Inside Out and Back Again


Thanhhà Lai

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Themes and Colors
War, Childhood, and Maturity Theme Icon
Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Icon
Family and Grief Theme Icon
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon
Bullying, Racism, and Self-Doubt Theme Icon
LitCharts assigns a color and icon to each theme in Inside Out and Back Again, which you can use to track the themes throughout the work.
Culture, Food, and Tradition Theme Icon

Ten-year-old is Vietnamese, and she shares Vietnamese culture and cuisine with the reader through her narration. For instance, she describes in detail how ripe papaya fresh off the tree tastes, how the ceremonial dish bánh chung is shaped into a square and steamed in banana leaves, and how her brothers are supposed to bless their house on Tet, the lunar new year. Hà also finds comfort in her various rituals, such as spinning Mother’s amethyst ring before she goes to sleep each night, or listening to Mother chant and light jasmine incense. These various foods, rituals, and holidays make Hà feel secure, at home, and as though she belongs. Food is especially important to Hà’s sense of belonging: she describes herself as “a girl who loves snacks,” but particularly once the family immigrates to Alabama, her narration implies she only gets true comfort from Vietnamese snacks, like fried dough or roasted coconut.

So, when Hà and her family become immigrants and lose access to cultural items like incense and gongs, Hà feels lost. Some things remain the same—Hà still spins Mother’s ring before bed, and Mother still chants—but other things change, such as Mother having to burn dried orange peel instead of incense and hit a spoon on a bowl in place of a gong. Mother encourages Hà to “make do” and “compromise,” as she does—in other words, to hold on to tradition in some respects, but also to embrace newness. For instance, Mother agrees to get the family baptized at the local Baptist church as a sort of compromise—this convinces the family’s neighbors to be kinder to them—despite the fact that Mother never actually stops practicing her non-Christian rituals. And on the first Tet that the family observes in Alabama, Mother insists that in the years to come, the family’s customs and traditions will continue to change as they integrate things from their new home (such as black beans instead of mung beans in the bánh chung). Ultimately, Hà comes around to Mother’s way of thinking: that change doesn’t have to be a bad thing, as long as they can continue observing their rituals in some capacity. With this, the novel suggests that changing certain aspects of a tradition (or adopting entirely new practices or rituals) doesn’t make that tradition any less meaningful. Rather, what’s most important is that the people observing the tradition still feel the comfort and cultural connection that it provides.

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Culture, Food, and Tradition ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Culture, Food, and Tradition appears in each chapter of Inside Out and Back Again. Click or tap on any chapter to read its Summary & Analysis.
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Culture, Food, and Tradition Quotes in Inside Out and Back Again

Below you will find the important quotes in Inside Out and Back Again related to the theme of Culture, Food, and Tradition.
Part 1: Saigon Quotes

Mother says
if the price of eggs
were not the price of rice,
and the price of rice
were not the price of gasoline,
and the price of gasoline
were not the price of gold,
then of course
Brother Khôi
could continue hatching eggs.

She’s sorry.

Related Characters: Mother (speaker), Brother Khôi, Kim Hà
Page Number: 16-17
Explanation and Analysis:

Like magic a crepe forms
to be filled with shrimp
and eaten with
cucumber and bean sprouts.

It tastes even better
than it looks.
While my mouth is full,
the noises of the market
silence themselves,
letting me and my bánh cuon

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother
Page Number: 34
Explanation and Analysis:

I am proud
of my ability
to save
until I see
in Mother’s
deep eyes.

You deserve to grow up
where you don’t worry about
saving half a bite
of sweet potato.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother (speaker)
Page Number: 47
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:

Brother Khôi nods
and I smile,
but I regret
not having my doll
as soon as the white bundle
sinks into the sea.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Brother Khôi
Related Symbols: Dolls
Page Number: 86
Explanation and Analysis:

I have never seen her
without this purple rock.
I can’t fall asleep
unless I twist the ring
and count circles.

Brother Quang says,
What’s the point of
new shirts and sandals
if you lose the last
tangible remnant of love?

I don’t understand
what he said
but I agree.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Brother Quang (speaker), Mother, Father
Related Symbols: The Amethyst Ring
Page Number: 103-04
Explanation and Analysis:

Then by chance Mother learns
sponsors prefer those
whose applications say “Christians.”

Just like that
Mother amends our faith,
saying all beliefs
are pretty much the same.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, The Cowboy, The Cowboy’s Wife
Page Number: 108
Explanation and Analysis:
Part 3: Alabama Quotes

I bite down on a thigh;
might as well bite down on
bread soaked in water.

I force yum-yum sounds.

I hope to ride
the horse our cowboy
surely has.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), The Cowboy
Page Number: 121
Explanation and Analysis:

No, Mr. Johnston
doesn’t have a horse,
nor has he ever ridden one.

What kind of a cowboy is he?

To make it worse,
the cowboy explains
horses here go
neigh, neigh, neigh,
not hee, hee, hee.

No they don’t.

Where am I?

Related Characters: Brother Quang (speaker), Kim Hà (speaker), The Cowboy
Page Number: 134
Explanation and Analysis:

I tap my own chest:

She must have heard
as in funny ha-ha-ha.

She fakes a laugh.

I repeat, ,
and wish I knew
enough English
to tell her
to listen for
the diacritical mark,
this one directing
the tone

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), MiSSS SScott
Page Number: 140-41
Explanation and Analysis:

On one side
of the bright, noisy room,
light skin.
Other side,
dark skin.

Both laughing, chewing,
as if it never occurred
to them
someone medium
would show up.

I don’t know where to sit
any more than
I know how to eat
the pink sausage
snuggled inside bread
shaped like a corncob,
smeared with sauces
yellow and red.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker)
Page Number: 143-44
Explanation and Analysis:

She makes me learn rules
I’ve never noticed,
like a, an, and the,
which act as little megaphones
to tell the world
whose English
is still secondhand.


A, an, and the
do not exist in Vietnamese
and we understand
each other just fine.

I pout,
but MiSSS WaSShington says
every language has annoyances and illogical rules,
as well as sensible beauty.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), MiSSSisss WaSShington
Page Number: 166-67
Explanation and Analysis:

I try
but can’t fall asleep,
needing amethyst-ring twirls
and her lavender scent.

I’m not as good as Mother
at making do.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother
Related Symbols: The Amethyst Ring
Page Number: 174
Explanation and Analysis:

No one would believe me
but at times
I would choose
wartime in Saigon
peacetime in Alabama.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), MiSSS SScott
Page Number: 194-95
Explanation and Analysis:

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


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:
Part 4: From Now On Quotes

I tell her
a much worse embarrassment
is not having
a gift for Pem.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother, Pem/Pam, TiTi
Related Symbols: Dolls
Page Number: 246
Explanation and Analysis:


The chant is long,
the voice
low and sure.

she appears,
looks at each of us.

Your father is
truly gone.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother (speaker), Father
Related Symbols: The Amethyst Ring
Page Number: 250
Explanation and Analysis:

This Tet
there’s no I Ching Teller of Fate,
so Mother predicts our year.

Our lives
will twist and twist,
intermingling the old and new
until it doesn’t matter
which is which.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Mother
Page Number: 257
Explanation and Analysis: