IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

'I remember being a refugee': Bao Phi writes kids' books to inspire immigrant families

The Vietnamese American writer opens up about his life and family with TODAY's Craig Melvin in a new episode of "Dads Got This."
/ Source: TODAY

Our editors independently selected these items because we think you will enjoy them and might like them at these prices. If you purchase something through our links, we may earn a commission. Pricing and availability are accurate as of publish time. Learn more about Shop TODAY.

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

After realizing that there were few books showing stories like his, dad Bao Phi became an author, publishing children's books that inspire kids and tell the story of immigrant families in the United States.

Phi was just 4 months old when his family left Vietnam for the United States, fleeing amid the "chaos" of the Vietnam War.

"The other side was shelling the airport, trying to kill as many of us as possible as we tried to flee," Phi told TODAY's Craig Melvin.

While his family was always open about their experiences during the war, Phi said he never really understood what it meant to be a survivor until he became a father himself.

Bao Phi and his family fled from Vietnam to the United States when he was just a few months old. TODAY

"We went to a see a doctor, and they give you a questionnaire," Phi recalled. "And one of the questions was, 'Has anyone in your family or your family line survived war?' It was like a switch had been flipped, that I was like, 'Yes. In fact, it was me.' Being a survivor of war actually had an effect on who I was, and could have an effect on my child."

After his child was born in 2009, Phi began to notice the lack of representation for Asian Americans and other immigrant families in children's books. He wanted his child to connect with his family, so he began writing those stories himself.

"I just really wanted something to connect my kid to their grandparents, my parents," Phi said.

Bao Phi said he wanted to connect his child to his own parents through stories. TODAY

His first book, "A Different Pond," received a Caldecott Honor in 2018. The story centers on a father-son fishing trip and tells the tale of refugee parents scrambling to create a better life for their children.

Now, Phi has published a second book, "Hello, Mandarin Duck." The children's book tells the story of two children and a diverse group of friends trying to help a lost duck find its way home, and showcases 18 different languages as a "love letter" to Phi's "neighborhood" and "community."

"Hello, Mandarin Duck!" by Bao Phi

"I remember being a refugee from Vietnam and being among the first large, visible Asian populations to come to Minnesota, and that some people were very welcoming and some people very much were not," Phi said. "For me, now, raising a child in this environment, I just think that that message of kindness and inclusivity is so important for all of our kids. I think that's going to make all of us stronger, and that's why I wrote the book."

Bao Phi's children's books "A Different Pond" and "Hello, Mandarin Duck" explore inclusivity and belonging. TODAY

Phi said that current events influence his work just as much as his family's history does: In one scene of "Hello, Mandarin Duck," police arrive and things "get a little hairy," Craig noted while talking with Phi.

"George Floyd was murdered three blocks away from where my child went to preschool and summer school," Phi explained. "My child has expressed these fears that their grandmother, my mother, will be deported for whatever reason. For some of us, authority, for one reason or another, is a scary thing rather than a comfort. I feel somewhat responsible for having some of those moments in my children's books."

Author Bao Phi said his work is affected by current events, such as the death of George Floyd, which happened close to where his family lives. TODAY

Phi said that in the end, he hopes his books help children learn to "envision a better world" for everyone.

"Let's make it normal for kids to stand up against injustice and for what's right," he said. "Let's make it normal for kids to envision a better world for all of us. Let's normalize that."