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Anh Do Attitude

November 25, 2013
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The Happiest Refugee
Anh Do
Allen & Unwin, 2010 

   Early in his stand-up career, Anh Do was booked to perform a gig for two hundred retired Australian soldiers. The MC asked the audience to observe a minute’s silence for their ‘fallen brothers in Vietnam’, before reading the unmistakeably Vietnamese name of the comedian he was about to introduce. Do entered the stage to a tense silence. Rising to the challenge, he decided to win the crowd over with material ‘that would prove to them I was just an Aussie … talking about his working-class childhood … After the show an old guy came up to me, slapped me on the back and said, “Geez, you’re funny for a slope.”’

   It takes a superhuman optimist to draw a positive message from this experience, but as the title of his memoir, The Happiest Refugee, would suggest, Anh Do is that optimist. ‘I could tell from his demeanour that he meant it as a compliment,’ he says. ‘That gig was the greatest gift, because I have not since encountered an audience even remotely more terrifying.’ This indefatigable spirit shines through on every page of Do’s book.

   In 1976, after his father liberated two of his uncles from a communist re-education camp, Do’s extended family fled Vietnam on a rickety, crowded boat. They were twice attacked by pirates before making it to Australia via a Malaysian refugee camp. He doesn’t dwell on these events however, instead focusing on the long journey to prosperity that his family undertook once they arrived in Australia. Although that path was beset by poverty, the eventual breakdown of his parents’ marriage and numerous other problems, his narrative tone is almost relentlessly positive.

   As you’d expect from a comedian, he heavily peppers the story with punchlines, even when describing a concentration camp: ‘it was like staying at a “minus five-star hotel”. That brown thing on your pillow wasn’t a chocolate.’ The Happiest Refugee sometimes reads like a stand-up routine, and indeed Do has since adapted it into a hit show.

   His warm personality is deeply endearing, and there’s no mistaking the sincerity of his gratitude to ‘this beautiful country that gave us a second chance’. But surely he’s a little disingenuous when repeatedly insisting that he’s experienced very little racism in Australia, especially since he comments in passing that he wrote his own screenplay to star in because acting roles were rare for Asians.

    It would be unsurprising that Do should steer clear of politicising his story in what is basically a rags-to-riches showbiz memoir, if he hadn’t deliberately drawn attention to his origins with the book’s title. And then, on the final page: ‘My parents set off on a boat trip many years ago to provide their children and grandchildren a better life.’ This is as close as he gets to referencing the broader issue of asylum seeker policy. But by writing this highly successful book, he has helped to humanise boat people for a mainstream audience. Do can add this achievement to the many contributions he’s made to Australia.

An abridged version of this review first appeared in Am-Unity magazine.

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