“When we keep talking about
how close the Communists have gotten to Saigon
…Miss Xinh finally says no more.
From now on
will be for
No one has anything
In 1975, the soldiers and bombs of the Vietnam War reach ten-year-old Hà’s hometown of Saigon. Amidst the raging war, she must leave her home behind and flee to the United States. After settling in Alabama without her friends, her father, or her favorite papaya tree, Hà must learn to navigate an entirely foreign land. Thanhha Lai’s honest account of a Vietnamese refugee makes Inside Out and Back Again an attractive text for high school students.
Lai bases Hà’s story on her own experience as an immigrant-refugee during the Vietnam War. Inside Out and Back Again grapples with ideas about home, belonging, and the ways in which war threatens these safe spaces. Teachers can frame the book’s exploration of these themes with the essential question “What makes you feel like you belong?” For Hà, her strong-willed mother and three older brothers constitute her family and the foundation of her home. However, she also associates her “home land” with the sweet scent of trees and the Tết celebrations. In contrast, she cannot speak English, abhors American fast food, and spends her lunches alone in her new home, Alabama.
Hà’s Vietnamese ethnicity also prevents others from accepting her into the American community. On her classmates’ mocking faces at school, she sees “nothing but / squeezed eyes, / twisted mouths” (146). Later in the book, someone teepees, throws eggs, and shatters a window in Hà’s house. The bullying and discrimination in the book will allow teachers to have a discussion of racial discrimination and the feeling of alienation that results from it.
For any students that have been teased because of their ethnicity, physical appearance, or linguistic differences, Hà’s encounters will resonate closely. I especially related to Hà’s frustration when her teacher, Miss Scott, makes a “ha-ha-ha” pun out of Hà’s name. In a world where YA immigrant narratives are hard to find, the rare refugee story is an essential mirror for affirming the identities of fellow refugees.
Even for students who comfortably belong in mainstream America, many will be able to relate to the anxiety of waiting for a loved one to return from military duty. Hà can barely remember her own father, who left on a navy mission when she was one year old. For nine years, her family has awaited his return—even after they flee their home for America, they never forget to continue praying for his safety. For students with family members in the military, Hà’s longing and coping provides a healthy mirror for their own emotions.