Every refugee story deserves the Hollywood remake

The power of a good underdog story strikes deep at our need to find inspiration in the world.

We look to prominent heroes in movies, games and books to find that character that perseveres despite all odds. And I realise that we can find these rags to riches tales, that Scarface saga, within the inherent struggles of a refugee’s story. Especially the ones close to home.

Immigration has unfortunately become a hot button topic in a politically divisive world. Battle-lines are drawn and diving into the trenches of social commentary on Twitter, Facebook and so forth, the rhetoric found can be blunt and sometimes hateful.

Stuck in the middle of the debate are the very people the debate itself revolves around. The lives and lived realities of millions of people that have chosen to emigrate from one country to another, to which I am sure the uprooting of yourself and your loved ones is never an easy decision to make.

I understand there’s a dichotomous relationship in this immigration debate between those who view immigrants as unfamiliar and those who are very familiar with the immigrant journey.

I for example like many others am the child of immigrants that have migrated from the East and settled in the West. I can say that I am familiar with the immigrant story, therefore, I can empathise with it, and by wearing the badge of 1st generation proudly, I am strongly embracing my immigrant roots.

As do my parents of course, but in broaching this topic with them I realise there’s an important part of the story I somehow missed, a factor of the immigrant story that should be familiar to us all if we really find empowerment in the underdog.

“The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui

I watch my mother open her new book with enthusiasm and excitement, pen and paper at the ready for her various notes and musings as she prepares to read the “The Best We Could Do” by Thi Bui.

I stumbled upon this book as I scoured the internet as part of an ill-advised late-night research session trying to uncover the secrets of what makes up the British-Chinese identity, and I remember reading the blurb and it imbuing within me such a strong sense of familiarity that I had no choice but to buy it.

A tale, both relatable and inspiring, presented as a graphic novel (big bonus for me) chronicling the true immigrant story of the author from her birth in Saigon, Vietnam, to the wake of the Vietnam war, onto her relocation to Berkley, California. With both striking artwork and graceful writing, “The Best We Could Do” threads together a story of struggle, family, loss and progress which likely resonates in every migrant tale including my mother’s.

A rare family photo with my smiling mom

My mother, having now retired from takeaway life in Birmingham and enjoying her time at home with our two dogs (and my dad), recently enrolled onto an ESOL course to improve her English. She speaks, reads and converses in English just fine, but like with many immigrants, the placing of certain words and the struggle of syntax creates a barrier of insecurity in conversing in everyday English. Marry that with the fear of being misunderstood when speaking with a strong accent, I can appreciate why my mother wanted to take some time to formally “learn” English. She, like all of us, strives for that feeling of familiarity in the unfamiliar.

I gave her “The Best We Could Do” to practice her reading skills. I thought it would be an engaging and challenging read for her as she could pick out words she didn’t understand and learn the meaning of them as an exercise. As she followed the story, she would periodically stop to make note of unfamiliar words and attempt to discern their meaning through context. But when she really struggled, she would just ask us, her English speaking, British born Chinese kids for the definition.

As I struggled to explain the meaning of empathy or multigenerational, she would listen intently as I searched my head for simple words, I could then use to describe tougher words.

This practice was fun for both of us. As she learnt the definition of various words, the gaps in the story were filled and she could understand this immigrant story as the author intended, now fully realising that the story in front of her mirrored her own.

As the nuances of the story were revealed, she would regale me with tales of her own upbringing, her own struggles relocating as a refugee from rural Vietnam at 16 years of age to Craigavon, Northern Ireland, and then onto Birmingham, England where she made her new home.

It struck me as I sat and listened to my mother’s story, that I myself was the product of the refugee story. Something that I always knew but didn’t fully comprehend as being pivotal in shaping my own identity. The adversity of being a refugee, in a land drastically different to your own, a journey marked with toil and hardship, battling racism, xenophobia and poverty in a divided society half-built to demonise the “other”.

This was a part of my own “Chinese-ness” lost growing up entrenched in western culture. Knowing I was not only part of immigrant culture within the western context but recognising a failure in myself to understand the unique issues faced by the refugee community as well.

Her story is my responsibility to tell. The ultimate underdog story that I hope will exemplify the familiar and put a face to the unfamiliar, bridging the gap of the unknown to inspire and empower us all.

Part 2 coming soon…