Inside Out and Back Again

by

Thanhhà Lai

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Inside Out and Back Again: Part 1: Saigon Summary & Analysis

Summary
Analysis
1975: Year of the Cat. It’s February 11, Tet, the first day of the lunar new year. Every 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 smile regardless of how they feel. Nobody can sweep or splash in water, as they might sweep hope away or “splash away joy.” Everyone celebrates their birthday today, so now the narrator is 10. As a 10-year-old, she can learn embroidery and can watch her papaya tree bear fruit. She was mad last night when Mother insisted that one of the narrator’s brothers had to be the first one up in the morning because only men can bless the house with good luck. The narrator woke up before dawn and sneakily touched the floor herself.
It’s significant that the narrator begins her account by introducing readers not to herself, but to the Tet holiday. This indicates that this holiday is extremely important to her; it’s what helps her feel secure and at home. In particular, she focuses on the food, which highlights how important food can be to making holidays like this feel special. However, the narrator isn’t sold on all the holiday’s traditions—it bothers her that as a girl, she isn’t as revered as her older brother is. Touching the floor herself is her way of making this holiday her own. 
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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 inside out.” The narrator wonders if this means that the soldiers who patrol her neighborhood might go away, and that maybe then she can jump rope after sunset. Maybe the sirens that mean everyone must hide under the bed will stop going off. But the narrator has also heard that bánh chung, special food eaten only during Tet, “will be smeared in blood.” The war is getting closer.
Given what the fortuneteller says—especially with the soldiers, the sirens, and the war (the Vietnam War) getting closer, it seems as though the war will soon upend the narrator’s life. Her belief that this will be a good thing—that the war will end, and she’ll be safe in her neighborhood—reveals her youth and naivete. But the fact that people are saying the bánh chung “will be smeared in blood” suggests that the opposite might happen.
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Kim Hà. The narrator introduces herself as . Brother Quang remembers that the first time he saw Hà, she was red and fat like a hippopotamus—so he calls her Hà Mā, or “River Horse.” Brother Vū startles Hà every time he 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, so she hides their sandals instead so the hot ground burns their feet. Mother always tell Hà to ignore her brothers and remember that she and Father named Hà after the Golden River. Hà’s parents have no idea how much Hà’s brothers torment her, but Hà adores her mother anyway. When Hà’s papaya tree bears fruit, she’ll give Mother first pick of the papayas.
Hà clearly has a somewhat fraught relationship with her brothers; at the very least, they like annoying her, and she gets revenge the only way she can by hiding their sandals. This all reads as very childish, however, suggesting that Hà and her siblings are still able to be kids despite the nearby war. Hà also shows that she’s very generous and forgiving, at least to the people she loves, like Mother.
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Papaya Tree. ’s papaya tree grew from a black seed. Now, it’s twice as tall as Hà. Brother Khôi, who’s 14 and taller than Hà, spotted its first flower. Brother Vū was the first to notice a fist-sized baby papaya on the trunk. He’s 18 and can see higher than Brother Khôi. Brother Quang is the oldest at 21; he’s studying engineering. He’ll no doubt see something important before Hà does. Hà vows to get up first thing every morning to study her papaya tree. She wants to be the first to see the fruit get ripe. It’s now mid-February.
Given that Hà has mentioned her papaya tree multiple times thus far, it’s clearly an important part of her life. Indeed, although it’s taller than any of her brothers, the tree is a symbol for Hà herself: like her, it’s just starting to grow up and blossom. Wanting to see the fruit get ripe first thus suggests that Hà wants to grow up and be more mature, like her brothers.
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TiTi Waves Good-bye. It’s now early March, and watches as her best friend TiTi sobs in the car next to her two brothers. The car is packed with suitcases. TiTi gives Hà a tin of flower seeds and waves as she drives away. Hà would still be standing and looking into the distance if Brother Khôi hadn’t led Hà away. He explains that TiTi’s family is traveling to Vūng Tau, where rich Vietnamese leave the country on cruise ships. Hà is happy her family is poor now, because that means they can stay.
The fact that TiTi’s family is leaving the country is ominous—it suggests that the approaching war poses danger to people in Hà’s neighborhood. Hà, though, is perhaps too young and innocent to realize this. Insisting she’s happy her family is poor because this means they can stay in Vietnam highlights how connected Hà is to her home—and how innocent she is to the threat the war poses.
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Missing in Action. explains that nine years ago on this day, March 10, Father 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 foods, and she pulls out the photo taken the year he disappeared. In the photo, he’s peaceful and smiling. Everyone in the family prays and hopes. Mother leaves the altar up all day, but she puts the photo away early. She can’t stand looking at Father longer than necessary.
Commemorating the day Father disappeared is another tradition that helps Hà feel secure and as though life is proceeding as it should. However, this tradition is complicated because it’s also sad, and Mother seems to be taking Father’s continued absence very hard. Hà seems very in tune with how Mother is feeling about it, which speaks to how close they are.
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Mother’s Days. During the week, Mother works as a secretary in a navy office. At night, she designs baby clothes and hires seamstresses to sew the garments. A few years ago, she had enough money to think about buying a car. On the weekends, accompanies Mother to the market, where Mother drops off new garments and collects profits from the last week. She laments that nobody buys the clothes anymore, since food is so expensive. But Mother still keeps trying.
The way that Hà describes Mother’s various occupations and how things have changed in the last few weeks helps explain why, as Hà noted in the poem “TiTi Waves Good-bye,” her family is poor. Mother is working, but the secretary job doesn’t seem to pay enough on its own, and not enough people are buying baby clothes to earn much profit. 
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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 and a half, and the family members take turns eating them. When it’s his turn, Brother Khôi puts his egg under a lamp in the hopes it will hatch. knows she should support her “most tolerable brother,” but she loves dipping bread in a soft yolk. Mother insists that if everything wasn’t so expensive—if gasoline didn’t cost as much as gold, and if rice didn’t cost as much as gasoline—Brother Khôi could keep trying to hatch eggs.
Given how poor Hà’s family is, the eggs are no doubt an important source of calories and protein—and to Mother, having the food far outweighs Brother Khôi’s desire to hatch a chick. It’s also obvious to Hà that the eggs should be eaten, since she frames getting an egg as a treat that she savors when it’s her turn. Noting that rice costs as much as gasoline suggests that most foods—even staple foods like rice—are becoming prohibitively expensive as a result of the war.
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Current News. On Fridays, Miss Xinh’s class talks about current events. But as they keep talking about the same things, like how close the Communists are to Saigon, how many bombs they’ve heard, or how expensive things are now that the Americans are gone, Miss Xinh refuses to talk anymore about current events. She insists they talk about “happy news” on Fridays, but nobody has anything to say.
By this point, near the end of March, many Americans in Vietnam were starting to leave to escape the approaching North Vietnamese army. The threat of war seems to overshadow anything good in Hà and her classmates’ lives, hence why they have nothing happy to share on Fridays.
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Feel Smart. 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 a little bit less of everything that Mother asks for, and using the extra cash to buy sugary treats for herself. But in September, it took 100 dong to buy groceries, and now groceries cost twice that. Hà still buys a bit less than Mother asks for. Nobody knows about her trick, and it makes Hà feel smart.
Being sent to the market on her own makes Hà feel smart and mature. Again, she shows how important special food is to her happiness when she describes making sure she has just enough change to buy herself a treat. This is a way to hold onto her childhood and her innocence too, though Hà might not think of it in this way.
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Two More Papayas. At the beginning of April, spots two more papayas on her tree. They’re “Two green thumbs” that by summer will be sweet and orangey yellow. Ripe papayas are soft as yams and barely need to be chewed.
Likening the papayas to human thumbs reinforces their symbolism for Hà. Like Hà, they’re at the beginning of their maturation process—and like Hà, who’s on the brink of starting puberty and becoming an adult, they’ll soon be fully grown.
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Unknown Father. All 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 watching them sleep. Sometimes, Brother Quang tells Hà about how Father would say “Tuyet sút,” the Vietnamese way to say “toute de suite” (French for “right away”) and follow Mother around the kitchen, asking for stewed eel tuyet sút. It made Mother laugh. Sometimes, Hà says “tuyet sút” to herself quietly, just to pretend she knows Father. She’d never say it in front of Mother, so as to not make Mother any sadder.
Father disappeared when Hà was still a baby, so she doesn’t have any memories of him. Instead, she has to cling to these small tidbits that Mother and Brother Quang share with her. Mentioning how much Father loved the stewed eels again highlights the importance of food, this time to the family’s culture: it was something that Mother and Father connected over, and now it connects Hà to her Father.
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TV News. Brother Quang hurries home on his bike (he can’t afford gas for his moped anymore) and angrily turns on the TV. A South Vietnamese pilot bombed the presidential palace earlier and then flew north to accept a medal. Apparently, the pilot has been a Communist spy for years. doesn’t understand—the Communists captured Father, so why would a pilot work with them? Brother Quang flaunts how smart he’s become since starting college by saying that “One cannot justify war / unless each side / flaunts its own / blind conviction.” Hà starts to tell him he’s being pretentious, but Mother gives Hà their silent signal to calm down.
Noting that Brother Quang can’t afford gas reminds readers of how dire life in South Vietnam is becoming. That the pilot bombs the palace and reveals himself to be a spy makes the situation seem even more frightening. Hà’s youth and innocence again shines through here. Her loyalties and concerns are small compared to how huge the war is, and this makes it hard for her to understand that not everyone has a missing father to guide their loyalty.
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Birthday. Since is the youngest in the family, she gets to celebrate her actual birthday. She 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 her birthday. It’s never easy to convince Mother to talk about her childhood in the North, but Mother gives in today. Mother’s only duties as a girl were to look pretty and write poetry. She was promised to Father when she was five, and they married at age 16. Everything changed when people learned the name Ho Chi Minh. People lost their houses—they suddenly belonged to the government.
The war and the worsening economic situation mean that Hà’s birthday treats aren’t as elaborate as usual. Learning a little bit more about Mother seems to increase Hà’s admiration of her. Through Mother’s story, it’s clear that things have changed a lot for her since she was a girl: where she was raised to be pretty and pursue her personal interests, she’s now a working single mother. Ho Chi Minh was the leader of the Communists in Vietnam at the beginning of the Vietnam War; his ascent to power changed Mother’s life dramatically.
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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 soon as his daughter-in-law gave birth. But before the baby was born and he could travel, the North and the South cut all contact and closed the border. At this point in the story, Mother closes her eyes. Her eyes are like no one else’s: they’re almond-shaped, like ’s, but they’re deeper like Westerners’. Hà has always wanted her mother’s eyes, but Mother encourages Hà to not think like that. Mother’s eyes have always carried great sadness. Hà begs to hear more about Mother’s childhood, but Mother refuses to open her eyes or say anything more.
The war tore families apart when it split the country in two and closed the border between North and South Vietnam. Hà implies that Mother hasn’t spoken to her father or any of her other family members since this day the border closed—and this means that she carries around immense sadness. Hà doesn’t seem to quite understand that Mother’s eyes, while beautiful, are the way they are because she’s so sad. Mother wants better for her daughter than to spend her life grieving for family members she may not ever see again.
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Birthday Wishes. Later that night, makes secret wishes. She wishes she could 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 her brothers’ taunts, and that Mother would stop encouraging Hà to be calm. Hà wishes she had a sister, and she wishes Father would come home. Mostly, though, Hà wishes Father would come home so that Mother could smile instead of frowning all the time.
Hà’s wishes reveal that she’d like to be able to make more choices for herself, and not be so caught up in gendered expectations—a sign she’s starting to come of age and crave independence. Then, Hà’s love for Mother shines through again when she wishes for Father to come home, but mostly so Mother could be happy again. This again suggests that while Hà and her family are close, Father’s absence is something that looms over them and prevents them from feeling fully content.
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A Day Downtown. Every year in the spring, President Thieu puts on a long ceremony for “war wives.” Mother takes to the ceremony because after President Thieu is done talking about winning the war, democracy, or soldiers’ bravery, he gives out food to each family. As they cross the bridge leading to downtown, Hà studies Mother. Though Mother is worried, she’s beautiful—even her sunken eyes.
Hà frames this event as one that Mother actually has little interest in. Its seems like a display of sympathy for “war wives” that isn’t genuine—the only reason they go is so they can get the free food at the end. For Hà, though, this is still a fun outing with her mother, whom she adores despite Mother’s sadness.
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Soon, 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 the vendor seemingly magically make crepes that they then fill with shrimp, cucumber, and bean sprouts. As Hà savors her treat, the noise of the market seems to disappear. Then, Mother leads Hà to the presidential palace, where they stand in line and then sit on hot benches in the beating afternoon sun. Hà is so thirsty that she’s dizzy; the fish sauce from the báhn cuon was salty. She sucks on a tamarind candy from Mother until President Thieu appears. He thanks the wives for their suffering and then sobs into the cameras. Mother mutters, “tears of an ugly fish.” Hà knows Mother thinks the president’s tears are fake.
The joy Hà’s takes in the bánh cuon again emphasizes how important traditional Vietnamese food is to her, to the point that it almost seems magical. Notably, Hà doesn’t seem nearly as intent on paying attention to President Thieu as she is in paying attention to how Mother reacts. In this way, she’s learning how to think about the world by paying attention to Mother and modeling what she sees.
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Twisting Twisting. Mother measures the rice left in the bin and discovers there’s not enough to feed the family until she’s paid at the end of the month. Her twisting brows are “like laundry / being wrung dry.” But Mother smiles and says they can mix the rice with yam and manioc. knows how the poor eat; Mother isn’t fooling her.
Mother is trying to make the best of a difficult situation, but in this case, Hà is far more astute than Mother gives her credit for. Hà can tell that the family is poor, and she seems to resent Mother’s attempt to ignore this fact. This is a big change from earlier in the novel, when Hà was glad to be poor because it meant she could stay in Saigon.
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Closed Too Soon. In the middle of Miss Xinh’s lesson on President Ford, a siren goes off. This signals that school is closed—a month early. 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 that Mother will scold Hà for being mean. But Hà needs time to figure out this word problem asking how much the wind will slow down a man on a bike. The first person to solve it will get the sweet potato plant in the window, and Hà wants it so it can climb her papaya tree. She pinches Tram again; Tram is the teacher’s pet and will get the plant.
The war is starting to have tangible effects on Hà’s life: in addition to making her family poorer, now it’s taking away Hà’s education. Hà doesn’t know how to manage her anger, so she takes it out on Tram by pinching her. It seems as though Hà desperately wishes she were the best student in class—being the teacher’s pet comes with perks, after all, like getting this sweet potato.
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Promises. There are now five papayas on the tree. Some of them are as big as ’s head; others are as big as a knee or her thumb. They’re all green, but they’re all promising.
Again, just like Hà, the papayas are developing and are full of potential and promise. But Hà’s schooling was just brought to an abrupt end, thereby limiting her potential, which foreshadows that the papayas might not reach their full potential either.
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Bridge to the Sea. Father’s best friend, Uncle Son, visits ’s family. He’s short and always smiles, unlike Father, who was tall and serious. Sometimes, when people ask about Father, Hà thinks of him as “short and smiley” first. Uncle Son goes to the kitchen and studies the door, which opens into an alley. He notes that this is 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 how she feels about a navy ship. Mother is incredulous—she doesn’t think the navy will abandon the country—but Uncle Son insists that “There won’t be a South Vietnam / left to abandon.” This house, he says, will be their “bridge to the sea.”
Having no real memories of Father means that Hà has to essentially fabricate memories based on what other people say about him. This isn’t always easy, especially with someone like Uncle Son in Hà’s life—he seems to be a sort of father figure, and he’s in the forefront of Hà’s mind. Uncle Son insists that Mother must consider how to get her family out of the country safely, an indicator that the war is getting closer and more dangerous, as Uncle Son suggests that the country itself might not even exist soon.
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Should We? Mother calls a family meeting and explains that several neighbors have bought airplane tickets out of the country or have a van ready to leave. She asks if they should go. Brother Quang insists they must stay to help rebuild the country, and Brother Khôi asks what will happen if Father comes back and they’re gone. Brother Vū says they have to go, but knows he just wants to go to where Bruce Lee lived. Mother’s eyebrows twist as she says that after living in the North, she knows how things will go. At first, nothing will happen—but then Quang will leave college and chant Ho Chi Minh’s slogans, and Khôi will be praised for telling his teacher what his family talks about.
Hà’s brothers’ different personalities and concerns are evident as they give their reasons for staying or leaving: Brother Quang is extremely proud to be Vietnamese, Brother Khôi is connected to his family, and Brother Vū cares about Bruce Lee most of all. Despite soliciting her children’s opinions, Mother seems to have made up her mind to leave anyway. Her understanding of how life will proceed suggests that staying in South Vietnam is going to put the family in danger and divide them.
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Sssshhhhhhh. Just before dawn on April 18, Brother Khôi shakes awake and leads her to the back garden. He shows 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 pinkies.
Brother Khôi and Hà are perhaps too young to fully grasp the gravity of what Mother said earlier. They’re connected emotionally to the chick and to the papaya tree, respectively, and it’s these small comforts that Brother Khôi insists are worth staying and putting the family in danger for.
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Quiet Decision. The next evening, helps Mother peel sweet potatoes to mix with the rice. As she goes to chop off a thumbnail-size end of a potato, she decides instead to chop off just a sliver. She’s proud; she can save. But then, Hà notices Mother crying. Mother says that Hà deserves to grow up without worrying about half a bite of sweet potato.
In Hà’s mind, she’s growing up and learning a more useful mindset by saving a tiny bit of sweet potato. But to Mother, this is proof that Hà fully understands how poor the family is—and from her perspective, it’s tragic that Hà is taking on the emotional burden of getting the family as much food as possible. 
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Early Monsoon. ’s family pretends that the monsoon came early. They can hear bombs, which sound like thunder; and gunfire sounds like rain. It’s still distant, but they can hear the sounds and see the flashes. It’s not that far away.
In this poem, Hà seems to undergo a loss of innocence. While at first, she can more or less pretend that the war is a monsoon, by the end, it’s impossible to ignore that the war is close—and dangerous.
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The President Resigns. watches the TV. On it, President Thieu looks shockingly “sad and yellow.” He cries and 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.
Again, Hà doesn’t quite know what to think about President Thieu’s theatrics, so she looks to Mother. While Hà initially seems to take him at face value (by noting how sad and poorly colored he is), Mother’s reaction suggests that this is just an act.
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Watch Over Us. Uncle Son comes back and insists they must be ready to leave at any moment. He also says they can’t tell anyone, or everyone in Saigon will storm the port. explains that Uncle Son and Father were in the same graduating navy class, 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. She explains that she and Father made a pact. They decided that if they’re separated, they’ll find each other at Father’s ancestral home in the North.
It seems that President Thieu’s resignation spurs Uncle Son to decide that they won’t be safe in the country anymore—things are changing too fast, and not for the better. Mother is trying to make the best of this frightening situation by telling Hà (and herself) that someday, she and Father will meet back up in the North. Essentially, Mother justifies the choice to leave by telling herself that seeing Father again isn’t contingent on staying in their current home. 
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Crisscrossed Packs. Mother pushes her sewing machine as fast as it can go as she sews packs with crisscrossed straps to go across a person’s chest. But as the hours pass, she sews more and more slowly. When she finishes the first of five bags, Brother Khôi tells her to just make three. At this, Mother grabs Father’s portrait off a shelf and says either they all stay or they all go—it’s up to Brother Khôi. She knows Brother Khôi can’t stand hurting anyone. Mother tells him that he can make Father proud by obeying. looks at her toes, but she knows her brother is staring at her. Finally, though, he nods. It’s impossible to go against Mother.
Noting how Mother’s sewing pace slows highlights how arduous this process is—getting the family ready to leave the country is a monumental task. And when Hà observes that Brother Khôi can’t stand hurting anyone, this indicates that people are inevitably going to get hurt if they stay. Hà breaks her promise with Brother Khôi, which may be a sign of how scared Hà is, or of how much she loves and trusts Mother.
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Choice. Everyone packs clothes, toiletries, and rice in their packs. For their last item, it’s their choice what they want to bring. chooses her doll. She once let a neighbor borrow the doll, and the neighbor left it outside. The mice bit the doll’s cheek and thumb, but Hà loves her doll more with her “scars.” Hà dresses her doll in a matching dress, hat, and booties that Mother knitted.
Choosing her doll highlights how young Hà is: she still needs this childish comfort to feel secure as everything else around her changes. And dressing the doll in clothes that Mother made is another way for Hà to show her love for and loyalty to Mother, since she implies that she had other choices.
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Left Behind. Mother leaves behind a set of 10 gold-rimmed glasses Father brought back from America, Brother Quang’s report cards, and blooming bougainvillea and jasmine vines. They leave behind the cowboy belt Brother Vū sewed when he still liked Johnny Cash more than Bruce Lee. Brother Khôi leaves behind the glass jars in which he raised fighting fish, and leaves her hammock. Mother chooses 10 family photographs and burns the rest—they can’t leave any evidence of Father. It might hurt him.
Hà’s family leaves behind evidence that they’ve made a life here. Each item they leave has memories associated with it, such as of Brother Vū’s former life as a Johnny Cash lover, or Hà’s days spent lounging in the hammock. Having to burn the photographs they can’t take highlights how afraid Mother is of the Communists for Father’s sake: it’s imperative they don’t connect this house to Father, if they still have him. 
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Wet and Crying. ’s biggest papaya is light yellow flecked with 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 should eat fresh fruit now, while they still can. Brother Vū chops down the papaya, and black seeds spill out. The seeds are like “clusters of eyes, / wet and crying.”
Mother implies that the children won’t have much fresh fruit for a while, which is an ominous sign of what’s to come. The journey is going to be very hard, and the family may have even less to eat than they do now. For Hà, cutting the papaya and seeing the “crying” “eyes” of the fruit mirrors her own anxiety about having to leave. She’s losing her childhood, her homeland, and her culture, whether she fully realizes all of this or not.
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Sour Backs. When and her family get to the port on the afternoon of April 29, they realize there are no secrets among the Vietnamese: thousands of people are there to board navy ships. Uncle Son sticks his elbows out to 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 Brother Khôi forward. Hà decides she’ll never make fun of Bruce Lee again.
That there are so many other families at the port shows that Hà’s family aren’t the only ones terrified of what might happen if they stay. But despite sharing a goal with everyone else at the port, Hà’s family members are still on their own: they have to work hard to stick together and not get separated or hurt. Suddenly, Brother Vū starts to look more heroic to Hà.
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One Mat Each. ’s family boards a ship and settles on two straw mats below deck. But by sunset, they’re huddled on a single mat. The ship is packed, on deck and below—there are so many people that the ship could sink. And yet, people keep boarding the ship. Nobody tells anyone to not board, though. That would be heartless.
This poem suggests that in general, the Vietnamese trying to flee the country don’t see other would-be refugees as competitors or liabilities. They’re all in the same boat (both literally and figuratively), trying to escape a worse fate than drowning, and so they’re willing to stay quiet about the ship possibly being overloaded.
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In the Dark. Uncle Son appears and leads Mother, , and Hà’s brothers off the ship. Apparently the next ship over is better equipped with water, food, and fuel. Uncle Son and Mother linger on the dock as people mill around and bombs explode nearby. The port is dark, so it doesn’t become a target. Finally, Hà follows Uncle Son and her family back onto the first ship, where they reclaim their original two mats. In the pitch darkness, near midnight and with half the original number of passengers, the ship heads for the sea.
Just because people aren’t telling others not to board a ship doesn’t mean people aren’t worried about the safety implications. It seems like lots of people are doing what Uncle Son leads Mother to do: getting off, boarding another ship, or getting back on once enough other people have gotten off. Leaving in the middle of the night adds some drama and heightens the sense that Hà’s family is doing something dangerous. 
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Saigon Is Gone. listens to Mother’s swishing fan, whispering adults, and faraway bombs. The commander told everyone to go below deck, even though the ship is taking a safe route on a river. This means they’ll avoid going through Vūng Tau, which is where the Communists are dropping bombs. Hopefully TiTi is safe. Even though the ship is barely moving, Mother is very seasick. Hà listens to a nearby helicopter circling, and people start to scream, “Communists!” The ship rocks as passengers run from one side to the other. The commander tells people the helicopter is on their side as the pilot leaps into the water. Soon after, the pilot appears below deck. He announces that at noon, the Communists drove tanks into the presidential palace and planted their flag on the roof. He says it’s all over—“Saigon is gone.”
At this point, Hà and her family have little control over what happens to them. They have to trust people, like the commander and the pilot, to keep them safe and tell them the truth. The pilot shares that what’s now known as the Fall of Saigon has occurred: the North has taken over South Vietnam, and the country is now in the process of unifying. Interestingly, by ending the poem where she does, Hà doesn’t share any thoughts or emotions about this event. She may be too young to fully comprehend what happened, and life on the ship may seem more interesting and relevant to her than the war does.
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Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Icon