Anh Do’s memoir The Happiest Refugee isn’t just a story about a family’s perilous journey from Vietnam to Australia. It’s also a story about betrayal and forgiveness. In recounting how he was betrayed by his father Tam, who abandoned the family shortly after their arrival in Australia, Anh Do traces his own journey of accepting and reconnecting with the man who had been his role model as a child. Ultimately, Do suggests that forgiveness offers the only path forward to overcoming the bitterness and anger caused by betrayal.
As a child, Anh Do looked up to his father Tam as a model of courage, commitment, and bravery. In the memoir, Anh recounts many stories of his father’s valiant actions under difficult circumstances. It was his father Tam, for instance, who saved his two brothers-in-law from a Vietnamese re-education camp—basically a concentration camp—shortly after the end of the Vietnam War. He did so by dressing up as a senior Vietnamese government official, then simply walking into the camp and demanding the release of his brothers-in-law Thanh and Huy. It was also Anh’s father who oversaw the family’s escape on a boat from Vietnam. Tam was the one who helped organize the entire perilous expedition, and steered the boat that sheltered forty relatives and family friends. His feats of bravery during the journey included evading a Vietnamese patrol boat, as well as fixing a broken engine when the family was out at sea. In Australia, Anh’s father, along with Anh’s mother, frequently came to the aid of needy family members or Vietnamese refugees, providing them with support and shelter in the industrial building Anh’s family occupied for a time in Sydney. Furthermore, Anh’s father gives his son crucial advice as Anh is growing up. One of the pieces of advice that Anh turns to when faced with difficult choices or situations is his father’s assertion that “[t]here’s now and there’s too late.” This piece of advice often helped Anh when he was torn between different paths—for instance, whether to follow a law career or a career in comedy.
And yet, although Anh’s father represented a wonderful role model to his son, he ultimately also lets Anh—and the rest of the family—down drastically. After losing the family’s money on a risky farming venture (including the savings of two of his brothers), Anh’s father turns to drink, becoming an alcoholic. Eventually he abandons the family. Anh’s father’s betrayal of the family has dire consequences, as they are left to live in poverty and to struggle financially for years. As a single mother who makes a living sewing garments, Anh’s mother is forced to fend for Anh and his two siblings Khoa and Tram alone, wearing herself out in the process. Furthermore, Anh’s father doesn’t attempt to maintain contact with his children, leaving them to face the difficult fate that he has condemned them to alone. As such, Anh and his siblings spend much of their childhood without any relationship to their father, and they all develop feelings of bitterness and rage towards Tam.
And yet, in spite of the fact that Anh is deeply wounded by his father’s abandonment, he eventually finds it in his heart to forgive him. After eight long years of no contact with Tam, Anh decides to call him one day, and goes to visit him, only to discover that he has a new wife and a young infant boy. Ironically, he discovers that the infant boy is named Anh—after him. Although upon first meeting his father again, Anh is consumed by feelings of anger and bitterness, and is even overcome by an impulse towards revenge, he slowly begins to rediscover his father’s positive side. News that his father is suffering from a potentially fatal brain tumour further forces him to re-evaluate his feelings of anger towards Tam.
Slowly, Anh manages to forgive his father for his betrayal, and even goes on to develop an affectionate relationship with him again. Anh’s father is in turn grateful for his son’s forgiveness, and becomes one of his biggest supporters and fans, as Anh goes from success to success in his comedy and celebrity career. By forgiving his father, Anh manages to overcome the feelings of hatred and bitterness that had consumed him during much of his childhood and adolescence. He even goes so far as to orchestrate a reconciliation between his younger siblings and his father, and notes that, by reconnecting with the man who had abandoned them, Khoa and Tram also manage to find peace.
In telling of his own journey from anger and resentment to reconciliation with his father, Anh Do suggests that having the strength to forgive enabled him to move on from the betrayal that had haunted much of his childhood and adolescence. As such, by depicting the happy end of this journey—one that leads to a renewed relationship with his father Tam—Anh emphasizes the value of forgiveness and mercy, values that ultimately allow for the flourishing of love, affection, and renewed family bonds.
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Betrayal and Forgiveness Quotes in The Happiest Refugee
It’s incredibly difficult to describe the feelings that go on inside you when you’re on your way to see a father you once adored, but for eight long years have been fantasising about killing. You play out the whole thing over and over again with different scenarios: a joyful reunion full of happy tears; an angry reunion where you knock him out.
I realised that, when he wasn’t drunk, this guy was indeed the most wonderful dad in the world. Somehow, during the past eight years I had managed to block out all the good memories and focused solely on what he’d done wrong. I realised I still very much loved this laughing, beautiful, terribly flawed man.
Dad volunteered to go, but Uncle One insisted that Dad should stay and wait, and that he’d go. So Dad and Uncle One split up the boat money between the two of them, and Uncle One went with the men, while Dad waited. An hour later . . . no Uncle One. An hour and a half later . . . no Uncle One.
“I had an ill feeling in my stomach, Anh, like something was wrong.” Dad looked up to the ceiling, and his face turned a deep red. “I felt an urge to go down the track, to see what had happened . . . in fact, as soon as Uncle One left with them, I felt an urge to track behind them.”
I listened stunned.
“I didn’t follow. I just waited.”
I look across the water and am mesmerised by the beauty of this magnificent setting. My parents set off on a boat trip many years ago to provide their children and grandchildren a better life. And here we are, thanks to them, enjoying this perfect day. In that moment I know I am happy. I look up to the blue sky and give thanks.