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  • Rachel Egoian

Inside Out and Back Again, a Novel by Thanhha Lai, Explores the Trauma of Assimilation

Reading multicultural children’s literature, whether in teaching to curriculum or reading at home, allows for a progressive approach for a child’s learning development by exploring the importance of diversity. Integrating elements of bilingual education through a constructive environment, develops the foundation for building on a child’s curiosity and imagination as skills to use for gathering new understandings about belief, culture, language, tradition, and values. We identify Thanhha Lai’s novel, Inside Out and Back Again, as one source into gaining new perspectives toward embracing diverse literature.

Lai’s Inside Out and Back Again focuses on the experiences of assimilation, warfare, culture, language, and tradition through the story of a ten-year-old girl named Hà in which she shares the struggles caused by the end of the Vietnam War in Saigon, Vietnam. As a result, Hà and her family come to the decision of starting a new life in America. Her journey to America covers the history and trauma of the Vietnam War, where the character documents her experiences through the journal entries of her diary, illustrating elements of a poetic form of free verse. Hà’s family has mixed feelings about fleeing Vietnam with the anxieties of losing everything that is built based on their culture’s traditions and values, stating that “Mother asks us, ‘Should we leave our home? / Brother Quang says, / ‘How can we scramble away like rats, without honor, without dignity, / when everyone must help rebuild the country?” (44). Making the decision to escape Vietnam is further examined when Hà’s mother has to make another decision of where to begin their new lives that would provide many opportunities in having a secured future. As refugees, Hà’s family is placed in a refugee camp located on the island of Guam, where it is a transitional space for the characters, representing the most pivotal point of their journey in discovering the multitude of the opportunities that they can begin to seek further. The refugee camp located in Guam that Hà notes in her journal entries, is one of many refugee camps that helped save lives from the aftermath of war or natural disasters. Hà provides a mere glimpse of what it is like to be a refugee and to be affected by the aftermath of war, which emphasizes that refugees are essentially leaving everything behind in the hopes of starting new lives because they were forced out of their own.

In multicultural children’s literature, using language to express how to communicate and write is an important value that stems from diverse literature. Lai provides creative examples of learning new vocabulary as well as incorporating words from a different language. As readers, we observe that the text uses concrete examples in learning English as a second language. The character Hà is taught grammatical rules of the English language in which she questions the dominant universal language and its nonsensical exceptions. In Hà’s journal entry titled, “New Word a Day”, expresses that “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…every language has annoyances and illogical rules, as well as sensible beauty” (167). Teaching language in multicultural children’s literature adds to the growth of a child’s learning development as part of viewing the world through a diverse lens.

Understanding culture and religion are viewed in Lai’s novel through the character’s insight on the dissimilarities between two cultures. However, the process of assimilation unveils the anxiety and trauma placed on the characters in which they face racial stereotypes while assimilating into a new culture. Hà navigates these issues of race sharing a perspective on how it affects children differently in comparison to adults. She comes to the realization that the differences between Vietnamese and American cultures add strain in fitting into a new educational environment. In her journal entry title “More Is Not Better” addresses that “I now understand/ when they make fun of my name…when they ask if I eat dog meat…when they wonder if I lived in the jungle with tiger/ I understand/ because Brother Kôi / nodded into my head/ on the bike ride home/ when I asked if kids/ said the same things at his school. / I understand/ and wish/ I could go back/ to not understanding” (168). As a bilingual learner, Hà persists in understanding the new culture, yet reflecting on her own culture, teaching the reader about the history and culture of Vietnam.

As part of learning about Vietnam’s culture and traditions, the novel reflects on the influence of Tet and the lunar year, which explores the fate of Hà’s family. The novel opens with the beginning of celebrating Tet and ends with another year of Tet, which represents the wonders of fate that cycles as Hà references, “our lives/ will twist and twist,/ intermingling the old and the new/ until it doesn’t matter/ which is which” (257).

The novel conveys a moral lesson about life constantly changing including the different people that a person meets throughout their life, which suggests that even though Hà encounters racial barriers that twists and adds strain, she provides an overall perspective that culture can be seen as source of learning about different societies and communities.

The author’s note leads to the importance of authenticating the experiences in which Thanhha Lai acknowledges that there are similar experiences of her past in relation to the character, Hà. Lai shares with the reader how she wanted to capture Hà’s emotional life in which she explores the issues of what it means to feel invisible while assimilating into a new culture. Visibility takes on an emotional toll for the character especially dealing with situations at school in which her peers constantly dehumanize her and her abilities to learn. Lai raises the issue of invisibility placed on children of immigrants in educational environments and situations where Hà constantly feels the lack of confidence of her intellect due to learning a new language. In addition, Hà’s family struggles with the anxieties of denouncing their Vietnamese identity due to the challenges of the American ideals and lifestyle placed upon by individuals within their new community. At times, Hà’s mother reminds her children that “until you children/ master English, / you must think, do, wish / for nothing else. / Not your father / not our old home, / not your old friends, / not our future” (117).

Lai wants readers to view the difficulties for immigrant families growing up in America being forced to forget their cultural identity. Lai focuses on the emotional aspect because she realizes for Vietnamese Americans “[t]hey may know in general where their parents came from, but they can’t really imagine the noises and smells of Vietnam, the daily challenges of starting over in a strange land” (262). Thus, she proposes that “idea to all: How much do we know about those around us?” (262). Keeping this in mind, we need to challenge ourselves in being aware of what is around us as well as taking the time to seek out our own history of where our ancestors came from as a way of respecting and honoring our culture identity.

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Rachel Egoian - Pleasant Hill, CA


Originally from the Bay Area and a recent graduate from University of California, Santa Cruz in Literature and Education, Rachel has a profound interest in Asian American literature and communities. Coming from a mixed ethnic background as an Armenian, Irish and Filipina, she values the importance of culture and self-identity. Through the foundations of literary criticism, she encourages and stresses the need for diversity in literature.

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