At their St. Aloysius school, Anh and his brother Khoa struggle to keep up with their wealthier schoolmates. They are terribly poor, living on their single mother’s garment-sewing wages. They can’t even afford their school uniforms, and must make do with recycled or patched together uniforms that are ill-fitting.
The struggles that Anh and his brother Khoa face in keeping up with their school expenses reveal the financial toll of their father’s abandonment of the family. They are left to make do on their mother’s meager wages, which are not adequate.
In Year 8, half of Anh’s class is picked to participate in drama. Anh wants to be picked because drama is an escape for him. To his disappointment, however, he isn’t picked. However, another teacher, Mrs. Borny, decides to run drama for the reject boys anyway. She also teaches them to write stories. After reading his stories, she tells Anh that he’s “a talented storyteller.” This piece of encouragement is priceless to Anh. In fact, twenty years later, as a famous comedian, Anh thanks Mrs. Borny for her encouragement on a TV show called “Thank You.”
Mrs. Borny’s encouragement of Anh represents a crucial moment of support during his adolescence. Her praise clearly gives Anh a boost of confidence that carries him a long way. It is a boost that is sorely needed at this time—given the financial struggles the family faces, as well as the emotional turmoil that has recently been occasioned by Tam’s abandonment of the family.
At school, Anh also can’t afford his textbooks—which cost $1,000 per semester. Instead, he relies on his friend Phil Keenan to lend him his books, so Anh can follow his lessons. Still, Anh gets in trouble at times for “forgetting” his books, and must serve detention. Anh is so stressed out by his poverty that he tells his mother he wants to go to public school. This isn’t true, but he wants his mother to stop suffering. She is working without break to provide for her children, even though she is also asthmatic.
Phil Keenan is one of the key figures who provides support during Anh’s adolescence. He is one of the many figures in Anh’s life—both family and friends—that provide support at crucial times. That Anh is so distraught at watching his mother work so hard also reveals that, on top of the financial struggles, Anh is also burdened by his mother’s suffering.
Although they are very broke, Anh’s mother continues inviting poorer relatives to stay with them. Once, she invites a destitute distant relative and her five-year-old son to stay with them. Seeing their poverty, Anh realizes how lucky he and his family are, even amidst their poverty.
Anh’s mother’s decision to invite a destitute relative to stay with them teaches Anh an important lesson: as much as he and his family struggle, they are better off than many others. It is important, he realizes, to be grateful for what he has, even if it is little.
Anh, who is in the school’s basketball team, is determined to score thirty points in a game so as to win new Reeboks to replace the cheap sneakers that he wears. His sneakers are so bad that during games he must steep their soles in lemonade to make them stick to the floor. At one game, when Anh is close to scoring his target of thirty points, he runs out of lemonade. His friend Phil Keenan runs off to buy him Diet Coke to use instead—but the Diet Coke is a disaster. Anh slips all over the court, and misses making his thirty points. He fails, therefore, to win new Reeboks.
Anh’s attempt at winning new Reeboks points to the lengths to which he goes, and the creative means he employs, in order to overcome the circumstances of his poverty. And while, in some sense, Anh’s escapade with the Diet Coke can be read as a disappointment, given that Anh doesn’t score the 30 points he had hoped, he tells the story humorously, thus finding fun and laughter in a story that is, on another level, disheartening.
One day, coming back from school on the train, Anh is almost mugged by three boys, who make him show them his wallet. Thankfully, he has nothing on him, and they leave him alone. He watches as they bash another boy on the train and steal his Reeboks. He reflects that he is lucky he didn’t win the Reeboks that he so badly wanted to win. If he had, they would have been stolen.
Anh’s capacity for positivity and for gratitude is reflected in his attitude towards this incident. Seeing the boys steal another boy’s Reeboks, Anh is grateful that he has not won the Reeboks he had so badly wanted. Thus, Anh here reflects a tremendous capacity to put a positive spin on things.
To help his mother, Anh gets a job delivering pamphlets around the neighborhood. But he quickly realizes that the massive stack he receives is too big to deliver in time for the deadline. The whole family has to help him, but still they finish late, and Anh doesn’t even get paid. His mother then tells him to stop worrying about money, and to devote himself to his education.
That Anh desires to help his mother by taking on the leafleting job reflects his urge to relieve her of her struggle to provide for them. And although he fails, his attempt shows that at a young age, Anh already carries a huge burden of responsibility that is beyond his years.
However, Anh doesn’t give up on making money. With his brother Khoa, he begins breeding fish, which they then sell for a profit. Unable to afford fish tanks, Anh makes the tanks himself, using whatever glass he can find. He makes a huge fish tank, which he keeps in the living room. One day, the fish tank cracks and breaks—spilling 1,000 liters of water into the living room. The family rushes to save the fish, depositing them in smaller containers. Anh narrowly avoids a serious injury when, rushing to switch off a power board before water reaches it, he is electrocuted—but is luckily unharmed.
Anh’s creativity and ingeniousness are reflected in the fish-breeding business, which is a success. Yet Anh’s youthfulness is also suggested by his recklessness—he clearly does not do a very good job constructing the fish tanks, and this leads to an accident. The large water spillage could even have led to tragedy, as reflected in the fact that Anh almost electrocutes himself.
In his final year of high school, Anh is impressed by an army recruiter who promises $15,000 a year for joining up. He schedules an interview, and then asks his mother for her signature—as an underage potential enlistee, he needs her permission. His mother refuses to sign. Anh nonetheless forges her signature and goes to the interview. He’s rejected, however, on account of his asthma. His mother, who discovers from Khoa that he had gone for the interview without her consent, tells him that war has destroyed too many people’s lives already.
Anh’s insistence on interviewing with the army recruiter—even going behind his mother’s back to do so—points to his naivety when it comes to war. Unlike his parents, who lived through the Vietnam War, Anh has not experienced war firsthand and therefore thinks of the recruiter’s offer merely as a chance at money. His mother’s admonishment is a reminder that she, unlike her son, understands the true costs of war.
In Year 12, Anh has to pick a university course to follow. Given his experience with poverty, he is first and foremost interested in making money, and so settles on studying law, as it can lead to a lucrative career that can lift him and his family out of poverty.
Anh, on the brink of adulthood, seeks to resolve the problem of his and his family’s poverty. That Anh thinks of money first and foremost in choosing a career suggests how responsible he feels to help his family out of poverty.