Unpack and Repack. Days later, Hà and her family members are giddy as they get off the plane in Alabama. Their cowboy takes them to his huge house surrounded by a perfect green lawn. He invites them to stay until they feel ready. Hà smiles and unpacks her two outfits. But later, when she gets a look at the cowboy’s wife—whose entire body seems to be contorted in a knot—she repacks.
Upon first arriving in Alabama, it seems like things are going great: the cowboy is kind, his house is big and roomy, and Hà and her family feel comfortable. But the cowboy’s wife ruins all of this with her tense body language. Why the wife is so upset seems lost on Hà, but the fact remains that the woman is not happy to have these guests and has no problem being unwelcoming.
English Above All. Hà and her family spend all their time in the cowboy’s basement, where they don’t see the cowboy’s wife. Hà has to stand on a chair perched on a table just to 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 ship, but Hà wishes Mother wouldn’t try to make this terrible experience better. Then, Mother calls a family meeting and says that they can’t do, think, or hope for anything else until they master English. They can’t even think of Father. Hà knows she doesn’t mean it.
The cowboy’s wife clearly objects to something about Hà’s family, whether that be their poverty, their race, or perhaps even Mother’s status as a single mother. No matter her reasoning, though, the effect is the same: Hà senses the woman’s displeasure, and it makes her feel alone and ashamed. And she seems to believe that it does more harm than good to gloss over the wife’s poor treatment.
First Rule. According to Brother Quang, you must add an s to a noun if you’re talking about multiple things—even if there’s already an s there. So, glass becomes glasses. Hà spends her day practicing her hissing. She figures that the person who invented English probably loved snakes.
Now that Hà is in the U.S., she must learn English in order to assimilate. This isn’t an easy prospect—she’s having to learn totally new sound combinations, as with the “hissing” s sound at the end of words like glass.
American Chicken. The cowboy brings most food wrapped in plastic or canned. Any meat comes chopped up and frozen. Mostly, Hà’s family lives on rice, soy sauce, and canned corn. But today, the cowboy brings fried chicken in a paper bucket. Brother Khôi draws back, and the cowboy bites into a leg and smiles. 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 they’re used to chickens killed fresh after roaming the yard. Chickens butchered that way tastes sweeter. Hà bites into a thigh. It tastes like soggy bread. She hopes that soon, she’ll be able to ride the cowboy’s horse.
Hà doesn’t say it outright, but she implies that while the cowboy offers her family meat to cook, they generally refuse it in favor of rice and canned corn. Encountering this fried chicken that seems little better than “soggy bread” makes Hà feel less at home than she already did. In this sad moment, though, she’s able to hope for something more exciting: getting to ride a horse.
Out the Too-High Window. Out the window, Hà can see that every house has a bright green yard. All the houses have big windows, but with curtains that cover them up. Nobody walks on the sidewalks, and few cars pass. It’s quiet—“Clean, quiet / loneliness.”
The cowboy’s neighborhood reads as very quiet and suburban. Given how Hà described her own bustling neighborhood and the rest of Saigon, this is very different from what she’s used to.
Second Rule. Hà learns to add an s to verbs when one person performs the action in the present tense, even if there’s already an s. So she chooses, and he refuses. She’s getting better at hissing—she doesn’t spit on herself anymore.
With Brother Quan’s help, Hà is learning how to communicate in the U.S. At this point, she’s feeling good about things, since she can “hiss” properly now.
American Address. The 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. Mother is shocked by the government’s generosity, but Brother Quang says they’re just guilty after losing the war. At this, Mother grows angry and tells Brother Quang to be quiet. She insists that they can’t afford political opinions at the moment, when they depend on others’ goodwill.
Mother goes into this encounter with the cowboy believing that he’s helping her out of the goodness of his heart—which he is doing, but with money the government has given him to enable this kind of generosity. Brother Quan doesn’t think the cowboy’s help isn’t something to get excited about—it’s pity, not generosity. But Mother believes that it’s essential they be grateful. Without the help, they’re powerless.
Hà inspects the house. There are two bedrooms and a washing machine—nobody here will do laundry in exchange for rice. There’s a stove with blue flames, rather than ashy coals. Hà loves the shower best, especially the way the water massages her scalp. But she doesn’t like the mismatched sofas, chairs, stained mattresses, and mismatched dishes. Everything has been donated by the cowboy’s friends. Hà’s family has always had lovely furniture and matching dishes, even when they were really poor. But Mother tells Hà to be grateful, and Hà tries.
Some things about the new house are great, such as the clean stove and the shower. But it’s impossible for Hà to ignore that this house still feels like a huge step down, since none of the furniture or dishes match. But just as Mother warned Brother Quan to be grateful, she does the same here. Hà and her family depend on people’s kindness right now, and they can’t afford to reject anything they’re given.
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 first time Mother has contacted anyone in the North since the country split up, and unless Father has sent word to his brother, this will be the first Father’s brother hears of Father’s disappearance. Hà shivers with hope.
For Mother, the best part about moving into her own home is that she now has an address and can contact family in what used to be North Vietnam. This is an exciting prospect for her and for Hà: they may finally be able to piece their family back together with information from Father’s brother.
Third Rule. There are always exceptions in English, such as the nouns that don’t get an s when they become plural. There’s one deer, and there are also two deer. Hà asks why deer doesn’t get an s but monkey does. According to Brother Quang, nobody knows. Hà thinks that a snake should bite whoever invented English.
The exceptions in the English language are difficult for Hà to understand, let alone accept. In previous poems where she was learning English, it seemed like she was making progress, but now, English is starting to seem nonsensical to her and barely worth learning.
Passing Time. Since staring at the grass and trees doesn’t do anything, Hà studies the dictionary. She looks up Jane, which isn’t listed. Sees means “to eyeball something,” and a spot is a stain. Run means to move quickly. Put together, the sentence reads that something “eyeballs stain move.” Hà asks Brother Quang for help. He explains that Jane is a name, and Spot is a dog’s name. So the sentence is actually that a girl named Jane sees a dog named Spot run. Hà can’t even read “a baby book.” Nobody will believe that at home, she read Nhat Linh—but nobody here probably knows who he is.
Readers may recognize Hà’s reading material as one of the Dick and Jane books, which are intended for beginning readers. Hà tries to go about decoding the first sentence logically, with the dictionary—but the dictionary doesn’t tell Hà everything, such as that Spot and Jane are names. Not being able to read the book isn’t Hà’s fault, and it doesn’t reflect her intelligence. But not being able to read this book nevertheless hurts Hà’s self-esteem, especially since she was among the top of her class in Vietnam and was reading Nhat Linh, who wrote literature aimed at adults.
Neigh Not Hee. Since Brother Quang is tired of translating, the cowboy takes Hà to register for school. Hà figures he’ll let her ride his horse. She starts to climb into his truck, but he motions that they’ll walk to school. Hà memorizes the route: she turns right by the big blue flowers and left where the purple flowers are like “fluffy wands.” It’s hot, and Hà’s armpits are embarrassing—she won’t raise the reins too high. The cowboy leads Hà to a red brick building. A 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.
The prospect of registering for school is anxiety-inducing for Hà, which could be one reason she fixates so much on riding the cowboy’s horse afterward—it’s something fun to look forward to. Memorizing her route by taking note of the flowers in people’s gardens suggests that Hà is starting to look for the beauty in her new home. This isn’t enough, though, to make up for the shame Hà feels when the woman at school so openly pities her. The woman’s pity denies Hà her dignity.
On the walk home, Hà works up her courage and asks the cowboy, “You, hor-ssssse? / Hee, hee, hee. / I go, go.” The cowboy shakes his head, so Hà gallops and says “Hee, hee, hee,” again. At home, Brother Quang translates: Mr. Johnson doesn’t have a horse and has never ridden one. Hà is incredulous; what kind of cowboy doesn’t have a horse? Then, the cowboy explains that here, horses say “neigh,” not “hee.” This is absurd. Hà doesn’t know where she is.
Hà frames asking to ride the cowboy’s horse as something that’s difficult for her to do—she’s asking a favor of someone she admires, in a language she barely knows. Learning that the cowboy isn’t a cowboy and doesn’t even own a horse is an earthshattering moment for Hà. Everything she thought about the U.S. was wrong, and now she feels completely lost.
Fourth Rule. Apparently, some verbs change all the time for no reason. So I am, but she is, they are, and they were. Things would be so much easier if English—and life—were logical.
Following the horse crisis with this poem about irregular verbs reflects how lost and alone Hà feels in Alabama, largely because she doesn’t know how to communicate.
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 will go to school and repeat their last unfinished grade. Brother Vū is upset; he wants to be a cook or teach martial arts, not repeat his senior year. Mother simply tells him, “College.” Brother Khôi gets a bike, but Mother insists that even though Hà is the oldest kid in the fourth grade, she isn’t old enough for one. Mother encourages Hà to worry about sleeping because tomorrow, she can’t nap. Instead, she’ll eat lunch at school with friends she’ll make. Belligerently, Hà asks what she’ll be eating and says she hates surprises. When Hà refuses to cooperate, Mother walks away.
Seemingly none of Hà’s family members are happy about the prospect of going out and starting their new lives tomorrow, because nobody is getting exactly what they want. In Hà’s case, this anxiety and annoyance comes out as belligerence: she wants to know exactly what’s going to happen tomorrow. But Mother can’t tell her what will happen, in part because Mother doesn’t know. Not knowing how school is going to go, what she’ll eat, or how kids will treat her is extremely stressful for Hà, when she already feels so alone and lost in Alabama.
Sadder Laugh. Hà wakes up on the first day of school with dragonflies in her belly and eats nothing. She walks carefully to school, enjoying the cool air and taking deep breaths. She’s the first student there. The teacher loudly introduces herself as MiSSS SScott. When Hà repeats the name, enunciating each s, the teacher doesn’t seem impressed. Hà touches her own chest and says her name, but MiSSS SScott fakes a laugh. Hà wishes she knew English so she could tell the teacher to listen for the diacritical mark that changes the tone. But instead, MiSSS SScott fakes a sad laugh again.
Even though she’s nervous, Hà is doing her best to show MiSSS SScott that she’s taken Brother Quan’s lessons about s sounds to heart—but her teacher seems to have no idea this is even something Hà had to work on. Vietnamese is a tonal language, meaning that vowels rise and fall in ways they don’t in English. MiSSS SScott seems not to understand that “Hà” and “ha” (laughter) sound totally different from each other in Vietnamese, and she ends up speaking offensively as a result.
Rainbow. Hà stands in front of the class while MiSSS SScott speaks. Each student says something, but Hà doesn’t understand. She studies her classmates: some have bright hair on spotted skin, while others have fuzzier dark hair on shiny skin. A few have braids on chocolate-colored skin, and there’s a pink boy with white hair. Hà is the only kid with straight black hair on olive-colored skin.
Students are presumably introducing themselves when they each say something, but just as Hà didn’t realize Jane was a name when she tried to read, she doesn’t understand that she’s hearing names now. Instead, all she can focus on is that nobody looks like her. This makes her feel like she doesn’t fit in at all.
Black and White and Yellow and Red. When the bell rings, Hà follows her classmates to line up and walk down the hallway. She takes a tray and gets her food. Everyone else sits, kids with light skin on one side of the room and kids with dark skin on the other. Everyone seems happy—as though they’ve never considered “someone medium” exists. Hà doesn’t know where to sit, and she doesn’t know how to eat the “pink sausage / snuggled inside bread,” which is smeared with yellow and red sauces. At first, she thinks they’re making fun of the Vietnamese flag—but then she realizes nobody here knows the colors of that flag. Hà puts her tray down and waits in the hall.
As a person with “medium” skin, Hà doesn’t know if she should sit with the white kids or the Black kids, which creates another crisis for her. Not knowing where to sit, combined with not knowing how to eat a hot dog, is too much for Hà to face at the moment. The best option that she sees is to go wait in the hallway by herself, where she doesn’t have to make a decision or admit that she doesn’t know what to do. For now, it’s easier to hide than ask for help.
Loud Outside. When the bell rings again, Hà follows her classmates outside. All the kids of all colors surround Hà, shouting and pushing. The pink boy with white hair, eyebrows, and eyelashes pulls Hà’s arm hair and laughs. Hà’s hair does grow long and black. Perhaps he’s curious, just like Hà was curious about the sailor’s golden fuzz. But when the boy pokes Hà’s cheek and then her chest while everyone else laughs, she realizes they’re not curious. Though Hà wants to pull all the boy’s white hair out to see if his scalp is as pink as his face, she walks away.
Hà is more than ready to give her classmates the benefit of the doubt and assume that they’re just curious about her. She is the only one at school who has “medium” skin, after all, and she knows what it’s like to encounter someone who looks different from what one has ever seen. But it quickly becomes clear that her classmates are being mean, not curious, and this increases Hà’s desire to hide and be alone.
Laugh Back. The pink boy and two of his loud friends follow Hà home. To help her walk faster (she doesn’t want to run), Hà counts her steps in English. She walks and counts faster as the pink boy shouts at her. Hà doesn’t care what Pink Boy is saying, but she knows she has to care if she’s ever going to be able to laugh back at him.
Hà doesn’t want to take the bullies too seriously or spend time worrying about what they’re saying. But as a beginning English learner, Hà also knows that she must know what they’re saying if she’s ever going to fit in. In this situation, learning English is a necessary evil—when she knows what they’re saying, she’ll know exactly how cruel they’re being.
Quiet Inside. When Hà gets home, 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 Brother Quang gets home, he throws down his shirt and showers. His nails are still edged in black oil by dinnertime. Brother Vū, though, comes home whistling, and he eats four pork chops at dinner. Hà only eats two. She suspects having muscles makes it easier to whistle.
For most of Hà’s family members, today was difficult: things are very different than they were in Saigon, and adjusting to life in Alabama is hard. Nobody, though, seems quite ready to talk about it. So, although Hà feels some solidarity with Brother Khôi, for instance, nobody is willing to talk about what happened and make one another feel less alone.
Fly Kick. Hà sneaks into her brothers’ room and shakes Brother Vū awake. Outside, she tells him that kids pulled her arm hair, threw rocks, and threatened to step on her chest. Brother Vū yawns and tells Hà to ignore them.
Brother Vū seems, to Hà, like an obvious choice to ask for help, since he seemed to have a fine day. His nonchalance as he tells Hà to ignore her bullies, though, might be frustrating for Hà.
Hà asks Brother Vū why he was whistling earlier. Brother Vū explains that someone called him “Ching Chong” today. He doesn’t know what it means, but it didn’t sound nice. So, when the boy tripped Brother Vū, Brother Vū almost scissor-kicked him in the face. He missed on purpose; he just wanted the boy to stop, not to hurt him. Hà says she would’ve kicked the boy and asks Brother Vū to teach her to fly-kick. He refuses—Hà has too much of a temper. Hà shouts that she’s so mad and that she shouldn’t have to run away. When she starts to cry, Brother Vū offers to teach her defense. He won’t explain how this will help.
Brother Vū doesn’t have to know what “Ching Chong” means to pick up on the fact that it’s an insult (in fact, it’s an ethnic slur used to mock Asian people). But he came out on top in this interaction with his defensive moves and with threats. This suggests that Brother Vū isn’t quite as confrontational as Hà is (or wants to be). Offering to teach her defense is, perhaps, a way to try to train Hà to be less confrontational. Her anger reflects how powerless she feels, though, and defense seems like a poor consolation prize when all she wants to do is hurt the people who are making her life miserable.
Chin Nod. When Hà is halfway down the block the next morning, she hears Brother Khôi’s bicycle. He pats the upper bar of the frame and Hà climbs on sidesaddle. She asks, “Every day?” and he nods into the top of her head. He nods again when Hà asks if he’ll pick her up after school too. Hà feels like she’s floating.
Hà and Brother Khôi might not speak much, but Brother Khôi can still make Hà feel like he cares and is paying attention. This makes it much easier for Hà to face going to school, where she no doubt fears she’ll be the victim of racist bullying yet again.
Feel Dumb. MiSSS SScott points to Hà and then to the English alphabet. Hà recites the alphabet, and then MiSSS SScott motions for the class to clap. Hà then counts to 20 in English. When the class claps, Hà is furious. She can’t explain to anyone that she already knows fractions. This must be what “dumb” feels like. Hà hates it.
Readers know that Hà isn’t “dumb”—she just doesn’t speak English and can’t tell MiSSS SScott what she knows. MiSSS SScott is being (perhaps unintentionally) bigoted here by assuming that just because Hà is Vietnamese and doesn’t speak English, she doesn’t know anything.
Wishes. Hà 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. She wishes the cowboy would buy a horse. Hà wishes she could be invisible until she could speak, and that she could learn English without all the rules. She also wishes Father would show up in her class, speaking his beautiful English, French, and Chinese. But mostly, Hà wishes she was still smart.
Hà would like her family members to speak up about the hardships they experience every day at work or school, as that might make her feel less alone. Wanting to be invisible is Hà’s way of wishing that she could hide away and avoid any bullying until she knows enough to fight back with her words. And wishing for multilingual Father to be here is essentially a wish for someone who could demonstrate that being Vietnamese doesn’t make someone unintelligent.
Hiding. These days, Brother Vū makes everyone call him Vu Lee. Hà has to say it without giggling in order to get her defense lessons. At school, Hà hides. She stares at her shoes during class and sits in the bathroom eating saved dinner rolls during lunch. She stays in the bathroom while everyone else goes outside. After school, Hà hides until Brother Khôi arrives on his bike. But when Hà is with Vu Lee, practicing her squat and learning to see everything at once, she feels like she’s “practicing / to be seen.”
Hà is, in some ways, getting her wish to be invisible until she can speak by hiding during free periods and staring at her shoes during class. She’s going out of her way to never have to speak to her classmates without adult supervision. At home, though, Hà is starting to feel a bit more secure thanks to Vu Lee’s lessons. With his support, Hà can accept that one day, she will be visible and vocal at school—and she can look forward to that day.
Neighbors. When someone throws eggs at Hà’s front door, the cowboy says it’s “Just dumb kids.” He says the same when people hang toilet paper from the window. But when someone throws a brick with a note tied around it through the front window, Brother Quang refuses to translate the note. The cowboy calls the police as Vu Lee “pops” his muscles. The police 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 is the only one who wears her hat.
Hà’s first-person perspective means that readers don’t know anything more about these incidents than she does, but it seems likely that they’re racially motivated. Alabama might not be as safe or as welcoming of a place as Mother initially believed it would be, after the cowboy’s kindness. To Mother, the solution is obvious: show the neighbors that she and her children are human, and that they deserve kindness and compassion too.
The bald man who lives to the family’s right closes his door on them, and the woman next to him slams her door. As more people don’t open their doors, Brother Quang, Vu Lee, and Brother Khôi’s faces turn red. But when the cowboy leads them to the house to their left, the older woman there hugs everyone. She introduces herself as MiSSSisss WaSShington and then hugs and kisses the cowboy. It turns out that MiSSSisss WaSShington is a widow and a retired teacher. She volunteers to tutor Hà and her brothers. Hà will visit right after school, but she’s afraid to tell the woman how much help she’s going to need.
Hà’s neighbors read as close-minded and perhaps bigoted. Her brothers pick up on this, and this increases their feelings of shame and inadequacy. It’s unclear if Hà fully understands why people are slamming their doors, which may explain why she doesn’t express shame like her brothers do. However, Hà does start to feel a bit of shame when MiSSSisss WaSShington offers to tutor her, as this means that Hà will have to open up about how difficult learning English has been for her.
New Word a Day. MiSSSisss WaSShington has rules of her own. Every day, she makes Hà memorize a word and practice it 10 times. Every time Hà remembers a word, MiSSSisss WaSShington hands over tiny bites of fruit or small cookies. Hà learns a lot of new rules, the most important being the one about a, an, and the. These are “little megaphones” that tell people who’s not a native English speaker. These words don’t exist in Vietnamese, and people get along just fine. MiSSSisss WaSShington insists that all languages have their own silly rules, but that they’re all beautiful. Just like Mother, MiSSSisss WaSShington always has an answer.
MiSSSisss WaSShington’s methods seem to work for Hà, as she’s learning new rules for the English language. This still isn’t easy or fun for her—indeed, it’s annoying to learn about words like a, an, and the, and to discover that her success in fitting in hinges on her ability to correctly use words that have no Vietnamese equivalents. But Hà starts to feel better when MiSSSisss WaSShington reminds her that all languages have quirks, and that this isn’t a bad thing.
More Is Not Better. Now, Hà understands when kids shout “ha-ha-ha” to make fun of her name, or when they ask if she eats dogs. She knows what they’re saying when they ask if she used to live in the jungle with tigers. Hà knows this now because she asked Brother Khôi if he hears the same things at his school. He nodded. Now that Hà understands, she wishes she could go back in time and not understand.
MiSSSisss WaSShington’s tutoring sessions have increased Hà’s understanding of English enough that now, she can understand her bullies’ taunts. It’s interesting that her bullies’ racist taunts are what she focuses on; the bullying is at the front of her mind. It doesn’t matter as much to Hà that now, she also better understand English speakers who aren’t cruel to her.
HA LE LU DA. The cowboy says that the neighbors would be more polite if the family agrees to something at the local Baptist church. When Hà and her family arrive at the church, the cowboy and his wife (who isn’t smiling) are waiting for them in the first row. On stage, a plump man shouts and everyone shouts back “HA LE LU DA.” After a while, a woman leads Hà and 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 pushes her under the water. Hà is ready to leap in after Mother when Mother stands up again.
The service at the Baptist church is shocking and unsettling for Hà—she’s not used to so much shouting, and she also has no idea what’s going on. This is best expressed by her understanding of what people are saying: “HA LE LU DA,” instead of what they’re probably actually saying, “hallelujah.” And it’s extremely unsettling for Hà to witness Mother being baptized—it seems violent and scary, even more so since she still doesn’t understand much English.
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 Hà has had her turn, she and her family get dressed and line up next to the cowboy and his wife, who’s now smiling. She smiles bigger as people kiss Hà’s cheeks. Hà’s skin grows chilly as she realizes they’ll be back here every Sunday.
As she’s baptized, Hà feels powerless: she can’t choose to skip this religious ceremony for a religion she doesn’t actually follow. The cowboy’s wife smiling after the family has been baptized reveals why she was so cruel to them earlier: they weren’t Christian.
Can’t Help. When Mother taps her nails on the table to signal she wants to be alone to chant, Hà goes to their bedroom. However, she continues to listen to Mother as she chants. The tones of Mother’s chant are so quiet after the “HA LE LU DAs” today. Mother has to hit a spoon against a glass bowl, since she doesn’t have a brass gong. And instead of jasmine incense, Mother has to burn dried orange peels, which isn’t calming. Hà can’t fall asleep. She needs to twirl the amethyst ring and smell Mother’s lavender smell, since unlike Mother, Hà isn’t as good at making do.
For Hà, it’s comforting to hear Mother chanting after her loud church experience. This is what she’s used to, and the chanting is what makes Hà feel secure and at peace. However, even Mother’s chanting is different here in Alabama, since she doesn’t have the proper gong or incense. Though it seems like Mother is getting something out of her modified chanting ritual, Hà is struggling: she misses how things used to be, and she craves those reminders of home.
When Mother comes in, she turns away from Hà; she wants to be alone longer. Hà sniffs quietly for lavender as Mother sighs and sniffles. Then, Mother asks someone where they are, and if they should keep hoping. She thinks Hà is asleep. Mother keeps sniffling quietly and tells Father to come home and see their children. Hà has spent her whole life wondering what it’s like to know someone one’s whole life, and then have that person disappear. Mother sighs that it’s harder here than she thought it would be. This is confirmation for Hà that no matter what Mother says, she can’t stop wishing for Father, just like Hà can’t stop tasting papaya in her dreams.
It’s eye-opening for Hà to hear Mother speaking to Father like this. It shows her that Mother is struggling too, but that Mother is trying to put on a brave face for her children’s sake. Hà can’t really empathize with Mother—she doesn’t know what it’s like to have a close loved one disappear after decades together. But she does realize that both she and Mother are grieving in similar ways: Mother for her husband, and Hà for the food that helped her feel secure and in touch with her culture in Saigon.
Spelling Rules. When adding an s to a word, the spelling sometimes changes. For instance, knife becomes knives. And sometimes, you use a c instead of a k, even if a k might make more sense. Similarly, y and e are sort of interchangeable. Hà thinks that whoever invented English should’ve learned to spell.
Again, these spelling rules seem ridiculous to Hà, which reflects how lost she feels in Alabama. Nothing makes sense, but for now, she can only direct her anger and powerlessness at language rather than at people.
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. Now, since Hà and her family were dipped at church, the cowboy brings gifts more often. Vu Lee likes beef jerky, while Hà prefers grapes. Today, the cowboy brings over chips and chocolate. Hà and her brothers finish the chips quickly, but Mother throws away the candy bars. Once Mother is asleep, Hà picks the bars out of the trash. They’ll make a better lunch than bread tomorrow.
Though Hà never described the cowboy as especially distant or unsupportive before, it’s interesting that his gifts have increased since the family was baptized. He may have held some preconceived notions of his own about the family, though Hà might not have picked up on them.
Someone Knows. Today, Hà learns the word delicious. MiSSSisss WaSShington asks if Hà’s lunch was delicious. She waits patiently while Hà translates in her head and then responds that she “eat candy in toilet.” MiSSSisss WaSShington looks panicked at this, and Hà amends that she ate in the toilet. This doesn’t make MiSSSisss WaSShington look any happier, so Hà says she doesn’t eat candy all the time.
That Hà is willing to tell the truth about sitting in the bathroom during lunch shows how much she trusts MiSSSisss WaSShington. She’s starting to feel more comfortable with her tutor, so it’s easier for Hà to admit that she feels she must hide when she’s at school.
Hà admits she always eats in the bathroom, but she can’t explain why. She doesn’t know how to describe how nervous she is whenever she thinks about all her classmates happily eating in the big, noisy room. Before Hà can speak, MiSSSisss WaSShington says she’ll pack Hà a lunch so she can eat in class, even though it’s against the rules. She promises things will get better. Hà doesn’t believe this, but it does feel good that someone knows what’s going on.
Hà can’t articulate all she’s feeling, though it’s unclear if this is because of a language barrier, or because Hà is ashamed. Whatever is causing Hà to be unable to speak, though, MiSSSisss WaSShington steps in to save the day and help Hà feel more at home. The positive result is instant: it feels good for Hà to have told someone how lonely and afraid she feels.
Most Relieved Day. Hà stays in class during lunch the next day, and MiSSS SScott only nods. This is too easy. Inside Hà’s bag is a sandwich, an apple, salty “crunchy curly things,” and a cookie. She hears footsteps coming, and two students run into class, laughing. Hà prepares to fight, but the kids smile. The girl, who has long red hair and a long skirt, introduces herself as Pam. To Hà, this sounds like “Pem.” The boy has “coconut-shell skin” and is dressed fancily. He introduces himself as Steven, which sounds like SSsì-Ti-Vân. Hà hasn’t seen these two in class, but she does mostly look at her shoes. When she gets home, Hà will write that October 14 is her “Most Relieved Day.” She was saving that for Father’s return, but the day he returns can be her “Life’s Best Day.”
It’s a huge relief for Hà to be able to eat a real lunch in peace, and to learn that at least two of her classmates are willing to be friends rather than bullies. That this day becomes Hà’s “Most Relieved Day” speaks to how alone she felt before this. That this day overtakes the day that Father will return highlights that while she still wants him to come back, that’s not as pressing of a concern for her as fitting in at school is.
Smart Again. Pink Boy is at the board, struggling to multiply 18 by 42. Hà goes to the board and works it out quickly. She smiles—until she sees the horrified looks from Pem and SSsì-Ti-Vân. Pink Boy’s pink face is now bright red. MiSSS SScott pushes Hà back toward her seat and Pem takes Hà’s hand. Pem’s hand is trembling. Ha knows Pink Boy will get revenge, but for now, Hà feels smart.
For Hà, it’s exhilarating to finally be able to show her new classmates that she’s not “dumb”—indeed, she’s better than Pink Boy at math. Pem and SSsì-Ti-Vân’s horrified response suggests that Pink Boy is a known bully; Hà isn’t his only target.
Hair. One day, a girl with honey-colored hair ties her pink ribbons into Hà’s hair but then pulls the ribbons off—pink doesn’t look good on Hà. Next, three girls with dark skin take bright barrettes out of their hair and twist Hà’s hair into braids. Since Pem and SSsì-Ti-Vân nod, Hà holds still. 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 girls pull out the barrettes. Hà’s hair immediately goes back to being straight, so the girls pull Hà’s hair and walk away. This is what Hà gets for wishing for long hair.
With her new friends’ encouragement, Hà is more than willing to go along as her female classmates play with her hair. At first, Hà seems to expect that this will be a way for her to connect with more of her classmates—but then she finds that her unique hair texture means she can’t use the same hair products as her other classmates. So, Hà comes away from this interaction feeling ashamed of her unique traits.
The Busy One. These days, Vu Lee can’t dedicate his time only to Hà. In the mornings he delivers newspapers, and in the afternoons he flips burgers. At sunset, he teaches lots of people “Bruce Lee moves” in the yard. So far, he’s only taught them to squat and shift. Hà always gets a spot in the front row. She practices with boys, giggling girls, and curious neighbors. These days, the neighbors are friendly and sometimes bring bright food to Hà’s house. All Vu Lee’s students wear yellow, and some wear suits like Bruce Lee wears. Brother Quang and Brother Khôi join in, and once, Hà spots Mother smiling from inside.
Bruce Lee, a Chinese actor and martial artist, was a cultural icon: he introduced many Americans to the idea that Asian men could be strong and competent, and he was wildly popular. Vu Lee idolizes Bruce Lee, and emulating him helps Vu Lee connect with the neighbors, who now realize that they have something in common with the Vietnamese newcomers. Seeing her children form connections like this is thrilling for Mother, as it’s proof that her family is settling in.
War and Peace. At the end of October, MiSSS SScott shows photographs of a naked girl with burns running on a dirt road. There are pictures of people screaming as they try to board the last helicopter leaving Saigon. She shows pictures of emaciated refugees on fishing boats, and pictures of piles of boots once worn by soldiers “of the losing side.” In theory, MiSSS SScott is showing the class where Hà is from, but she should’ve chosen pictures of papayas, or of Tet. It seems unbelievable, but sometimes Hà would rather be in Saigon during the war than here in peaceful Alabama.
Hà is feeling better about her life in some respects, but the photos MiSSS SScott shows to the class upset Hà. To Hà, it seems as though MiSSS SScott is pushing a very specific picture of Vietnam on her students, essentially teaching them that Vietnam is a horrible, dangerous, war-torn place. Hà knows Vietnam is much more than that, and more importantly, Hà felt at home in Vietnam in a way she hasn’t yet in Alabama. This is why wartime Saigon seems preferable to Alabama: it at least feels like home.
Pancake Face. Today, Pem is wearing a long skirt that looks like a pioneer woman’s skirt. SSsì-Ti-Vân is wearing a beard—apparently today is “pretend day.” Pink Boy keeps asking Hà what she is. After school, Pink Boy shouts that Hà should be a pancake, since she “has a pancake face.” It takes a minute for Hà to understand, and when 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 what a pancake is. Hà just sobs—she can’t explain to Mother that pancakes are extremely flat.
Pink Boy is making fun of Hà’s face (and her not knowing it’s Halloween, or even what Halloween is) by calling her “pancake face.” Hà has never had her features targeted in this way, and it makes her feel singled out and ashamed in a way that she hasn’t ever felt before. It causes her to feel even worse when she then has to explain to Mother exactly why being called “pancake face” is so insulting. It forces Hà to relive her trauma yet again.
Mother’s Response. Mother strokes Hà’s hair and walks her through chanting and breathing peacefully in and out. Hà chants as Mother rubs Hà’s back and arm. She doesn’t want Mother to stop stroking, and she wants to be as calm as Mother.
Mother doesn’t have to fully understand Pink Boy’s insult to understand that it made Hà feel terrible. Her goal is to comfort Hà and show her that someone loves her, and that Pink Boy’s insults don’t define her.
MiSSSisss WaSShington’s Response. Hà is quiet during her tutoring session with MiSSSisss WaSShington. She looks around the room until she notices a framed picture of a boy. The boy is MiSSSisss WaSShington’s son, Tom, who died at age 20 in Vietnam. Hà had no idea that “Vietnam” could sound so sad. Afraid to look up, Hà asks if MiSSSisss WaSShington hates her, but the woman just hugs Hà. Hà tells her about the pancake incident, and then MiSSSisss WaSShington pulls out a book of pictures that Tom took in Vietnam. There are pictures of Tet, temples, and schoolgirls. Tom both loved and hated Vietnam.
Particularly since MiSSS SScott showed the sad photos of Vietnam at war, Hà is acutely aware that Americans don’t think Vietnam is a good, happy place. They’ve mostly seen horrifying pictures, and as MiSSSisss WaSShington explains when she tells Hà about Tom, the war in Vietnam has killed many Americans. But with Tom’s photo album, MiSSSisss WaSShington encourages Hà to realize that Vietnam can just be a complicated idea for people. It’s both happy and sad, and Hà’s happy memories don’t invalidate the pain the war has caused others, and vice versa.
Hà gasps when she sees a picture of a papaya tree heavy with ripe papayas. Excited, she shouts, “Du du!” and says, “best food.” She teaches MiSSSisss WaSShington du du, and MiSSSisss WaSShington teaches Hà doo-doo, and they laugh uproariously. MiSSSisss WaSShington lets Hà take the book home.
Hà and MiSSSisss WaSShington are able to bond as Hà teaches her tutor the Vietnamese word for papaya, and MiSSSisss WaSShington teaches Hà that the Vietnamese word sounds like an English euphemism for feces. This is all in good fun—it shows Hà that she can trust her tutor, and that learning language can also be entertaining and silly.
Cowboy’s Response. Just before school, the cowboy arrives 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 enter the principal’s office, where Pink Boy is sitting with his mother. After the adults speak angrily for a bit, Pink Boy manages to say he’s sorry. Hà wants to vomit—and she feels even worse when Mother kindly says that Pink Boy is “from a proper family” and must not have known how insulting his words were. Pink Boy stares hatefully at Hà.
It’s interesting that this is the first time the school administration seems to step in and do something about the bullying Hà experiences at school. It’s unclear whether they didn’t know about previous playground incidents, or whether it took MiSSSisss WaSShington and the cowboy getting involved for anyone to care. Either way, for Hà, this is not a good experience. This isn’t justice for her; rather, she realizes that getting Pink Boy in trouble is just going to fuel his hatred even more.
Boo-Da, Boo-Da. Today, MiSSS SScott shows maps and photographs of Vietnam. This time, she shows landscape photos and one of the Buddha. She asks Hà if she’d like to say anything, and Hà offers that she knows Buddha. Kids laugh and start to mutter “Boo-Da.” Students continue to say “Boo-Da” all day. When the final bell rings, Hà runs. Pink Boy and his friends follow, shouting “Boo-Da” at her. When Hà takes a wrong turn and finds herself heading away from where Brother Khôi will be, she races even faster. She can barely see through her tears. Finally, the boys catch Hà, pull her hair, and shout “Boo-Da Girl” in her face. Hà runs again, feeling angry, lonely, confused, and ashamed.
The maps and landscape photographs of Vietnam initially make it seem like MiSSS SScott is trying to present a more balanced view of Vietnam, and show students that it’s a beautiful country. However, she’s not able to control how her students react to the photo of the Buddha and Hà’s assertion that she knows Buddha. It’s unclear if Hà’s Alabama town is particularly religiously intolerant, or if Pink Boy and the other kids simply find the word “Buddha” funny—but either way, their taunts make Hà feel attacked and as though she can’t win in her new home.
Hate It. Hà is too angry to go inside when she gets home. She digs a hole by the willow tree and screams “I hate everyone!!!!” into it, again and again. MiSSSisss WaSShington appears, speaks comfortingly to Hà, and then drags Hà up and across the yard. The woman asks Hà to tell her what happened as Hà stops screaming, but Hà keeps thrashing. MiSSSisss WaSShington holds Hà down once they get into the MiSSSisss WaSShington’s house. She repeats “Hush, hush,” over and over again, like a chant. Finally, Hà’s mind 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 hatred disappears.
Hà is so overwhelmed with anger and powerlessness that she sees no other choice but to scream and thrash. This doesn’t solve anything, but it lets her get her emotions out. And when Hà is done screaming, she’s able to speak calmly with MiSSSisss WaSShington about what happened. MiSSSisss WaSShington has by now become a trusted figure in Hà’s life, so Hà feels comfortable being honest with her. Because of this, MiSSSisss WaSShington is able to help Hà process what happened and move on.
Brother Quang’s Turn. A few days later, Brother Quang comes home extremely happy because he repaired 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 a turn to be happy?
Things are starting to improve for Hà’s other family members: Vu Lee is earning the neighbors’ respect, and now Brother Quang seems to have gotten a promotion at work. But Hà feels like she’s being left behind, since she hasn’t experienced success yet.
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 so she could buy sweets. Mother says she already knows, surprising Hà, and then asks what else Hà has to share. Hà admits that she used to like making Tram cry—and now kids make Hà cry. She asks if she’ll be punished forever, and then says she has one more big confession: she was the first one to touch the floor on Tet. Mother’s eyes go wide, but Hà shouts that she hates being told she can’t do things because she’s female. Hà asks if she ruined the whole family’s luck, and if that’s why they’re in Alabama.
If Mother knew about Hà’s purchasing sweets all along, it implies that she wasn’t bothered by it. She realizes that Hà wanted to feel independent and smart, and it perhaps seemed like a small sacrifice to let Hà have this pleasure. Hà, though, feels like she’s been deceiving everyone by not following Mother’s instructions, by pinching Tram, and by touching the floor on Tet. It’s a sign of how much she trusts Mother that Hà comes clean, but it also speaks to how miserable Hà is and how desperate she is to feel better.
Mother assures Hà that she’s taking on too much. Mother says she’s just superstitious; if Hà did anything, she gave the family the luck they needed to get out and end up in Alabama. Hà is incredulous; it doesn’t feel like a good thing to be here. Mother encourages Hà to wait and see, but Hà says it’s awful right now. Kids chase her, shout at her and call her names, and pull her arm hair. Hà asks if she can hit her classmates. Mother says that sometimes, Hà will have to fight—but she should ideally not fight with her fists.
Mother tries to get Hà to see that she didn’t do anything wrong. It’s okay, she implies, for Hà to want sweets and to resent certain traditions, and perhaps Hà’s rebelliousness actually helped. Mother also encourages Hà to see that being in Alabama is a positive. It means they’re not in danger in war-torn Vietnam, and Mother insists that things will continue to improve.
NOW! Hà accompanies Mother and Brother Quang to the grocery store, where Mother buys ingredients for egg rolls. An American holiday is coming up where Americans eat a turkey “the size of a baby.” Mother asks Hà to ask the butcher to grind the pork, but the butcher slams the pork down and waves Hà’s family away. Mother’s brow furrows and then she rings the bell and asks the butcher herself to grind the pork. The butcher walks away. Mother presses the bell again and then sternly speaks to the butcher in Vietnamese. She ends with, “NOW!” The butcher grinds the meat.
Hà humorously shows here that she isn’t charmed at all by Americans’ traditional foods: the turkey “the size of a baby” is presumably for Thanksgiving, and describing it in this way conveys incredulity rather than excitement about eating it. Instead, Hà’s family is going to have egg rolls. Mother shows that she’s becoming more secure when she demands the butcher serve her. She won’t stand for his mistreatment.
Du Du Face. Once again, boys are chasing Hà and yelling “Boo-Da” at her. Hà runs toward Brother Khôi, but she still has to listen to their taunts. But this time, Hà turns arounds and yells, “Gee-sus” at them, which makes the boys stop and stare. Suddenly happy, Hà runs and shouts words she learned from the boys, like “Bully,” “Coward,” and “Pink Snot Face.” When Hà turns around, Pink Boy is very close, and his face is red. She shouts, “Du Du Face” at him. His friends, of course, hear “Doo-doo Face” and laugh at him, but this isn’t Hà’s fault. Hà jumps on Brother Khôi’s bike.
Pink Boy and his cronies seem to never have considered that one day, Hà might stand up to them. Shouting “Gee-sus” (Jesus) at them is a sort of equivalent for Buddha, as she’s also shouting the name of a religious figure. It delights Hà to know that she’s then actually calling Pink Boy “papaya face,” but that his friends think she’s calling him “poop face.” Language, in this case, is fun and satisfying for her.
Rumor. On Friday, rumors fly: apparently, Pink Boy is getting his cousin, a sixth-grade girl who’s extremely muscular, to beat Hà up on Monday.
Shouting back may have made Hà feel better in the moment, but now she has to face Pink Boy’s retaliation. It’s unclear how she’ll get through this.
A Plan. Hà doesn’t even have to tell Brother Khôi about the threat, since he heard that Hà’s face “is to be flattened / flatter” on Monday. He says that Hà doesn’t have a flat face, and that he has a plan.
Hà discovers once again that she can rely on her family members to help and support her. Readers don’t learn what Brother Khôi’s plan is, but it’s clear that Hà trusts him entirely.
Run. With five minutes to go, Hà gets ready to run. She races out the door as soon as the final bell rings and switches coats with Pem. Pem takes Hà’s usual path while Hà turns left, and SSsì-Ti-Vân blocks the door. Hà runs as fast as she can. She’s all alone—the boys must have followed Pem. Hà stops where Brother Khôi told her to wait, but Brother Khôi isn’t there. Suddenly, Hà sees Pink Boy racing around the corner toward her.
Though it seems like the plan isn’t exactly working (since Pink Boy is still catching up to Hà), the plan is clearly coordinated between Hà’s family and her school friends. Pem and SSsì-Ti-Vân don’t want to see Hà hurt any more than her family members do, so they’re more than willing to help protect her.
A Shift. Pink Boy runs toward Hà, and Hà squats so she’s ready. Pink Boy puts his fist out and when he’s close enough to Hà that she can see his arm hair, she shifts away. He flies past her and thuds on the pavement, writhing in pain. Hà thought she’d like seeing him in pain, but instead, he just looks defeated and helpless. But now he’s getting up. If Hà is going to kick him, she has to do it now.
Hà is surprised to realize that it doesn’t feel good to hurt Pink Boy. She’s waited for this moment for months now, but it’s not at all what she imagined. Still, Hà reminds herself of the goal here: to prove she’s too strong to pick on. And if that means she has to hurt Pink Boy, so be it.
WOW! Hà hears a roar, and both she and Pink Boy turn toward the sound. A huge motorcycle pulls up and stops. When the rider takes his helmet off, it turns out to be Vu Lee. Pink Boy hurries away just as Brother Khôi runs up pushing his bike, which has a flat tire. At Vu Lee’s signal, Hà climbs on behind him and Brother Khôi climbs on behind her. Brother Khôi keeps ahold of his bike as they ride home.
Vu Lee’s arrival saves Hà from having to hurt Pink Boy. His motorcycle is extremely imposing—he’s essentially showing Pink Boy that Hà has big, powerful friends and relatives, and that he’ll suffer if he continues to pick on her.
The Vu Lee Effect. Now, Vu Lee always picks Hà up after school. This means that people always want Pem, Hà, and SSsì-Ti-Vân to sit with them at lunch, and they’re constantly getting party invitations. Girls hope that Vu Lee will give them rides—he gave a ride to Pink Boy’s muscular cousin, who smiles and waves at Hà these days. Fortunately, Pink Boy avoids Hà and her friends.
Thanks to how cool Vu Lee is, Hà’s peers now think she’s cool and worth being friends with. Again, Vu Lee is using the cultural power of Bruce Lee to help people rethink how they see Asian people: as people who are worth knowing and admiring, not as unknowable “others.”
Early Christmas. Mother invites the cowboy and MiSSSisss WaSShington for egg rolls a few days before Christmas. The guests don’t want to embarrass their hosts, but they bring early Christmas gifts anyway. The cowboy gives Mother catfish, Brother Quang money to attend night college, Vu Lee jerky, Brother Khoi two fighting fish, and Hà a new coat. MiSSSisss WaSShington gives a gong and jasmine incense to Mother, an engineering textbook to Brother Quang, more jerky to Vu Lee, a hamster to Brother Khôi, and a package of dried orange stuff to Hà. Everyone else says the gifts are perfect, but Hà frowns.
Hà’s family is still just getting started in Alabama, so they don’t necessarily have the funds to buy Christmas gifts—Mother instead has to settle for sharing her cooking with her guests. The gifts that the cowboy and MiSSSisss WaSShington bring show how well they now know Hà’s family: they support their career pursuits, education, and other interests. The dried orange stuff, though, seems odd to Hà; it’s not yet clear what it is.
Not the Same. The package MiSSSisss WaSShington gave Hà contains dried papaya. This papaya is chewy, waxy, and sticky—it’s not like papaya at all. Hà is so mad that she throws all of it away.
MiSSSisss WaSShington no doubt thought she was doing a kind thing for Hà by giving her papaya as it often is eaten in the U.S. But for Hà, this is just offensive. Dried papaya isn’t what she craves—instead, it’s a reminder of all she’s lost.
But Not Bad. Mother slaps Hà’s hand and tells her to compromise, but Hà refuses. Instead, she goes to bed and stares at the picture of a real papaya tree. Will she ever get to eat a fresh papaya again? Mother’s gong rings out, soothing Hà, and the incense smell seems to surround Hà like a blanket. Hà wakes up early in the morning feeling guilty. But when she heads for the trash, she finds that her dried papaya isn’t there. Instead, she finds the papaya on the table—the pieces have been sitting in hot water, and this has melted the sugar off. The papaya still doesn’t taste the same, but it’s not bad.
Thanks to MiSSSisss WaSShington’s gifts for Mother, Hà now has the comforts of Mother chanting in the traditional way, with the gong and the proper incense. This helps her feel more secure and open to trying the dried papaya in the morning. The fact that Mother soaked the papaya is a sign of how much Mother loves Hà and wants her to be happy. And when Hà accepts the rehydrated papaya, it shows she’s growing up and coming around to her new life in Alabama.