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Threshold Concepts
Shawn Mines
Ed 118
Threshold Concepts
The Best We Could Do is a very charming story of a family that immigrated to the
United States as a result of the Vietnam War. This memoir presents numerous themes which can
be connected to the everyday life of the public. The book could be interpreted using varying
scopes of reason and from an economic point of view, it is crucial to look at the theme of
immigration and how it is portrayed in this memoir. Generally, this theme can be seen from an
economic point of view which allows a critical view of how economic systems affected or were
affected by the immigration of the characters in the book. Thi Bui’s memoir highlights the
betterment of life in an economic, social, and cultural perspective through her family’s
movement to the U.S mainly through the consideration of opportunity costs and marginal utility
of commodities.
Primarily, threshold concepts are useful in highlighting a worldview which is based on a
certain discipline and highlights the clear focus of the reader in understanding a work of art.
Threshold concepts are ways of thinking and worldview which open up after previously
inaccessible information has been accessed and transforms the thinking of the learner (Meyer
and Land, 2005). Primarily, threshold concepts are the core theories or worldviews that are
reinforced by a discipline and through which learners at a certain level view everything around
them. The main characteristics of threshold concepts are that they are integrative,
transformative, and troublesome. These are different from the key concepts of a discipline which
are simply building blocks of knowledge. Generally, a threshold concept transforms the way a
person thinks and integrates new ways of viewing the world around them. Using this approach to
understand Thi Bui’s memoir will enhance understanding through the adoption of an effective
way of reasoning and thinking highlighted in economics.
The first threshold concept that can be used to understand immigration in the memoir is
opportunity cost and this highlights the loss of alternatives when a choice is made. According to
Meyer and Land (2005), opportunity cost qualifies to be a threshold concept because although it
is generally a familiar term, it shows the transformative nature of understanding alternatives lost
as opposed to looking into the gains only. Opportunity cost, therefore, is a concept that highlights
a comparison between the chosen opportunities to the ones abandoned by doing so. Overall, the
concept lies in the comparison of two or more options. Without looking at opportunity costs, one
may not understand the quality of decision they make due to the blinded selection of an item
while looking only at its benefits.
Opportunity cost applies to Thi Bui’s memoir through a comparison of the choices to
immigrate into the US while leaving her home behind. The move from Vietnam into the United
States presents a case of opportunity cost when comparing the choices that the author had. First,
if she were to stay in Vietnam, she would have held on the sense of identity that came with her
family living in their home land and belonging there. The sense of identity as particularly
Vietnamese is an aspect that the author and her family gave up by moving to the United States.
Additionally, moving to the United States meant that the author and her family abandoned their
culture in Vietnam. By adopting the American culture, they gave up their own hence giving up
that opportunity. However, the opportunity cost as presented in this analogy could be challenged
by the author’s feelings towards home. She said that “proximity and closeness are not the same”
(Bui). This statement highlights her views towards her home. She hints that being in Vietnam
could not guarantee that she would be close to her culture. Therefore, although the family was
evidently separated from its culture, one cannot justify that the opportunity cost was justified
given their move to the U.S.
Moreover, an opportunity cost could have been lost if the family had not moved to the
United States and this relates to the financial stability, cultural experience, and the career and
family of the author. Moving to the United States made the author more stable and independent.
She explained that “Má leaves me but I’m not alone, and a terrifying thought creeps into my
head. Family is now something I have created and not just something I was born into” (Bui).
Here, her responsibility comes as a result of moving to the United States and starts her own
family. She also gets a career in writing and experiences the US culture as well. If the author and
her family were to do an opportunity cost analysis before their movement to the United States,
they would assess the opportunities in the country as well as in Vietnam and make an informed
decision regarding their movement.
Secondly, marginality is yet another threshold concept that can be used to understand the
theme of immigration in Thi Bui’s novel. In economics, marginality is the aspect of commodities
or services having a secondary utility rather than the basic needs of humanity (Dunlap, 2008).
Marginal utility is described as the utility of a commodity or service in its marginal use.
Marginality for economics, therefore, is the identification of the alternative uses of commodities
and services rather than satisfying basic and the normal human needs. The price of jewels, for
instance, is higher than that of food. This is because the jewels have a higher marginal utility and
hence have a higher value. This approach explains the theme of immigration in Thi Bui’s
memoir and highlights the utility of the commodities and services the author and her family
The migration of Thi Bui and her family into the United States provided a chance for
marginal utility of goods in the U.S not available in their home country Vietnam.
Understandably, the author highlights the availability of things that she had not seen in Vietnam
in the U.S for instance, she said that “I remember being excited about seeing snow for the very
first time” (Bui). This statement exemplifies the many other things that are considered ‘luxuries’
in the U.S and yet are unavailable in some countries. For instance, the availability of piped water
while in other countries, people may be forced to fetch water from a central pipeline or the
sources shows the marginal utility of the piping of water which was not considered basic in other
countries. Generally, marginality is a threshold concept in this case due to its utility in
highlighting the better quality of life in the U.S as compared to Vietnam. For instance, getting a
bigger house is a form of marginality since it shows the movement from simply considering
shelter to getting luxurious in the U.S. Immigration, therefore, shows the author and her family’s
consideration for marginal utility as opposed to basic utilities in war-torn Vietnam.
Opportunity cost and marginal utility are seen as providing a great economic and noneconomic advantage of Thi Bui’s family’s movement to the U.S from Vietnam. A threshold
concept is a concept in a discipline that brings a new and earlier unidentified way of thinking. It
basically transforms a person’s way of thinking. Opportunity cost is seen as the chances missed
by making a decision and in Thi Bui‘s case, her identity and connection to her home in Vietnam
was the opportunity cost for moving to the U.S. Marginality is seen in the way the authors life
and that of her family was improved by the move to the U.S and access to more prestigious
commodities. Generally, from an economic point of view, the movement to the U.S was
necessary, despite the presence of war which was the main contributing factor towards Bui’s
family’s immigration.
Bui, T. (2017). The Best We Could Do: An Illustrated Memoir. New York, NY: ABRAMS.
Dunlap, R. E. (2008). The new environmental paradigm scale: From marginality to worldwide
use. The Journal of Environmental Education, 40(1), 3-18.
Meyer, J. H., & Land, R. (2005). Threshold concepts and troublesome knowledge (2):
Epistemological considerations and a conceptual framework for teaching and
learning. Higher Education, 49(3), 373-388.

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