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 Father’s brother, but it doesn’t offer any new information. He writes that he went south to talk with old neighbors and Father’s old friends, but he learned nothing. The letter doesn’t tell the family what to do, and Mother doesn’t offer any insight either. Christmas Eve is a silent affair.
Hà and her siblings might finally be settling into their new home, but getting no information about Father stops their development short. The silent Christmas Eve suggests that this new development weighs heavily on everyone. Without knowing where Father is, they can’t move forward.
Gift-Exchange Day. On December 25th, “gift-exchange day,” Pem comes over with a doll—Hà told her about the mouse-bitten one that she lost. Hà almost screams, as the doll is gorgeous and has lovely long black hair. But it’s hard to feel too happy, as Hà is embarrassed that she doesn’t have a gift for Pem.
Receiving the doll allows Hà to reclaim a little bit of her innocence, as she now has this childish comfort in her arms again. But even though this is a good thing, the doll isn’t all positive: receiving it with nothing to give in return makes Hà feel like a poor friend.
What If. Brother Quang wonders if Father escaped to Cambodia. Perhaps he’s building an army and will go back in time to change history. Vu Lee, on the other hand, wonders if Father might have escaped to France and has a new family—he might not remember his old family. Brother Khôi wonders if Father joined a monastery in Tibet. Hà doesn’t have any exciting what-ifs, but she can’t let her brothers win. So, she asks what if Father is just gone. Everyone looks sad when Hà says this. She realizes that they think she’s right, despite their various what-ifs.
Hà’s brothers’ suggestions seem based more in far-fetched hope than in reality, which Hà starts to pick up on when she suggests that perhaps Father is gone. This shows Hà that her family members have been trying to ignore the fact that Father isn’t going to come back. But until everyone is willing to accept that Father is gone, they’ll continue to hope for the impossible, and this will keep them from moving forward and healing.
A Sign. Mother keeps quiet about Father, but she chants every night. Hà knows Mother is waiting for a sign, and she thinks that she’ll decide what happened to Father when Mother decides.
Hà seems to suspect on some level that she’s right—that Father is gone. But her loyalty to Mother means that she’s not going to let herself believe that’s true until Mother gives her permission.
No More. Hà knows that she’s supposed to wear all new clothing items when she returns to school after Christmas break. The only new garments she has are her coat and a secondhand dress, which is cream with blue flowers. It’s fuzzy and thick, so it’ll keep her warm. As soon as Hà takes her coat off, everyone goes quiet. A girl dressed in red velvet tells Hà that flannel fabric is only for nightgowns and sheets. Pem shrugs; it doesn’t matter to her what Hà wears when Pem can’t cut her hair or wear skirts that hit above her calves. SSsì-Ti-Vân says it looks like a dress. But the girl in red velvet points to the flower on Hà’s chest and says flowers only go on nightgowns. Hà rips the flower off—her dress isn’t a nightgown anymore.
Hà is doing her best to follow what she thinks are American New Year’s traditions by wearing all new clothes, as she normally would on Tet. But this backfires when her classmates accuse her of wearing a nightgown, not a dress. This has the potential to be humiliating for Hà. But because Hà’s friends stand up for her and insist that it doesn’t matter what she wears, Hà finds the courage to push through and take matters into her own hands. By ripping off the offending flower, Hà can control this one aspect of her life and make the dress what she needs it to be.
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, Hà actually stopped caring. This makes Mother laugh. Hà admits that it’s far more embarrassing to not have anything to give Pem for Christmas. Thoughtfully, Mother goes to her drawer and pulls something out. She says she was saving it for Hà for Tet, but now seems like a good time to give it to Hà. Mother gives Hà the tin of flower seeds that Hà and TiTi gathered. It’s a perfect gift for Pem.
Hà is learning that not all embarrassment is created equal. It was embarrassing to be accused of wearing a nightgown—but that was nothing compared to the embarrassment Hà feels about not being able to be a good friend to Pem. By giving the flower seeds to Pem, Hà gets some of her dignity back. She’s able to engage with Pem on a different level—not as someone who’s accepting charity, but as an equal.
Gone. Mother runs into the house after work, barely able to speak. Her fists are clenched and her face is ashy—and the amethyst ring is gone from her left hand. Brother Quang drives everyone back to the factory so they can all help Mother look around the cafeteria, bathroom, and parking lot. Mother’s eyes stay wild. Hà is afraid of what Mother’s expression will look like if the ring is gone. Finally, at dusk, the guards tell the family to leave. Hà and her brothers are afraid to look at Mother.
Losing the amethyst ring—a symbol of Father, and his and Mother’s love—is devastating for Mother. Hà and her brothers know how important the ring is to Mother, and their enthusiasm for searching seems to be rooted in their desire to make Mother happy. In other words, the ring and what it symbolizes—Father—seems less important to the kids than keeping Mother content.
Truly Gone. Once the family gets home, Mother goes to her room and stays there through dinner. Around bedtime, Hà and her brothers hear the gong and then Mother chanting. Now, her voice is “low and sure.” When Mother is finished, she appears and says that Father is gone.
Mother ultimately decides to take losing the ring as a sign that Father is gone, and she can now mourn him and move on. This is devastating, but it also gives Mother some closure and peace—her voice is “low and sure,” rather than anxious and upset.
Eternal Peace. Mother puts on her brown áo dài, Hà’s brothers wear ill-fitting suits, and Hà wears a pink ruffly dress. She hates it, but it’s undeniably a dress. They all face the altar and hold lit incense sticks. As they pray, the portrait of Father as a young man stares back. He’ll never get any older, and this thought makes Hà’s eyes turn red. Mother explains that they’re going to chant so Father has a safe passage to eternal peace. Trying not to cry, she says that they can’t hold onto Father, or he won’t leave. At least now they know, and they don’t have to wait anymore.
Hà’s youth and childish concerns shine through early in this passage: she desperately wants to wear a dress that’s obviously a dress, which suggests that she’s annoyed after the nightgown incident at school. But Hà still takes this opportunity to do as Mother asks and grieve Father. Now, Hà can also find closure. She can figure out how she relates to this man she’s never known, and she doesn’t have to keep hoping that he’ll show up one day.
Start Over. Hà is trying to explain Father’s ceremony to MiSSSisss WaSShington, but it’s hard to get all the nouns, verbs, and tenses right. MiSSSisss WaSShington counsels Hà that people learning a language can’t wait to speak up until they’re fluent, or they’ll never speak. Hà must practice and make mistakes. When Hà says her classmates laugh at her, MiSSSisss WaSShington says “shame on them”—Hà should ask them to say something in Vietnamese and laugh back at them. Then, Hà tells MiSSSisss WaSShington that Father is at peace, that she’d like to plant some flower seeds from Vietnam, and that Tet is coming. Luck starts over on every new year.
The way that Hà describes her struggle to use correct grammar suggests that for now, her main concern is speaking correctly—she doesn’t want people to judge her, and she also doesn’t want to be misunderstood. But MiSSSisss WaSShington encourages Hà to realize that learning is more important than being correct at this point. Hà must be willing to try to speak, even if she makes mistakes. Until she has a better grasp of English, this is the only way she’ll learn, and the only way she can communicate with English speakers.
An Engineer, a Chef, a Vet, and 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 cooking school in San Francisco, where Bruce Lee once lived—this makes Mother sigh. Brother Khôi insists he’ll be an animal doctor. Mother stops herself from saying something and nods. She’s always wanted her children to be an engineer, a poet, a “real doctor,” and a lawyer. She asks Hà if she likes to argue, and Hà snaps that she doesn’t. Mother smiles, and Hà decides to be less contrary.
Things seem to be looking up for all of Hà’s family members. After deciding that Father is gone, and after letting him go, Mother can now turn her attention more fully to her children. She can take pride in the fact that Brother Quang is going to finish his studies in the U.S., and she can tolerate her other two sons not doing exactly as she’d like them to. But she also seems far more willing to support them in cooking and becoming a veterinarian than she might have been a few months ago—she’s allowing them to grow up and is supporting them as they do.
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 new, and soon, it won’t matter which is which. There’s no bánh chung in the square shape this year. Mother makes one that’s log-shaped and made out of different ingredients than usual. It’s not exactly the same, but it’s not bad, either. Hà and her family members smile the entire first three days of the year. They all wear new clothes, including underwear, and they don’t splash water or pout. Mother asks Brother Quang to bless the house after midnight, so Hà can’t touch the ground first in the morning.
Without the fortuneteller or all the traditional bánh chung ingredients, Hà’s family has to come up with some new traditions, such as Mother acting as the fortuneteller and making a modified version of bánh chung. Enough things remain the same, though—getting new clothes, smiling, and Brother Quang blessing the house—that this tradition still feels meaningful. And now, Hà can appreciate that her traditions are changing. She’s looking forward to the future now more than she could earlier in the novel, when she didn’t want anything to change.
Mother also sets up a permanent altar on a tall bookshelf and displays Father’s portrait. Hà can’t look at it. She holds her incense stick and waits for the gong to sound. Hà prays for Father and for Mother, Brother Quang, Vu Lee, and Brother Khôi to be happy and successful. When she opens her eyes, the others are still praying. Who knows what they’re still praying for. But Hà closes her eyes and keep thinking. She hopes that this year, she learns to fly-kick. She doesn’t actually want to kick anyone, though. She wants to fly.
Now that Mother has let Father go, it’s less painful for her to allow his memory to be a part of her family’s everyday life by setting up this altar. Hà’s first prayers are for her family members—they’re still the most important people in her life. But when she returns to praying, she then thinks of herself and how she’d like to change. Hà now realizes she doesn’t have to lash out at others to be successful. Instead, she just has to be happy with herself.