While Anh Do’s The Happiest Refugee is a memoir about his life, it is really also the story of a larger group—a family and a community. In telling the story of his family’s flight from Vietnam shortly after the end of the Vietnam War, Anh makes it clear that that the success and prosperity he found in Australia, his adoptive country, was largely due to a collective effort—the sacrifices that many around him, especially his mother—made on his behalf. Anh’s memoir emphasizes many instances of relatives helping each other, or family members helping the larger community. Ultimately, Anh doesn’t take the support and assistance he receives from those around him for granted. In his memoir, he also speaks about the ways in which he tries to give back to family and community in turn.
Anh tells of how family members often supported each other as well as members of their broader community. The escape from Vietnam is largely a collective effort. While Anh’s father Tam is responsible for overseeing the dangerous journey, numerous members of the extended family chip in what they can to make the journey a success: the entire family, for instance, pools together money to buy the boat on which they make their escape out of the country. Once in Australia, the family continues helping each other. Anh recounts that during his childhood, his parents often took in uncles, aunts, and their children to live with them in the large industrial building that they occupy before Anh’s father abandons the family. Among the lodgers were his father’s brothers Uncle Six and Uncle Two (referred to by their place in the birth order), as well as Uncle Two’s wife and four children. Moreover, as they establish themselves in Australia, Anh’s parents also take in Vietnamese immigrants and refugees from the larger community. Whenever they hear of someone struggling or needing a place to stay while finding their footing in the new country, Anh’s parents offer their home.
Through their own struggles, Anh and his family are themselves helped by members of the larger Australian community. When they first move into their first home in Australia—a two-room flat—Anh and his family are supported by their neighbour Ms. Burke (whom they refer to, in a Vietnamese accent, as “Ms Buk”). Ms. Burke helps the family find their feet in their new adoptive country. In school, when Anh, his mother, and his siblings are struggling through extreme poverty after they are abandoned by his father, Anh finds support in his schoolmate Phil Keenan, who lends him the expensive textbooks that Anh can’t afford to buy himself, so that he can keep up with his lessons. And, after law school, when Anh decides to become a comedian instead of following a career in law, he is encouraged by Dave, a comedian friend who helps guide his career in comedy.
Having been supported by his parents as well as the larger family and community throughout his childhood, Anh, as well as his brother Khoa, reciprocate by giving back to the community when they themselves achieve prosperity. One of the first things that Anh does when he has a steady job on a TV show, with a regular pay check, is to get a mortgage so that he can buy his mother her dream house. When she sees the house, his mother is so happy she cries. Once he becomes a successful celebrity, Anh also does TV shows that raise money to benefit others who are struggling. On the show “Deal or No Deal,” he wins $200,000, which goes to an Australian father struggling to look after his ill wife and children. Likewise, Anh’s brother Khoa also gives back. While undertaking charity work with Anh, the two brothers decide to make a film featuring the young, at-risk children with whom they volunteer. The film goes on to become a huge success, and Khoa’s charity work is rewarded when he wins the prestigious Young Australian of the Year Award.
Anh’s life story highlights how important family and community are in shaping Anh’s own life. From his escape from Vietnam as a two-year-old to his success in school and his career as a comedian, Anh constantly references those members of his family and community who helped him along the way. But Anh doesn’t take the help and support he receives for granted—realizing just how lucky he has been to have such support, he, as well as his brother, give back to their family and community by helping and supporting others in turn.
Family and Community ThemeTracker
Family and Community Quotes in The Happiest Refugee
One sunny afternoon my father walked into the remote re-education camp dressed as a high-ranking communist officer. He marched right through the front door of the commanding officer’s room.
“These two men need to come with me,” he demanded. The commanding officer was bewildered. He was afraid to disobey such a high-ranking official so he did not resist. My father then walked my uncles out of the camp, right through the front gate.
My extended family pooled all their money, called in favours with friends and relatives and sold everything they had—every possession—just to buy a boat. Getting your hands on a boat was an extremely risky business. They were only available on the black market and anyone caught trying to buy one could be jailed or killed.
Back on our boat one of the pirates grabbed hold of the smallest child. He lifted up the baby and ripped open the child’s nappy. A tiny slice of gold fell out. The pirate picked up the metal and wantonly dangled the baby over the side of the boat, threatening to throw the infant in. My father screamed at the top of his lungs, “We must save the child! We will fight to the death to SAVE THE CHILD!”
As their boat veered away, one of the pirates did something strange. He was a young kid according to my uncles, no more than eighteen years old, and had been less aggressive throughout the whole encounter. Suddenly and for no apparent reason he threw us a gallon of water.
That water saved our lives.
You can’t drink jewelry or eat gold teeth caps, but that water meant everything because it bought us an extra day. That second pirate attack saved our lives.
“What a great country!”
Almost every day we discovered something else that made Mum and Dad shake their heads at how lucky we’d been. If you got sick, you could go to the doctor for free. If you couldn’t get a job straight away, the government gave you some money to help you get by.
Dad picked me up from school and, after I told him I didn’t win, there was no change in his demeanour, he was just as exuberant. Maybe he knew it was always going to be a long shot. I’ll never know, but he called up everyone to celebrate anyway […] my father treated that loss as if it were a win, and it was a lesson that stayed with me for a long time. If the worst happens, if you lose and fail, but you still celebrate coming second because you’ve given it a red hot go. There is no need to fear failure.
The school had two mottos. First: “Men for Others”—done deal as far as Mum was concerned. Here was a school that was going to teach her boys to look after others and, if she hadn’t drummed it into us enough at home, we’d get another dose at school. The other motto was: “Born for Greater Things.” Boom! Dad’s happy.
Uncle Three passed out and woke up on a beach in Malaysia. After searching desperately for other survivors he found Uncle Nine alive. Eventually they found the dead bodies of uncles Five and Seven.
Lucky for me I had my good mate Phil Keenan. Phil was the only kid in school who knew I didn’t have all the books.
“What classes have you got today?” he would ask. When it was English, for example, he would lend me his books for my period and I would return them to him in time for his class. I always had to be thinking about how to plan the day, when to meet up with him, how to make sure the other boys didn’t catch on. This concern totally overtook my life; it was all-encompassing and supremely annoying.
I was feeling pretty dejected after my first attempt at being an employee but I still wanted to somehow make money and help out Mum. The solution came in the form of a large male Siamese fighting fish.
I turned to sneak another look. She was chatting to a girl, and then she turned in my direction again and smiled. I don’t really believe in love at first sight, but if it does exist then I had just been made a victim. I was smitten.
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.”
There were a bunch of speeches and then the prime minister stepped up to the microphone.
“The 2005 Young Australian of the Year is . . . Khoa Do!”
Jesus Christ! Khoa’s done it. My brother just won Young Australian of the Year.
Khoa, the baby dangled over the side of the boat by the pirates, the toddler that Mum dressed in little girls’ dresses, the fat kid who thought the homeless woman was going to eat him… had just won Young Australian of the Year.
Mum was bawling tears of happiness.
We handed them the big cheque and Daniel gave me a hug, his tears wetting my ear and my neck.
“Thank you, Anh. We’ve got the money to look after Sarah now . . . my wife’s going to be okay now . . . thank you.”
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.