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Inside out and back agai.., p.1
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       Inside Out and Back Again, p.1

           Thanhha Lai
 
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Inside Out and Back Again


  Inside Out & Back Again

  Thanhha Lai

  To the millions of refugees in the world,

  may you each find a home

  Contents

  Part I

  Saigon

  1975: Year of the Cat

  Inside Out

  Kim Hà

  Papaya Tree

  TiTi Waves Good-bye

  Missing in Action

  Mother’s Days

  Eggs

  Current News

  Feel Smart

  Two More Papayas

  Unknown Father

  TV News

  Birthday

  Birthday Wishes

  A Day Downtown

  Twisting Twisting

  Closed Too Soon

  Promises

  Bridge to the Sea

  Should We?

  Sssshhhhhhh

  Quiet Decision

  Early Monsoon

  The President Resigns

  Watch Over Us

  Crisscrossed Packs

  Choice

  Left Behind

  Wet and Crying

  Sour Backs

  One Mat Each

  In the Dark

  Saigon Is Gone

  Part II

  At Sea

  Floating

  S-l-o-w-l-y

  Rations

  Routine

  Once Knew

  Brother Khôi’s Secret

  Last Respects

  One Engine

  The Moon

  A Kiss

  Golden Fuzz

  Tent City

  Life in Waiting

  Nc Mm

  Amethyst Ring

  Choose

  Another Tent City

  Alabama

  Our Cowboy

  Part III

  Alabama

  Unpack and Repack

  English Above All

  First Rule

  American Chicken

  Out the Too-High Window

  Second Rule

  American Address

  Letter Home

  Third Rule

  Passing Time

  Neigh Not Hee

  Fourth Rule

  The Outside

  Sadder Laugh

  Rainbow

  Black and White and Yellow and Red

  Loud Outside

  Laugh Back

  Quiet Inside

  Fly Kick

  Chin Nod

  Feel Dumb

  Wishes

  Hiding

  Neighbors

  New Word a Day

  More Is Not Better

  HA LE LU DA

  Can’t Help

  Spelling Rules

  Cowboy’s Gifts

  Someone Knows

  Most Relieved Day

  Smart Again

  Hair

  The Busy One

  War and Peace

  Pancake Face

  Mother’s Response

  MiSSSisss WaSShington’s Response

  Cowboy’s Response

  Boo-Da, Boo-Da

  Hate It

  Brother Quang’s Turn

  Confessions

  NOW!

  u Face

  Rumor

  A Plan

  Run

  A Shift

  WOW!

  The Vu Lee Effect

  Early Christmas

  Not the Same

  But Not Bad

  Part IV

  From Now On

  Letter from the North

  Gift-Exchange Day

  What If

  A Sign

  No More

  Seeds

  Gone

  Truly Gone

  Eternal Peace

  Start Over

  An Engineer, a Chef, a Vet, and Not a Lawyer

  1976: Year of the Dragon

  Author’s Note

  Acknowledgments

  About the Author

  Credits

  Copyright

  About the Publisher

  PART I

  Saigon

  1975: Year of the Cat

  Today is Tt,

  the first day

  of the lunar calendar.

  Every Tt

  we eat sugary lotus seeds

  and glutinous rice cakes.

  We wear all new clothes,

  even underneath.

  Mother warns

  how we act today

  foretells the whole year.

  Everyone must smile

  no matter how we feel.

  No one can sweep,

  for why sweep away hope?

  No one can splash water,

  for why splash away joy?

  Today

  we all gain one year in age,

  no matter the date we were born.

  Tt, our New Year’s,

  doubles as everyone’s birthday.

  Now I am ten, learning

  to embroider circular stitches,

  to calculate fractions into percentages,

  to nurse my papaya tree to bear many fruits.

  But last night I pouted

  when Mother insisted

  one of my brothers

  must rise first

  this morning

  to bless our house

  because only male feet

  can bring luck.

  An old, angry knot

  expanded in my throat.

  I decided

  to wake before dawn

  and tap my big toe

  to the tile floor

  first.

  Not even Mother,

  sleeping beside me, knew.

  February 11

  Tt

  Inside Out

  Every new year Mother visits

  the I Ching Teller of Fate.

  This year he predicts

  our lives will twist inside out.

  Maybe soldiers will no longer

  patrol our neighborhood,

  maybe I can jump rope

  after dark,

  maybe the whistles

  that tell Mother

  to push us under the bed

  will stop screeching.

  But I heard

  on the playground

  this year’s bánh chng,

  eaten only during Tt,

  will be smeared in blood.

  The war is coming

  closer to home.

  February 12

  Kim Hà

  My name is Hà.

  Brother Quang remembers

  I was as red and fat

  as a baby hippopotamus

  when he first saw me,

  inspiring the name

  Hà Mã,

  River Horse.

  Brother V screams, Hà Ya,

  and makes me jump

  every time

  he breaks wood or bricks

  in imitation of Bruce Lee.

  Brother Khôi calls me

  Mother’s Tail

  because I’m always

  three steps from her.

  I can’t make my brothers

  go live elsewhere,

  but I can

  hide their sandals.

  We each have but one pair,

  much needed

  during this dry season

  when the earth stings.

  Mother tells me

  to ignore my brothers.

  We named you Kim H,

  after the Golden (Kim) River (Hà),

  where Father and I

  once strolled in the evenings.

  My parents had no idea

  what three older brothers

  can do

  to the simple name

  Hà.
r />   Mother tells me,

  They tease you

  because they adore you.

  She’s wrong,

  but I still love

  being near her, even more than I love

  my papaya tree.

  I will offer her

  its first fruit.

  Every day

  Papaya Tree

  It grew from a seed

  I flicked into

  the back garden.

  A seed like

  a fish eye,

  slippery

  shiny

  black.

  The tree has grown

  twice as tall

  as I stand

  on tippy toes.

  Brother Khôi spotted

  the first white blossom.

  Four years older,

  he can see higher.

  Brother V later found

  a baby papaya

  the size of a fist

  clinging to the trunk.

  At eighteen,

  he can see that much higher.

  Brother Quang is oldest,

  twenty-one and studying engineering.

  Who knows what he will notice

  before me?

  I vow

  to rise first every morning

  to stare at the dew

  on the green fruit

  shaped like a lightbulb.

  I will be the first

  to witness its ripening.

  Mid-February

  TiTi Waves Good-bye

  My best friend TiTi

  is crying hard,

  snotting the hem

  of her pink fluffy blouse.

  Her two brothers

  also are sniffling

  inside their car

  packed to the roof

  with suitcases.

  TiTi shoves into my hand

  a tin of flower seeds

  we gathered last fall.

  We hoped to plant them

  together.

  She waves from the back window

  of their rabbit-shaped car.

  Her tears mix with long strands of hair,

  long hair I wish I had.

  I would still be standing there

  crying and waving to nothing

  if Brother Khôi hadn’t come

  to take my hand.

  They’re heading to

  he says,

  where the rich go

  to flee Vietnam

  on cruise ships.

  I’m glad we’ve become poor

  so we can stay.

  Early March

  Missing in Action

  Father left home

  on a navy mission

  on this day

  nine years ago

  when I was almost one.

  He was captured

  on Route 1

  an hour south of the city

  by moped.

  That’s all we know.

  This day

  Mother prepares an altar

  to chant for his return,

  offering fruit,

  incense,

  tuberoses,

  and glutinous rice.

  She displays his portrait

  taken during Tt

  the year he disappeared.

  How peaceful he looks,

  smiling,

  peacock tails

  at the corners

  of his eyes.

  Each of us bows

  and wishes

  and hopes

  and prays.

  Everything on the altar

  remains for the day

  except the portrait.

  Mother locks it away

  as soon as her chant ends.

  She cannot bear

  to look into Father’s

  forever-young

  eyes.

  March 10

  Mother’s Days

  On weekdays

  Mother’s a secretary

  in a navy office,

  trusted to count out

  salaries in cash

  at the end of each month.

  At night

  she stays up late

  designing and cutting

  baby clothes

  to give to seamstresses.

  A few years ago

  she made enough money

  to consider

  buying a car.

  On weekends

  she takes me to market stalls,

  dropping off the clothes

  and trying to collect

  on last week’s goods.

  Hardly anyone buys anymore,

  she says.

  People can barely afford food.

  Still,

  she continues to try.

  March 15

  Eggs

  Brother Khôi

  is mad at Mother

  for taking his hen’s

  eggs.

  The hen gives

  one egg

  every day and a half.

  We take turns

  eating them.

  Brother Khôi

  refuses to eat his,

  putting each under a lamp

  in hopes of

  a chick.

  I should side with

  my most tolerable brother,

  but I love a soft yolk

  to dip bread.

  Mother says

  if the price of eggs

  were not the price of rice,

  and the price of rice

  were not the price of gasoline,

  and the price of gasoline

  were not the price of gold,

  then of course

  Brother Khôi

  could continue hatching eggs.

  She’s sorry.

  March 17

  Current News

  Every Friday

  in Miss Xinh’s class

  we talk about

  current news.

  But when we keep talking about

  how close the Communists

  have gotten to Saigon,

  how much prices have gone up

  since American soldiers left,

  how many distant bombs

  were heard the previous night,

  Miss Xinh finally says no more.

  From now on

  Fridays

  will be for

  happy news.

  No one has anything

  to say.

  March 21

  Feel Smart

  This year

  I have afternoon classes,

  plus Saturdays.

  We attend in shifts

  so everyone can fit

  into school.

  Mornings free,

  Mother trusts me

  to shop at the open market.

  Last September

  she would give me

  fifty ng

  to buy one hundred grams of pork,

  a bushel of water spinach,

  five cubes of tofu.

  But I told no one

  I was buying

  ninety-nine grams of pork,

  seven-eighths of a bushel of spinach,

  four and three-quarter cubes of tofu.

  Merchants frowned at

  Mother’s strange instructions.

  The money saved

  bought

  a pouch of toasted coconut,

  one sugary fried dough,

  two crunchy mung bean cookies.

  Now it takes two hundred ng

  to buy the same things.

  I still buy less pork,

  allowing myself just the fried dough.

  No one knows

  and I feel smart.

  Late March

  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.


 
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