“Quang, my friend, the American dream does not come easy.” Family Style is a refugee / immigrant story told from the point of view of a very young boy whose family leaves Vietnam on a scary boat, lands in a refugee camp that doesn’t have room for them, and eventually emigrates to San Jose, California.
The chapter titles are particular foods, representative of what’s happening to this family who starved for so long … and now is surrounded by rich American dishes and fast food. Chapter 1 is “Rice and fish.” Chapter 2 is “Bánh cuón,” about the refugee camp, a dish that will remain special to Thien, the main character. Chapter 3 is “Steak and potatoes,” the first meal their sponsor serves them in America. Chapter 4 is “Strawberries and potato chips.” By the end of the book, in Chapter 8, in which Thien Pham is grown up, teaching school, and studying for his citizenship test, we are back to “Rice and fish.”
Throughout the book, Thien draws. We are aware he is telling his story through comics (and other art styles). I’m glad he chose this visual and prose way to share his life with us. It is incredibly moving. He shows what emigrating to America was like, how hard it was for his family, thereby shining light on what living in America can mean to all of us.
His family moves to a neighborhood in San Jose, California, where other Vietnamese have settled. They help each other with food and education and jobs and guidance. Thien’s family is loving and watchful and caring throughout his life.
We watch Thien grow up with good friends. He becomes so much a part of American culture that he feels separated from his Vietnamese culture. “I’m kinda scared to hang out with other Vietnamese kids. It’s like a whole other world.” But when he does, it awakens a recognition in him. Friends help him feel comfortable in both traditions.
In the final chapter, Thien Pham gives us a front row seat to his naturalization ceremony as an adult and his family’s celebration afterwards. It is moving, inspiring, and underlines the value and responsibility of citizenship: “Together, we can keep the beacon that is America burning bright for all the world to see.” (a quote from President Barack Obama)
The endnotes are a Q&A in black-and-white panels, giving us satisfying answers to what happened to the people in the book. I’ve never seen endnotes done in this way before and now I think every book should have them!
It’s a book about immigration and learning to live in new surroundings, yes, but foremost it’s a book about family and friendship and what it means to be an American, contributing to our democracy.
It’s a warm, funny, moving book from a gifted storyteller. Family Style has stayed in my thoughts for weeks. I hope you’ll give yourself the treat of reading it.