got to know students from other countries and appreciate who they were,” Headbloom said. “Albion gave me a little glimpse of the world.”

Today, nearly 4,000 Vietnamese live in the Grand Rapids area, robustly supporting the cultural and economic climate. “The majority of these refugees—of all immigrants, regardless of origin—they’re ‘all in’ for this country. They have no ‘Plan B,'” Headbloom points out. “They are committed to working hard and making a life for themselves here. I’m profoundly proud of these friends and their families and what they’ve achieved.”