Part 1

Fleeing to America to escape the Vietnam War, Hà and her family end up in Alabama, where they must adapt to a new culture. This novel in verse was inspired by author Thanhha Lai's own experiences.

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Explore the Words

definitions & notes only words
  1. incense
    a substance that produces a fragrant odor when burned
    This day
    Mother prepares an altar
    to chant for his return,
    offering fruit,
    and glutinous rice.
  2. glutinous
    having the sticky properties of an adhesive
    This day
    Mother prepares an altar
    to chant for his return,
    offering fruit,
    and glutinous rice.
  3. embroider
    decorate with needlework
    Now I am ten, learning
    to embroider circular stitches,
    to calculate fractions into percentages,
    to nurse my papaya tree to bear many fruits.
  4. pout
    make a sad face and thrust out one's lower lip
    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.
  5. expand
    become larger in size or volume or quantity
    An old, angry knot
    expanded in my throat.
  6. predict
    tell in advance
    Every new year Mother visits
    the I Ching Teller of Fate.
    This year he predicts
    our lives will twist inside out.
  7. imitation
    copying the actions of someone else
    Brother Vū screams, Ha Yà,
    and makes me jump
    every time
    he breaks wood or bricks
    in imitation of Bruce Lee.
  8. stroll
    walk leisurely and with no apparent aim
    We named you Kim Hà,
    after the Golden (Kim) River (Hà),
    where Father and I
    once strolled in the evenings.
  9. vow
    I vow
    to rise first every morning
    to stare at the dew
    on the green fruit
    shaped like a lightbulb.
  10. communist
    a socialist in favor of collectivism in a classless society
    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.
  11. flaunt
    display proudly
    Brother Quang says,
    One cannot justify war
    unless each side
    flaunts its own
    blind conviction.
  12. persuade
    cause somebody to adopt a certain position or belief
    It’s not easy
    to persuade Mother
    to tell of her girlhood
    in the North,
    where her grandmother’s land
    stretched farther than
    doves could fly,
    where looking pretty
    and writing poetry
    were her only duties.
  13. chide
    scold or reprimand severely or angrily
    Wish Mother would stop
    chiding me to stay calm,
    which makes it worse.
  14. lavender
    an aromatic shrub with usually mauve or blue flowers
    Mother smells of lavender
    and warmth;
    she's so beautiful
    even if
    her cheeks are too hollow,
    her mouth too dark with worries.
  15. crepe
    small very thin pancake
    Like magic a crepe forms
    to be filled with shrimp
    and eaten with
    cucumber and bean sprouts.
  16. podium
    a platform raised above the surrounding level
    We stand in line;
    for even longer
    we sit on hot metal benches
    facing the podium.
  17. rickety
    inclined to shake as from weakness or defect
    I will not risk
    fleeing with my children
    on a rickety boat.
  18. slogan
    a favorite saying of a sect or political group
    Hà will come home
    chanting the slogans
    of Hô Chí Minh,
    and Khôi will be rewarded
    for reporting to his teacher
    everything we say in the house.
  19. monsoon
    rainy season in southern Asia
    We pretend
    the monsoon
    has come early.
  20. reproduce
    have offspring or produce more individuals
    The tired worm
    reproduces much more slowly
    at the end of the day
    than at the beginning
    when Mother started
    the first of five bags.
  21. pact
    a written agreement between two states or sovereigns
    Mother tells me
    she and Father have a pact.
  22. gaunt
    very thin especially from disease or hunger or cold
    Who can go against
    a mother
    who has become gaunt like bark
    from raising four children alone?
  23. clump
    a compact mass
    Into each pack:
    one pair of pants,
    one pair of shorts,
    three pairs of underwear,
    two shirts,
    toothbrush and paste,
    soap, ten palms of rice grains,
    three clumps of cooked rice,
    one choice.
  24. horde
    a moving crowd
    Hordes pour
    by us,
    beyond us.
  25. nudge
    a slight push or shake
    In the dark
    a nudge here
    a nudge there
    and we end up
    back on the first ship
    in the same spot
    with two mats.
Created on April 15, 2014 (updated March 8, 2019)

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