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“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” Tolstoy’s opening to Anna Karenina understands that some of the best drama is family drama. David Doesn’t Get It is a sprawling family drama told initially via webcomic, now available in paperback, by cartoonist Vi Cao, covering the multi-generational tale of the Nguyen family. Main players are thirty three year old David, who is asexual, his brother Bernard and Bernard’s wife Mai, his sister Miriam, also asexual (but an aficionado of gay porn), and brother Connor who’s gay. The siblings’ father has remarried, so there’s drama too, between their dad, their stepmom and their real mom. Flashbacks visit the family’s refugee history, their grandparents’ experiences, and vignettes of the siblings’ lives growing up. Many of these vignettes recall incidents of child abuse: beatings, verbal and sexual abuse, and threats from adults who were variously cruel, ignorant and under stress themselves.
What makes this tale stand out from other inter-generational soap operas or telenovelas is its understanding portrayal of David’s and Miriam’s asexuality, and it’s realistic portrayal of Vietnamese American family life. Asexuality has only fairly recently been recognized as one of many sexual orientations, and many young asexual folks still struggle with people trying to fix them, telling them that their sexuality is something they’ll “get over,” or something that will change when they mature.
Throughout the story, these siblings and their friends explore and question whether they’re bi, gay or straight, what those identities mean, and the stereotypes attached to them, as they live their lives. For example, Connor tells the story of PJ, a guy in Connor’s class who approaches him by saying, “Hey, so you’re gay right? Like, super gay? Since I’m a guy you like me, right?” Connor responds, “What?”Another example: David recalls how he recognized himself as asexual only after going through a bi-curious and gay questioning phase.
Likewise, the kids chat about their past and comfort each other, recalling abuse they experienced from parents, and trying to puzzle out how that abuse might have shaped who they are now.
The story also explores second and third generation Vietnamese Americans lives–a viewpoint rarely seen in comics –who so often are forced to bridge the past of their parents and grandparents culture, and the Americanized world where they live. These kids blend both American and Asian cultures realistically, making breakfasts of sausage, rice, eggs and tofu, debating who’s anarchist and who’s a fujoshi (a Japanese term female fans of yaoi) among their friends, and blending the pop culture of Batman and Bordertown with more traditional Vietnamese culture. The kids also talk about racism they experience in America, victimized by racist terms like Chink (“We’re not even Chinese!”) or being mistaken for Hispanics.
Vi Cao occasionally interjects explanations for non-Vietnamese readers, explaining how Vietnamese family relationships differ from Western families, and pointing out differences between people from North and South Vietnam, and how where someone’s from impacts the Nguyen family relations.
Vi Cao published her book via Kickstarter, and fans of the webcomic are probably the prime audience of this paperback. Other readers may be confused by a book that was basically transferred from web to paper. There’s no page numbers, and very little introduction or explanation as to what the book is. What reads well in short bursts as a serialized story makes for dense reading all in one tome. I would have loved to see some visual extras added to help new readers, such as a drawn family tree and more information about asexuality for readers. Comics are great for explicating concepts like these visually, and additions like these would it would extend the appeal of the story in book format.
That said, this is a much needed story that will broaden readers understanding of asexuality and of Vietnamese American culture, one that introduces Vi Cao as an exciting new creator in the LGBTQIA comics field.