Study Guide

Inside Out & Back Again Food

By Thanhha Lai

Food

Every Tet
We eat sugary lotus seeds
And glutinous rice cakes. (1.1.2)

This sounds delish, but it also doesn't sounds like standard southern food fare, which doesn't bode well for eating the same food when Tet rolls around in Alabama.

I should side with
my most tolerable brother,
but I love a soft yolk
to dip bread. (1.8.5)

Here food stands in Hà's way of being a better sister and building her relationship with Brother Khoi. Oops.

Middle sweet
Between a mango and a pear. (1.11.3)

Ah, papaya, Hà's favorite food. To her, nothing else measures up, so she seriously misses this fruit once she lands in the U.S.

He hated the afternoon sun
the color of brown,
and cold rice. (1.12.3)

Food is such an important part of everyone's lives that Hà uses it to describe the sky view.

… each family gets
five kilos of sugar,
ten kilos of rice,
and a small jug of
vegetable oil. (1.16.2)

These are the simple, cheap staples that the Vietnamese have grown to depend on during wartime. It's not much, but Hà and her family are about to find themselves making do with much less once they're on the ship.

Yam and manioc
taste lovely
blended with rice,
she says, and smiles,
as if I don't know
how the poor
fill their children's bellies. (1.17.3)

Sometimes, food is the center of the universe. In this case, we're not talking about it in a foodie way—we're talking about the fact that Hà's family is poor, and sometimes stretching the food they have poses a real challenge.

No one has offered
to share
what I smell:
sardines, dried durian,
salted eggs, toasted sesame. (2.2.5)

When people are starving, food is like gold; it is horded and protected, not shared. This is exactly what's happening on the ship.

[…] Brother Vu
becomes head chef,
heating up cans of
beef and potatoes
tasting like salty vomit. (2.12.3)

Welcome to America, Hà, the land of canned food. Hà's first taste of American food is less than appetizing, so she copes by only eating the canned, syrupy fruit. Can't say we blame her, though it's not exactly a balanced diet.

Everything is
more edible
with nuoc mam. (2.14.2)

Nuoc mam is fish sauce, which is kind of like the Vietnamese version of ketchup, so like Americans with a dry steak, Hà and her family just pour it all over the stuff they don't like. Just like that, problem solved.

I bite down on a thigh;
might as well bite down on
bread soaked in water. (3.4.14)

KFC isn't so finger lickin' good to Hà's family, which just goes to show that what a culture is used to eating is what tastes good to them, be it fish sauce or industrial farmed chicken.

The sugar has melted off
leaving
plump
moist
chewy
bites.

Hummm…

Not the same,
but not bad
at all. (3.56.8)

Finally Hà is beginning to accept the differences in food, and not judge what she eats based on whether it is the same, and instead on whether it is pleasant.

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