Study Guide

Inside Out & Back Again Papaya Tree / Papaya

By Thanhha Lai

Papaya Tree / Papaya

Hà's favorite food is papaya, which may not seem like a big deal because papaya is delicious, so of course she likes it, but it is so much more than just a sweet treat in this book. But before we get to the tasty fruit, let's start with where papayas come from, Shmoopers—and yes, that would be trees.

In Saigon, Hà has a papaya tree that she's grown from seed. She is proud of the tree, and loves watching its growth, eagerly anticipating eating the fruit from it some day. Just like the tree, Hà has grown up in this place and is rooted in Saigon;  her love for the tree symbolizes her love of her country and her home. It is the first real thing she cares about outside of herself. Throughout the story, Hà longs for the tree and for the taste of the papaya that she cannot get in the new world, which reminds us that the tree represents her home.

If the tree represents Saigon and Hà's home in it, then what about the fruit Hà's waited so patiently to grow on it? We're going to go out on a limb (pun totally intended) here and say it represents Hà herself. But you don't have to take our word for it—we'll let Hà break it down for you. She writes:

Five papayas
the size of
my head,
a knee,
two elbows,
and a thumb…
(1.19.1)

Pro tip: Anytime someone compares something to their body in a book, chances are more than decent that whatever that something is represents the person. Here, Hà literally compares the fruit to her own body here, drawing clear lines of similarity between the two. When she writes of the fruit, "Still green/ but promising" (1.19.2), we can understand this as the perfect description of Hà at this stage of her life—young and not yet mature, but filled with potential.

And sure enough, though only ten years old, Hà is about to become something other than a child, to mature quickly upon their departure from Saigon. When her family eats the papaya before it is all the way ripened in the name of enjoying it themselves instead of leaving it for the Communists they are trying to escape, we can see that Hà is being plucked from her childhood a bit too soon by their decision to flee, but also that she's being kept safe in doing so.

Kind of makes you look at the fruit bowl on the kitchen counter a little bit differently, doesn't it?

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