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Hà's mom is the center of her universe for the majority of this story, because, well, Hà is only ten. And since Hà and her family leave Saigon and travel all the way to the United States, where they neither speak the language nor know anybody, her mom stays front and center in her daughter's life—so much so, in fact, that we only ever know her as Mother, and only ever see her through Hà's eyes. But let's take a closer look.
One of Mother's major roles is to be supportive and encourage her children to pursue activities that improve their lives. What she says holds a ton of weight in her kids' lives—with their father long gone, she's running the show—and although Mother tries to be respectful of their feelings, she also pushes her agenda and enforces her rules. Luckily for Hà and her brothers, though, Mother tends to do this pretty gently.
So, for instance, after Khoi has made Hà swear she'll stay with him in Saigon because his little chick just hatched, when Mother sews some back packs for their trip, Khoi tells her not to make any for he and Hà. Mother knows the inner workings of her son's brain and heart, though, and "this son/ cannot stand to hurt/ anyone,/ anything" (1.27.7), so she tells him that it is his call, but that they will be sticking together as a family unit. She says:
Think, my son;
your action will determine
our future. (1.27.6)
Mother's little trick works, and Khoi agrees to leave because he can't stand the idea of holding everyone else back. Mother knew he would feel the pressure and burden of the entire family and make the right choice, and she used this to gently nudge Khoi toward willingly coming along.
Sometimes Mother is not so suggestive and crafty, though—sometimes she is plain and direct with her orders. She has very specific ideas about what her children ought to be doing with their time, and what they should be doing to plan for their futures. So when they are lost at sea, starving and crammed together and unable to do much of anything, instead of wasting the days away brooding over their fates, Hà writes:
Mother cannot allow
hers or anyone else's. (2.4.1)
On the ship, Mother enforces a routine of study and exercise to make the most of the time they have. The quarters may be cramped and the journey may be terrible, but Mother does what she can to make the time meaningful for her children. And when they finally make it to the United States, Mother doesn't leave her firm leadership on the water—nope, she brings it ashore with her, and uses it to help her make her way in the strange country she finds herself alone with her children in.
No matter how rough things get, how insulting people are, or how often Mother must swallow the shame of being a foreigner in a country that is unwelcoming, she still stands her ground. This is a woman who just refuses to be broken down.
A prime example of this occurs when Mother and Hà take a trip to the butcher to get meat for egg rolls, and the butcher refuses to grind it up for them. Mother doesn't know much English yet, but tries to be polite by saying please, but not even being nice works on the prejudiced man. Finally, instead of feeling rejected and depressed over not getting an ounce of respect, Mother responds in the following fashion:
Mother presses the buzzer
for a long time.
When the butcher returns,
he hears a lot of Vietnamese
in a voice stern and steady,
from eyes even more so.
Mother ends with a clear, NOW! (3.46.7)
Not only does Mother get what she wants by refusing to be treated poorly, but she also teaches Hà that backing away doesn't get you what you need, and it doesn't earn respect either. Her mother teachers her how to stand up for herself by remaining firm, even in difficult situations, which we see pay off for Hà when she doesn't back down from Pink Boy. We think Mother would approve.