Inside Out and Back Again

by

Thanhhà Lai

Teachers and parents! Struggling with distance learning? Our Teacher Edition on Inside Out and Back Again can help.
Papaya Symbol Icon

Papayas, ’s favorite fruit, symbolize Hà herself. The papaya tree in Hà’s family’s backyard grew from a seed that Hà flicked outside. Since Hà threw the seed out there, it’s grown exponentially—just as Hà has grown from toddler to a 10-year-old child in the years before the novel begins. At the beginning of the book, Hà excitedly watches her papaya tree bear fruit for the first time. She describes the papayas as growing from thumb-size to the size of her fist, knee, and head. Likening the papayas to parts of her own body reinforces that the papayas are symbols for Hà, and their green, underripe state mirrors Hà youthful, innocent state at the beginning of the novel. When Hà’s family is then forced to flee South Vietnam before the papayas are ripe, this situation represents Hà’s relatively happy childhood in Vietnam being cut short.

Once Hà and her family settle in Alabama, Hà no longer has access to papaya. This is insult added to injury for her, and it makes her feel unmoored and disconnected from her old self, who lived happily in Vietnam and enjoyed fresh fruit regularly. So, Hà isn’t initially impressed when MiSSSisss WaSShington, after learning that papayas are Hà’s favorite fruit, gives Hà a package of dried, sugared papaya for Christmas. It’s nothing like fresh papaya, which highlights the idea that few people, if any, in the U.S. understand Hà or her Vietnamese culture. The dried and sugared papaya is essentially an Americanized repackaging of Vietnamese culture, and Hà resents this immensely. However, Hà ultimately makes do when she discovers that Mother soaked the dried papaya, which dissolved the sugar and rehydrated the papaya into something that better approximates the fresh papaya Hà misses. The papaya’s physical transformation mirrors Hà’s own internal transformation as she starts to feel more secure in her identity as a Vietnamese immigrant living in the U.S. By the novel’s end, Hà is still adjusting, but she’s more comfortable with her new life and with finding approximations of the Vietnamese things she loves.

Papaya Quotes in Inside Out and Back Again

The Inside Out and Back Again quotes below all refer to the symbol of Papaya. For each quote, you can also see the other characters and themes related to it (each theme is indicated by its own dot and icon, like this one:
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
).
Part 1: Saigon Quotes

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

Still green
but promising.

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

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

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

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

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

The first hot bite
of freshly cooked rice,
plump and nutty,
makes me imagine
the taste of ripe papaya
although one has nothing
to do with the other.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker)
Related Symbols: Papaya
Page Number: 78
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Alabama Quotes

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

The sugar has melted off
leaving
plump
moist
chewy
bites.

Hummm…

Not the same,
but not bad
at all.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, MiSSSisss WaSShington
Related Symbols: Papaya
Page Number: 234
Explanation and Analysis:
Get the entire Inside Out and Back Again LitChart as a printable PDF.
Inside Out and Back Again PDF

Papaya Symbol Timeline in Inside Out and Back Again

The timeline below shows where the symbol Papaya appears in Inside Out and Back Again. The colored dots and icons indicate which themes are associated with that appearance.
Part 1: Saigon
Family and Grief Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Family and Grief Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Papaya Tree. Hà’s papaya tree grew from a black seed. Now, it’s twice as tall as Hà. Brother Khôi,... (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
Two More Papayas. At the beginning of April, Hà spots two more papayas on her tree. They’re “Two green thumbs” that by summer will be sweet and orangey... (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Bullying, Racism, and Self-Doubt Theme Icon
...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. (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Bullying, Racism, and Self-Doubt Theme Icon
Promises. There are now five papayas on the tree. Some of them are as big as Hà’s head; others are as... (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Family and Grief Theme Icon
...matter what Mother says: he has to protect his chick, and Hà must protect her papayas. They hook pinkies. (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
Wet and Crying. Hà’s biggest papaya is light yellow flecked with green. Brother Vū wants to cut it down so the... (full context)
Part 2: At Sea
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
...When Hà takes her first bite of rice, the taste makes her imagine what ripe papaya tastes like, even though the two foods have nothing to do with each other. (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
...she’s written. She draws shredded coconut, corn on the cob, fried dough, pineapple wedges, and papaya cubes. Mother smooths Hà’s hair. She understands how painful it is to be stranded on... (full context)
Part 3: Alabama
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
...what Mother says, she can’t stop wishing for Father, just like Hà can’t stop tasting papaya in her dreams. (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
Bullying, Racism, and Self-Doubt Theme Icon
...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... (full context)
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
Bullying, Racism, and Self-Doubt Theme Icon
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... (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
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... (full context)
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Family and Grief Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
...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,... (full context)