Thursday, October 7, 2010

anh do, the happiest refugee

The world is full of great people. Sometimes when I watch the news I forget that, and when I’ve had a bad day with customers at work I think that everyone is out to be a bully. And then sometimes you meet someone like Anh Do, and they beam at you, shake your hand with enthusiasm and it’s all you can do not to hug them just because they’re ace. And then sometimes they write books, and their general good cheer falls off the pages and into your lap, and that’s why The Happiest Refugee is a great book and everyone should own it.

You may recognise Anh Do, Australian comedian extraordinai
re, either from his standup or from stints on shows like Thank God You’re Here. He’s always there with a smile and ready to make you laugh. It’s basically impossible to keep a straight face around this man. With the release of his autobiography, The Happiest Refugee, he will make you laugh—but I found it wasn’t the continually hysterical book I was expecting. Not because Anh isn’t funny—he is—but because his life hasn’t necessarily always been the most wonderful.

At age two and a half, Anh travelled from Vietnam as a refugee with much of his extended family in an overcrowded boat. They were attacked by pirates—twice—and barely survived the trip that left them in Malaysia. When they were eventually sent to Australia, life remained difficult as Anh’s parents struggled with limited resources in every way but one—family. The strength of The Happiest Refugee for me lay in the fact that Anh’s story is such a universal and inspirational one, where determination and love was how this boy who almost died in the sea became so completely awesome.

Anh has this wonderful casual writing style that kind of makes you feel like you’re having a chat with a pal rather than reading a book. Without trying to sound insulting, it’s a simple and straightforward read, but that is also part of what makes it so entertaining. It’s relaxed and friendly. You probably by now get the hint that it’s cruisy and I liked it. Moving on.

There’s a lot to be heartbroken about in here. When Anh’s aunt is almost taken, naked and horrified, by the pirates. When his uncle’s dead body is found by the water in Vietnam. When his parents, such a strong and loving influence, split apart as his father leaves, and his mother has to struggle to raise her family on her own. When he finall
y is able to contact his father again, years later, only to find he is seriously unwell.

But within all this is such hope and wonder, and Anh’s family so wonderful and supportive, that it’s the kind of book that makes you want to go out and have a thousand kids because they’ll all end up as great as Anh and his siblings. Right? Right. Even his father, not a great example all the time, has his own heroism: saving his wife’s brothers from a concentration camp by borrowing a communist officer’s uniform and boldly walking into the camp and declaring that he needed to take those two men with him. It’s a moving story, and knowing the horrors of the life he led gives some insight into how Anh
’s father may have reached a point of anguish where he thought there was nothing to do but leave. The sacrifices that Anhs parents make for their families is truly something to behold.

One thing I loved about this was just how familiar the existence of the family was once they hit Australian shores. There was embarrassment—Anh’s brother Khoa had been given lovely lacy girl’s clothes by St Vincent de Paul’s kindly nuns—and there was the everyday life they led. From watching MacGyver, to keeping budgies (we had an aviary in our backyard), to wearing knockoff runners to school (I had a kid crawl under the table and yell out to the class that I was wearing Traxx shoes from Target instead of th
e pump-up Nikes everyone else was), it was great to just read about the early life of what was really many Australian kids and be reminded of my own. As an adult, Anh was a fantastic entrepreneur, coming up with countless fantastic moneymaking ideas, not least the idea of studying law. And just as he was applying for numerous, well-paying, fabulously corporate jobs, he had a better idea: to become a comedian. And thus we have Anh today, making us laugh on television and writing great books. But I’m sure he would have been a great lawyer. I can tell because I have proof that he is a very smart man.

Takes one to know one, I guess.

In summary: Exceeds Expectations. I’m going to recommend the hell out of this for Christmas presents, because it’s a hard book not to like.


  1. Oooh! feel free to recommend it to me - I heard him on Margaret Throsby last week and he was telling the story about the house they bought for his Mum... Fabulous stuff.

  2. Hi Fiona, its Anh here. A friend of mine is a fan of your blog and told me you'd written a review for the Happiest Refugee. I've just read it and it's a lovely review! Thank You Thank You Thank You. You have a wonderful writing style and of all the reviews for my book, yours is one of my favourites, not just cos its a favourable review, but because you really "GET" the book. Now I'm a fan of your blog also. Anh

  3. Hi Anh! Thanks for writing a review of my review, I'm going to next post a review of your review. ("He is a man of fantastic taste in blogs" will be one of the lines.)

    But seriously, I was pretty stoked to read this, thanks! I genuinely loved the book and wish you all the best with this book, 'cause it's great and you're lovely. Cheers!

  4. Wow! I saw Anh when he came to Bendigo (must have been last year) and he was fantastic!
    I think I will have to go and purchase his book, next time I am somewhere that has bookshops.

  5. Seriously your review made me pick up and put down the book many times at the ABC shop. But you know me, a tightass who doesn't buy books, and just borrows them from the library or friends...


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