The giant, golden arches of the McDonald’s tower over the field behind Oakland International High School (OHIS) in Temescal. Clanking, whizzing sounds of passing BART trains—traveling on the elevated leg between the MacArthur and Ashby stops—echo through the air. But even though it’s a stone’s throw from the busy streets of the city, OIHS feels far away from everything, like a quiet sanctuary for its 300 students.
OIHS’s art classroom lies in one corner of the school’s courtyard, where colorful murals, plants and flowers encircle benches made from planks of wood perched on tree trunks.
OIHS’s art teacher, Thi Bui, starts asking her students questions before they step inside her classroom. “What is art?” reads one sign taped to the outside of her door. Another one, posted below the first, says, “What can drawings communicate?” And a third asks, “What can comics communicate?” Bui wants her students, all recent immigrants and many still struggling to learn English, to contemplate about big ideas.
Bui has just begun her fifth year teaching at OHIS. During her time here she has worn several hats. She taught social studies for one year, then art, reading and literacy for another; for the past two years she’s been the art and media teacher. As she begins her third year teaching a combined comic book and oral history curriculum, she finds she is doing a little bit of everything.
Each fall, Bui asks her ninth and tenth graders to tell their immigration stories in comic book form. Her students published their first collection of comics two years ago, and called it Immigration Stories. Some people would call these books “graphic novels,” but Bui prefers the word “comics,” even though they’re rarely funny. The graphic narrative Maus, by Art Spiegelman, about his father’s experience during the Holocaust, made this style of serious comic book famous. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and has been called a comic book, graphic narrative and graphic novel interchangeably. “Comics are a medium, not a genre,” Bui says, “It’s just sequential storytelling with words and pictures.”
The transition from teaching social studies to art came naturally to Bui, who has degrees in both subjects. “I had a dream of teaching history backwards, to start with current events and piece it together to see how it got that way,” she says. “Kids need things contextualized.” Bui wants her students to understand history as ongoing, something they play a part in. Her goal for the oral history component of the comic book project is to help her students see that “their stories are a part of something bigger,” she says.
An immigrant herself, Bui came to the United States as a three year-old in 1978. She is now well-versed in her parents’ immigration story from the 1970s, having researched their experience extensively to write and draw the first two chapters of what she plans to be a 15-chapter comic book about her family’s life in Vietnam and immigration to the United States, called The Best We Could Do.
Bui has thought a lot about how immigration to the United States has changed over time, and continues to transform. “I tell kids that every generation of immigrants looks different. Some came on ships and saw the Statue of Liberty,” she says. “Now some walk through the desert or come on refugee airplanes.”
Bui’s classroom reflects this constant shift. On the white board, underneath the day’s homework assignment, are pieces of cardboard cut into the shape of comic books’ recognizable speech bubbles, thought balloons and narrative boxes. Three tell a hypothetical story: “We walked for 4 days in the desert,” reads a narrative box. “Can I have some water Papi?” asks a speech bubble. “So thirsty! But there’s only enough for one person,” says the thought balloon.
By asking her students to create these comics, Bui is not only teaching them to tell stories through art, but she is helping them make sense of their lives and process what they have gone through. Bui has only reflected on her and her family’s immigration experience as an adult. In fact, she says that creating her first book helped her become an adult, even though she was already a grown woman, and a mother, when she wrote it. The first chapter of her book, titled Labor, provides a detailed account of the birth of her son. Page one features a precise drawing—an aerial view of Bui’s very pregnant belly. The chapter illustrates her difficult labor, weaving in stories about the complicated pregnancies Bui’s mother went through both in Vietnam and en route to the United States. Bui says that having a son made her feel closer to her own parents, realizing how hard it must have been for them to move to a new country with three small children.
One of the themes Bui concentrates on is the disconnection that forms between generations of immigrant families. Immigrant children will often acclimate quickly to their new cultures, while their parents might adjust more slowly or not at all. Bui tells this story of a student’s mother: grappling with her 15-year-old daughter’s fast-paced relationship with a boyfriend, the mother asked Bui for advice. Bui responded by saying that “they should just talk to each other,”—often easier said than done. New immigrant families often learn languages at different paces. Parents sometimes hold on to customs and memories from their home countries, something hard for children to do, especially when they immigrate at very young ages.
Bui knows how difficult it can be. When she was a teenager in Southern California, Bui’s parents were afraid they would lose control of her and her sisters. “They were very strict. They came to the United States and watched Fast Times at Ridgemont High, then they didn’t want to let us out of the house,” Bui says. Bui’s father, a well-read poet, was never fluent enough in English to have the kinds of detailed intellectual conversations she craved. “I can’t access that part of him,” she says.
Another recurring thought Bui has relates to “the effects of war on ordinary people.” She sees it in her parents, in the neurosis her dad still carries with him after witnessing the Vietnam war. She sees it in her students, as well, especially when she reads their comics. “Sometimes the stories are so intense I start crying,” she says.
Bui worries that depression is a serious problem for OIHS students. Some of them have been through horrific things in their home countries, and then struggle to transition into a brand new culture with strange faces, languages and customs. Her students have experienced a lot in their short lives. At times, it is readily apparent, like when a tall boy with a scarred face walks through the school courtyard. Other times it is only when students speak about their experiences traveling to the United States on UN airplanes that it becomes clear this school is unique. One ninth grader, Madhavi Dahal, talks about how her family escaped from Bhutan as she prepares to draw a thumbnail sketch for her comic book. “The king tried to kill them and they ran away,” she says, describing how her parents were forced out of Bhutan for being in the minority of Bhutanese people who spoke Nepali. Madhavi is using her comic book to tell her immigration story in four parts: “In Bhutan, Nepal, airplane, then here.”
Elvis Nguyen, a 12th grader who recently adopted this new, American-sounding name to replace Qua, his Vietnamese one, was nervous about putting his life out on a page when he made his comic book with Bui two years ago. His story told of the challenges he faced when he came to the United States six years ago. Elvis had never drawn before he made his book. He worried about putting his feelings into images that people would be able to see. “I don’t want to share my feeling, and share it in a book,” he said. “I’d rather keep it to myself.” But he went ahead and did share his private feelings and experiences—one page shows his father sitting at a desk, frowning, struggling to pay bills. Making the comic turned out to be a positive experience for him. It forced him to talk about how he felt with his parents. When Elvis showed them his book, translating it into Vietnamese for them, he wasn’t nervous anymore. “It’s like all the things I want to say is here,” he says, pointing to his comic. His parents loved it.
Bui is amazed at how much she has learned about her students through this project. Two brothers, Clay Mu and Eh Mu, lived in a refugee camp in Thailand before they came to Oakland by way of Los Angeles and Tokyo. They both took to drawing immediately, even though it was brand new to them. Bui’s face lights up when she describes their talent, how they can recreate, from memory, the refugee camps they lived in on paper.
“They have an image of their refugee camp imprinted on their retina,” she says. Bui has learned a lot about her students through this comic book process, more than she would have in any other class. Though she didn’t start out with that intention, it has brought her closer to her students and, she hopes, has helped them acclimate to their new lives. Bui likens the process of her visual storytelling curriculum to counseling. “A lot of what therapy does is help you create a meaningful narrative out of events that have troubled you for a long time. If that’s not comics, I don’t know what is,” she says.