Saigon and Alabama
Although halfway around the world from each other, both Saigon and Alabama—the two main settings for the book—are riddled with conflict. Each place is host to its own sources of struggle for our main girl, Hà. Let's look at them more closely, though. And remember: We see everything through the eyes of a ten-year-old in this book.
The book opens in Saigon, the place where Hà was born and has been raised; to her, it is perfect and safe because it is home. Even though there is a war going on, complete with bombs and gunfire, Hà is seemingly unaware of the violence that looms. Yes her father is gone, but he's always been gone in her memory, so she doesn't put the pieces together.
When her brother rants about politics, she just gets annoyed with him, and while there are some dizzying and chaotic moments happening around Hà, overall she is happy in Saigon and hopes she doesn't have to leave like her friend TiTi does early on the book. The older members of her family understand how dangerous it may be to stick around, however, so before too long, Hà is forced to board a ship and head to the United States, much to her dismay.
Once Hà reaches Alabama, she finds herself in a completely different world from the one she's always known. As she describes her view from the basement window in the Cowboy's house:
Cement lanes where/no one walks.//[…] Not a noise.//Clean, quiet/loneliness. (2.5.3)
You know who else isn't walking in Alabama? Hà and her family. At least not at first, anyway, since the cowboy's wife doesn't like the refugees in her home and doesn't want anyone to see them. So on top of Alabama looking and sounding different from Saigon, Hà and her family inhabit it differently—they are not in the comfort of their own home, and instead are some place owned by virtual strangers, one of whom doesn't particularly care for them or want to see them.
It's not rocket science to think of the differences between Saigon and Alabama. We're talking food, language, religion—big stuff in anyone's life, and especially for a kid. Plus there's a whole lot of racism in Alabama, and Hà and her family are met with hatred and prejudice time and again. Hà's got her work cut out for her in this setting, but slowly—and with help from a few more open-minded people, like Mrs. Washington and the cowboy—she starts to find her way.