Inside Out and Back Again

by

Thanhhà Lai

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Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Analysis

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.
Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging Theme Icon

Inside Out and Back Again presents immigrating to a new country as simultaneously traumatizing and beneficial. For and her family, fleeing their home in South Vietnam is a necessity: Father fought for South Vietnam and is currently missing in action, which means that when the Communist North eventually reaches Saigon with its armies, Hà’s family will be at risk of being killed. Mother decides to move the family to the United States after someone tells her that there, her three sons will have work opportunities and chances to earn college scholarships. For Mother, the choice makes sense. And for Hà and her brothers, particularly Brother Vū, the U.S. represents other compelling opportunities: Hà believes she’ll meet a cowboy and get to ride his horse, while Brother Vū dreams of living where his idol, Bruce Lee, lived.

However, Hà’s family’s new life in Alabama is not at all idyllic. Hà experiences a crisis when she learns that her family’s sponsor, whom she refers to as “her cowboy” because he wears a cowboy hat, doesn’t even own a horse—and that in the U.S., horses say “neigh” instead of “hee.” Everything Hà encounters is confusing, from what sound a horse makes, to how to eat her “pink sausage / snuggled inside bread / shaped like a corncob” (a hot dog), to where she should sit in the cafeteria at school. These various struggles make Hà feel like she’s never going to fit in—feelings that Hà’s family members seem to share. And as Hà and her family try to assimilate, they have to sacrifice important parts of their culture and identity, as when they agree to be baptized at the local Baptist church. Following this, the family’s neighbors are kinder to them, but being baptized doesn’t help Hà feel like she belongs. And starting to make friends doesn’t help Hà feel more at home until the very end of the novel, when Hà is finally able to give her new friend Pem a Christmas gift. Giving a gift gives Hà some of her dignity back, and it helps her feel competent and like a good friend. With this, the novel presents being an immigrant and struggling to belong as experiences that are alienating and characterized by personal and cultural loss. But it also suggests that immigration can be a positive, enriching experience if an immigrant is able to find ways to give back in their new community.

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Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging ThemeTracker

The ThemeTracker below shows where, and to what degree, the theme of Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging 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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Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging 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 Immigration, Culture Shock, and Belonging.
Part 1: Saigon Quotes

They’re heading to Vūng Tau,
he says,
where the rich go
to flee Vietnam
on cruise ships.

I’m glad we’ve become poor
so we can stay.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Brother Khôi (speaker), TiTi
Page Number: 11
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
float.

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

I am proud
of my ability
to save
until I see
tears
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:

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.

Still,
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
ha,
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
downward.

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:

I shout, I’m so mad.
I shouldn’t have to run away.

Tears come.

Brother Vū
has always been afraid
of my tears.
I’ll teach you defense.

How will that help me?

He smiles huge,
so certain of himself.
You’ll see.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), Brother Vū/Vu Lee (speaker), Pink Boy
Page Number: 152-53
Explanation and Analysis:

I’m furious,
unable to explain
I already learned
fractions
and how to purify
river water.

So this is
what dumb
feels like.

I hate, hate, hate it.

Related Characters: Kim Hà (speaker), MiSSS SScott
Page Number: 157
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:

Things will get better,
just you wait.

I don’t believe her
but it feels good
that someone knows.

Related Characters: MiSSSisss WaSShington (speaker), Kim Hà (speaker), MiSSS SScott
Page Number: 182
Explanation and Analysis:

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

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

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:
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: