Thursday, April 12, 2012

Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai

"Every new year Mother visits
the I Ching Teller of Fate.
This year he predicts
our lives will twist inside out."

Ten year old Kim Ha lives with her family in war-torn Saigon, South Vietnam. Her family includes her older brothers Quang, 21 - an engineering student, and Vu who is 18, as well as younger brother, Khoi who is 4, and her mother. Her father, a Vietnamese navy officer, was captured nine years ago while on a mission. Ha's family continue to hope he is alive and will return some day. It is 1975, what will eventually be the final year of the Vietnam War, and for Ha this means celebrating her birthday and waiting for the delicious papayas to ripen. Little does she know how dramatically her life will soon change.

Two More Papayas

I see them first.

Two green thumbs
that will grow into
orange-yellow delights
smelling of summer.

Middle sweet
between a mango and a pear

Soft as a yam
gliding down
after three easy,
thrilling chews. 
April 5

At first, despite her father's absence, the war seems to have little effect on the family. When war finally does come to Saigon, Ha, along with her family make the decision to leave their beloved country and flee via boat. Crammed onto a navy vessel along with thousands of other Vietnamese who do not desire to live under communist rule, they are rescued by the American navy. Their boat is towed to Guam where they are placed in a refugee camp. Eventually the family is sent to South Florida and are sponsored by a man and his wife from Alabama. Despite the good intentions of the couple from Alabama, the transition from Asian culture into what is essentially the American Bible Belt proves to be intensely confusing and painful for everyone.

For Ha, the transition proves to be almost impossible until one day she meets Miss Washington, a neighbour who agrees to tutor Ha and her family in English. However, learning English only adds to Ha's pain because she now understands the insults made by her American classmates. Eventually, as Ha grows to trust Miss Washington, she confides that she has been hiding at school, eating lunch in the bathroom and is being bullied by her classmates. Efforts to make things better only worsen the situation. But, as Ha and her family begin to acquire more language skills, the transition to their new life begins to go more slowly.

Thanhha Lai poignantly captures the essence of what it was truly like for an immigrant from Vietnam in 1975. This was a time when the world was a much smaller place and a profound lack of cultural understanding permeated the well-intentioned help offered to Asian refugees in America (and Canada). The prejudice that Ha and her family experience are due not only to racial intolerance but also to ignorance. Settling immigrants in an area of America with very different customs and beliefs, and especially in a part of America known for it's staunch biblical beliefs, made integrating into American society much more difficult. In Canada, many Vietnamese refugees settled in Montreal, Quebec, where they at least had the familiarity of the French language.

Some of the intolerance may also have been due to the anger and pain Americans especially felt in the aftermath of losing the Vietnam War. Many Americans were angry at their government and military for the country's involvement in a guerrilla war they couldn't possibly win. Still others were angry at the Vietnamese people, whom they saw as being ungrateful towards the sacrifice made by American soldiers.

In eloquent and moving free verse, Thanhha Lai chronicles Ha's journey from February 11, 1975 until January 31, 1976. The novel's simple poems allow the reader, through the voice of Ha, to experience the raw emotions of hope, loss, and fear, thus making the character very realistic. It's hard not to feel a deep empathy towards Ha, whose entire life has been turned inside out. Beside being in a new and strange country, she must also come to terms with the loss of her beloved father, and cope with the frustration of repeating a grade because she is struggling to learn in a new language.

Inside Out & Back Again provides young readers the opportunity to explore the situation immigrants face when coming to a new country. It also provides an opportunity to discuss the Vietnam War, an almost forgotten conflict that consumed America and Asia during the 1960's and early 1970's.

Book Details:
Inside Out & Back Again by Thanhha Lai
New York: Harper Collins 2011
262 pp.

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