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 extraordinaire, 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 finally 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 Anh’s 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 the 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.