Inside Out and Back Again
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No one would believe me but at times I would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama.
For all the ten years of her life, Hà has only known Saigon: the thrills of its markets, the joy of its traditions, the warmth of her friends close by . . . and the beauty of her very own papaya tree.
But now the Vietnam War has reached her home. Hà and her family are forced to flee as Saigon falls, and they board a ship headed toward hope. In America, Hà discovers the foreign world of Alabama: the coldness of its strangers, the dullness of its food, the strange shape of its landscape . . . and the strength of her very own family.
This is the moving story of one girl's year of change, dreams, grief, and healing as she journeys from one country to another, one life to the next.
I start to jump into the pool, but Mother is standing again, coughing, hair matted to her face, eyes narrowing at me. Each of my brothers gets dipped. My turn comes, no matter how I laser-eye Mother to stop it. And yet it’s not over. We must get dressed and line up onstage next to the plump man, our cowboy, and his smiling wife. Her lips curl up even more as people line up to kiss our cheeks. Drops from wet hair drip down my back. Bumps enlarge on my chilled skin as I realize we will be coming back every Sunday.
They call me Pancake Face. They clap at me in class. And you want me to wait? Can I hit them? Oh, my daughter, at times you have to fight, but preferably not with your fists. November 14 NOW! Brother Quang takes us to the grocery store. Mother buys everything to make egg rolls for a coming holiday when Americans eat a turkey the size of a baby. She has me ask the butcher, Please grind our pork. I’m sure I said it right, but the butcher sharpens his face, slams down our meat, and motions us away.
December 16 Early Christmas Mother invites our cowboy and MiSSSisss WaSShington for egg rolls. They brought gifts, not saying Early Christmas, not wanting to embarrass us for not having anything to exchange. From our cowboy to Mother: two just-caught catfish to Brother Quang: tuition for night college to Vu Lee: jerky in ten flavors to Brother Khôi: two fighting fish in separate jars to me: a new coat We laugh and say, Perfect! From MiSSSisss WaSShington to Mother: a gong and jasmine incense to Brother Quang: an engineering textbook to Vu Lee: jerky in ten flavors to Brother Khôi: a hamster to me: three packages of something orange and dried My family claps and says, Perfect!
Brother Khôi gets to monitor lines for the bathrooms, where bottoms stick out to the sea behind blankets blowing in the wind. When not in class I have to stay within sight of Mother, like a baby. Mother gives me her writing pad. Write tiny, there’s but one pad. Writing becomes boring, so I draw over my words. Pouches of pan-fried shredded coconut Tamarind paste on banana leaf Steamed corn on the cob Rounds of fried dough Wedges of pineapple on a stick And of course cubes of papaya tender and shiny.
But I whisper, Thank you. My high emotions are squished beneath the embarrassment of not having a gift for her. December 25 What If Brother Quang asks what if Father escaped to Cambodia and is building an army to go back and change history? Vu Lee asks what if Father escaped to France but can’t remember his own history, so he builds a new family and is happy? Brother Khôi asks what if Father escaped to Tibet after shaving his head and joining a monastery? I can’t think of anything but can’t let my brothers best me, so I blurt out, What if Father is really gone?