Dolls represent Hà’s childhood. When Hà and her family packs to flee the war in South Vietnam, Mother allows everyone one “choice” item to include with their necessities (clothes, food, and toiletries). Hà chooses her beloved doll and dresses it in a matching dress and booties that Mother knitted, a mark of her childhood innocence. However, when Hà and her family have been at sea for about two weeks, people discover that Brother Khôi brought his newly hatched chick onto the ship with them—and that it’s been dead for a while and smells terrible. Hà decides to help Brother Khôi move on from this loss by holding her own burial ceremony for the chick: she puts the chick in her doll’s arms, wraps the chick and the doll in a handkerchief, and tosses them both into the sea. This gesture seems to help Brother Khôi, and Hà is happy to be able to help her brother move on—but she also immediately regrets losing her doll. This signifies that Hà isn’t ready to grow up, but that her circumstances are forcing her to do so.
Then, several months after the family has immigrated to Alabama, Hà’s new friend Pem gives her a new doll for Christmas. Receiving another doll suggests that Hà has become much safer and more secure than she was when fleeing the war, and so she’s able to feel more like a child again. She can enjoy childish comforts again, and she’s no longer in a situation where she has to make mature sacrifices, as she did during her family’s journey from Vietnam.