Inside Out and Back Again

by

Thanhhà Lai

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Mother is a single mother to , Brother Khôi, Brother Vū, and Brother Quang. She’s married, but Father has been missing in action for the last nine years, and Mother doesn’t know if he’s dead, imprisoned, or lost. Hà describes Mother as constantly sad and worried, mostly due to not knowing anything about Father’s fate. However, despite Mother’s sadness, she’s an involved and supportive parent to her children. Hà adores Mother and follows her everywhere. But she also knows when Mother is trying her best to make the best of a bad situation, as when Mother pretends that everything is fine when they don’t have enough rice. Mother works as a secretary for the navy on weekdays, and she also designs French-inspired baby clothes and sells them in the market. But Mother’s focus shifts as the North Vietnamese Communist army gets close to Saigon; she fears the family is in danger, given that Father fought for the South. So although it takes some convincing, Mother ultimately agrees to join Uncle Son in boarding a navy ship and fleeing the country. On the journey—and as the family moves from Guam, to Florida, and then to Alabama—Mother tries to be optimistic, but Hà knows that Mother never stops thinking and worrying about Father. In Alabama, Mother tries to help the family fit in with their Christian neighbors by agreeing to be baptized at the local Baptist church, though she never stops practicing her non-Christian religious rituals in private. Things come to a head for Mother when she finally receives a letter from Father’s brother, who lives in North Vietnam and who Mother hoped would have information about Father. But Father’s brother knows nothing, and days after Mother receives his letter, she loses the amethyst ring that Father brought her from the U.S. Mother takes this as a sign that Father is dead, and that the family should mourn him as such. This gives Mother and the rest of the family closure and helps them feel more at home in Alabama.

Mother Quotes in Inside Out and Back Again

The Inside Out and Back Again quotes below are all either spoken by Mother or refer to Mother. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
). Note: all page numbers and citation info for the quotes below refer to the Harper edition of Inside Out and Back Again published in 2011.
Part 1: Saigon Quotes

Mother says
if the price of eggs
were not the price of rice,
and the price of rice
were not the price of gasoline,
and the price of gasoline
were not the price of gold,
then of course
Brother Khôi
could continue hatching eggs.

She’s sorry.

Related Characters: Mother (speaker), Brother Khôi, Kim Hà
Page Number: 16-17
Explanation and Analysis:

Sometimes I whisper
tuyet sút to myself
to pretend
I know him.

I would never say tuyet sút
in front of Mother.
None of us would want
to make her sadder
than she already is.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, Father
Page Number: 23
Explanation and Analysis:

Like magic a crepe forms
to be filled with shrimp
and eaten with
cucumber and bean sprouts.

It tastes even better
than it looks.
While my mouth is full,
the noises of the market
silence themselves,
letting me and my bánh cuon
float.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

Five papayas
the sizes of
my head,
a knee,
two elbows,
and a thumb
cling to the trunk.

Still green
but promising.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, Uncle Son
Related Symbols: Papaya
Page Number: 41
Explanation and Analysis:

I am proud
of my ability
to save
until I see
tears
in Mother’s
deep eyes.

You deserve to grow up
where you don’t worry about
saving half a bite
of sweet potato.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother (speaker)
Page Number: 47
Explanation and Analysis:

Mother says yellow papaya
tastes lovely
dipped in chili salt.
You children should eat
fresh fruit
while you can.

Brother Vū chops;
the head falls;
a silver blade slices.

Black seeds spill
like clusters of eyes,
wet and crying.

Related Characters: Mother (speaker), Kim Hà (speaker), Brother Vū/Vu Lee
Related Symbols: Papaya
Page Number: 60
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 2: At Sea Quotes

I have never seen her
without this purple rock.
I can’t fall asleep
unless I twist the ring
and count circles.

Brother Quang says,
NO!
What’s the point of
new shirts and sandals
if you lose the last
tangible remnant of love?

I don’t understand
what he said
but I agree.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Brother Quang (speaker), Mother, Father
Related Symbols: The Amethyst Ring
Page Number: 103-04
Explanation and Analysis:

Then by chance Mother learns
sponsors prefer those
whose applications say “Christians.”

Just like that
Mother amends our faith,
saying all beliefs
are pretty much the same.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, The Cowboy, The Cowboy’s Wife
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Alabama Quotes

I try
but can’t fall asleep,
needing amethyst-ring twirls
and her lavender scent.

I’m not as good as Mother
at making do.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother
Related Symbols: The Amethyst Ring
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

Yet
on the dining table
on a plate
sit strips of papaya
gooey and damp,
having been soaked in hot water.

The sugar has melted off
leaving
plump
moist
chewy
bites.

Hummm…

Not the same,
but not bad
at all.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, MiSSSisss WaSShington
Related Symbols: Papaya
Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 4: From Now On Quotes

I tell her
a much worse embarrassment
is not having
a gift for Pem.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, Pem/Pam, TiTi
Related Symbols: Dolls
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:

chanting.

The chant is long,
the voice
low and sure.

Finally
she appears,
looks at each of us.

Your father is
truly gone.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother (speaker), Father
Related Symbols: The Amethyst Ring
Page Number: 250
Explanation and Analysis:

This Tet
there’s no I Ching Teller of Fate,
so Mother predicts our year.

Our lives
will twist and twist,
intermingling the old and new
until it doesn’t matter
which is which.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Inside Out and Back Again LitChart as a printable PDF.
Inside Out and Back Again PDF

Mother Character Timeline in Inside Out and Back Again

The timeline below shows where the character Mother appears in Inside Out and Back Again. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: Saigon
Family and Grief Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
...Tet, people eat sweet lotus seeds and rice cakes, and everyone gets new clothes—even underwear. Mother insists that how they act on Tet foretells the whole year, so everyone has to... (full context)
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Inside Out. Every new year, Mother visits a fortuneteller. This year, the fortuneteller predicted that the narrator’s family’s lives will “twist... (full context)
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...shouts, “Hà, Ya” and breaks wood to imitate Bruce Lee. Brother Khôi, meanwhile, calls Hà “Mother’s Tail” because Hà sticks so close to Mother. Hà can’t get rid of her brothers,... (full context)
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...left on a navy mission. He was captured, and that’s all the family knows. Today, Mother prepares an altar and chants for him to return. She offers fruit, incense, and sweet... (full context)
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Mother’s Days. During the week, Mother works as a secretary in a navy office. At night,... (full context)
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Eggs. It’s March 17, and Brother Khôi is mad at Mother for taking the eggs his hen provides. The hen only lays an egg every day... (full context)
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...Smart. Hà has afternoon and Saturday classes this year. Since she has the mornings free, Mother sends her to shop in the market. Since last September, Hà has been buying just... (full context)
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Unknown Father. All Hà knows about Father comes from the little things that Mother occasionally slips into conversation. He loved stewed eels and his children—so much that he’d cry... (full context)
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...flaunts its own / blind conviction.” Hà starts to tell him he’s being pretentious, but Mother gives Hà their silent signal to calm down. (full context)
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...usually gets a variety of sweets and special foods on her birthday, but this year Mother only makes banana tapioca and Hà’s favorite black sesame candy. Hà asks for stories for... (full context)
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The country split in half, and Mother and Father came south to escape Communism. Mother’s father was supposed to follow them, as... (full context)
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...be like the boys and get a tan and scars on her knees. She wishes Mother would let Hà grow her hair out. She wishes she could stay calm and ignore... (full context)
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...Every year in the spring, President Thieu puts on a long ceremony for “war wives.” Mother takes Hà to the ceremony because after President Thieu is done talking about winning the... (full context)
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Soon, Hà hears the noise and bustle of downtown. She and Mother stop at an open market, where they go to a bánh cuon stand. Hà watches... (full context)
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Twisting Twisting. Mother measures the rice left in the bin and discovers there’s not enough to feed the... (full context)
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...Hà is so mad that she pinches her desk mate, Tram, who’s tiny and nervous. Mother is friends with Tram’s mother, and Hà knows that Tram will tell on her and... (full context)
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...lucky: it’ll allow them to skip the navy checkpoint and head straight to the port. Mother argues that she won’t risk her children’s lives on a boat, but Uncle Son asks... (full context)
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Should We? Mother calls a family meeting and explains that several neighbors have bought airplane tickets out of... (full context)
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...her a tiny, fuzzy, just-hatched chick. He murmurs that they can’t leave, no matter what Mother says: he has to protect his chick, and Hà must protect her papayas. They hook... (full context)
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Quiet Decision. The next evening, Hà helps Mother peel sweet potatoes to mix with the rice. As she goes to chop off a... (full context)
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...says that he can’t be the president anymore. He promises to never leave the country. Mother raises an eyebrow. She usually does this when she thinks Hà is lying. (full context)
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...and it’s just luck that Uncle Son wasn’t on the mission where Father was captured. Mother pulls Hà close and says that even if Father isn’t here, he’s watching over them.... (full context)
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Crisscrossed Packs. Mother pushes her sewing machine as fast as it can go as she sews packs with... (full context)
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...with her “scars.” Hà dresses her doll in a matching dress, hat, and booties that Mother knitted. (full context)
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Left Behind. Mother leaves behind a set of 10 gold-rimmed glasses Father brought back from America, Brother Quang’s... (full context)
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...green. Brother Vū wants to cut it down so the Communists can’t eat it, and Mother says yellow papaya is wonderful dipped in chili salt. She warns her children that they... (full context)
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...protect his kids, but Hà’s family “sticks together / like wet pages.” Brother Vū guides Mother in front of him, lifts Hà onto his shoulders, and then presses Brother Quang and... (full context)
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In the Dark. Uncle Son appears and leads Mother, Hà, and Hà’s brothers off the ship. Apparently the next ship over is better equipped... (full context)
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Saigon Is Gone. Hà listens to Mother’s swishing fan, whispering adults, and faraway bombs. The commander told everyone to go below deck,... (full context)
Part 2: At Sea
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...river. Passengers are supposed to severely limit their water intake, but Hà struggles to comply. Mother sighs, and Hà doesn’t blame her. It can’t be easy having a daughter who’s constantly... (full context)
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...and toasted sesame. But when Hà leans toward the family on the next mat over, Mother shakes her head and sadly pats Hà’s hand. (full context)
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Routine. Mother won’t allow children to be idle. After a week at sea, Brother Quang starts teaching... (full context)
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Mother insists that when Hà isn’t in class, she stay within eyesight—which makes Hà feel like... (full context)
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One Engine. The ship stops in the middle of the night. Mother hugs Hà close and won’t let her go. They’re terrified: it’ll be much worse if... (full context)
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...They form lines to take sponge baths and use the bathrooms. Hà always stands with Mother, and every night, Mother points to the moon and observes that it hasn’t changed. She... (full context)
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...to celebrate. Suddenly, ramen noodles, dried shrimp, tamarind pods, and lots of real water appear. Mother sighs; why will people only share when they know they’re not going to go hungry... (full context)
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...reaches out to help her board. Hà touches the fuzz and then plucks a hair. Mother slaps Hà’s hand, and Brother Quang says something fast in another language, but the fuzzy... (full context)
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Amethyst Ring. Mother wants to sell the amethyst ring that Father brought her from America, where he trained... (full context)
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...France, where many Vietnamese went years ago when North and South divided. Uncle Son encourages Mother to come with him to Canada to be with his sister. Knowing that Uncle Son’s... (full context)
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...In order for a family to leave the camp, an American has to sponsor them. Mother says that a “possible widow” with three sons and a “pouty girl” is just too... (full context)
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...a mechanic. The man picks Brother Quang, as he’s impressed with Brother Quang’s engineering education. Mother doesn’t care—soon, the entire family is sponsored and will be going to Alabama. (full context)
Part 3: Alabama
Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Icon
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...see out the window, and the wife insists her guests stay hidden from the neighbors. Mother just shrugs and points out that they have more room than they did on the... (full context)
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...Hà, Brother Quang, and Brother Vū try pieces. The skin is crunchy, salty, and spicy—but Mother spits her piece out, and Brother Vū gags. Brother Quang explains to the cowboy that... (full context)
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...cowboy finds Hà’s family a house on Princess Anne Road and pays three months’ rent. Mother can’t believe it, but Brother Quang explains that the government gives sponsors money for this.... (full context)
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...has always had lovely furniture and matching dishes, even when they were really poor. But Mother tells Hà to be grateful, and Hà tries. (full context)
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Letter Home. Now that they have an address, Mother writes to Father’s brother in the North—he lives in the ancestral home. This is the... (full context)
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...woman pats Hà’s head as she fills out paperwork. Hà hates the woman’s pity—according to Mother, pity only makes the person doing the pitying feel better, not the person being pitied. (full context)
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The Outside. Tomorrow, September 2, everyone is going to leave the house. Mother will start work sewing at a factory, and Brother Quang will repair cars. Everyone else... (full context)
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...Brother Khôi is there, sitting silently. Hà joins him, and they shell peanuts in silence. Mother gets home later with two of her fingers bandaged—the electric machines sew very fast. When... (full context)
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...wishes that Brother Khôi wouldn’t stay silent about what he goes through every day, that Mother would stop hiding her bloody fingers, and that Brother Quang wasn’t so angry after work.... (full context)
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...say to stay inside, but the cowboy says “Hogwash” in response. Hà repeats the word. Mother decides they should meet the neighbors, so the cowboy gives everyone a cowboy hat. Hà... (full context)
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...that all languages have their own silly rules, but that they’re all beautiful. Just like Mother, MiSSSisss WaSShington always has an answer. (full context)
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...her family away to change into white gowns. Then, they wait in the hallway. Finally, Mother steps forward. The plump man, who’s now in a small pool, pinches Mother’s nose and... (full context)
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Hà watches her brothers “get[] dipped,” and then it’s her turn. Mother says nothing, even though Hà gives Mother a look begging her to stop it. Once... (full context)
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Can’t Help. When Mother taps her nails on the table to signal she wants to be alone to chant,... (full context)
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When Mother comes in, she turns away from Hà; she wants to be alone longer. Hà sniffs... (full context)
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Cowboy’s Gifts. The cowboy likes to bring gifts. Mother loved the live catfish the best, and it tasted wonderful when Vu Lee cooked it.... (full context)
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...As Hà walks home later, her shadow looks like she has eels on her head. Mother notices but says nothing. Hà sleeps uncomfortably on the barrettes, and the next morning, the... (full context)
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...like Bruce Lee wears. Brother Quang and Brother Khôi join in, and once, Hà spots Mother smiling from inside. (full context)
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...she does, she runs from her classmates’ laughter. She can still hear them laughing when Mother gets home, and Hà breaks down and tells Mother about what happened. Mother doesn’t know... (full context)
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Mother’s Response. Mother strokes Hà’s hair and walks her through chanting and breathing peacefully in and... (full context)
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...at Hà’s house—MiSSSisss WaSShington told him about the pancake incident. Now, the cowboy, MiSSSisss WaSShington, Mother, and Brother Quang are going to school with Hà, which just makes Hà nervous. They... (full context)
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...calms down, and she says she hates everyone. MiSSSisss WaSShington asks if Hà really hates Mother, and Hà has to stop herself from giggling. When MiSSSisss WaSShington pats Hà’s head, Hà’s... (full context)
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...a car nobody else could fix. Going forward, he’s going to only work on engines. Mother is so happy that she cries, but Hà pouts. Is she ever going to get... (full context)
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Confessions. Hà decides it’s time to tell Mother why she’s been so miserable, so she admits that she used to buy less pork... (full context)
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Mother assures Hà that she’s taking on too much. Mother says she’s just superstitious; if Hà... (full context)
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NOW! Hà accompanies Mother and Brother Quang to the grocery store, where Mother buys ingredients for egg rolls. An... (full context)
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Early Christmas. Mother invites the cowboy and MiSSSisss WaSShington for egg rolls a few days before Christmas. The... (full context)
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But Not Bad. Mother slaps Hà’s hand and tells her to compromise, but Hà refuses. Instead, she goes to... (full context)
Part 4: From Now On
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Letter from the North. The war ended eight months ago, and Mother sent her letter to the North four months ago. Today, Mother receives a reply from... (full context)
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A Sign. Mother keeps quiet about Father, but she chants every night. Hà knows Mother is waiting for... (full context)
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Seeds. Hà wears the dress to sleep and explains to Mother what happened. She says that she pretended she didn’t care, and when nobody else cared,... (full context)
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Gone. Mother runs into the house after work, barely able to speak. Her fists are clenched and... (full context)
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Truly Gone. Once the family gets home, Mother goes to her room and stays there through dinner. Around bedtime, Hà and her brothers... (full context)
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Eternal Peace. Mother puts on her brown áo dài, Hà’s brothers wear ill-fitting suits, and Hà wears a... (full context)
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...Not a Lawyer. Now, Brother Quang is in night school to study engineering, which makes Mother smile. Vu Lee is refusing to go to real colleges. He’s going to go to... (full context)
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1976: Year of the Dragon. Since there’s no fortune teller this Tet, Mother predicts the family’s year. She says that their lives will mix up the old and... (full context)
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Mother also sets up a permanent altar on a tall bookshelf and displays Father’s portrait. Hà... (full context)