Study Guide

Inside Out & Back Again Tradition

By Thanhha Lai

Tradition

Everyone must smile
no matter how we feel. (1.1.4)

Tet is a tradition that is filled with lots of smaller ones. Here we see the tradition of smiling, and while it might seem forced, it's done with the belief that people are setting themselves up for the new year. In other words, you'd best smile if you want it to be a happy one.

Every new year Mother visits
the I Ching Teller of fate. (1.2.1)

This seems to be Mother's personal tradition that she's worked into Tet. It's fine and dandy to smile through Tet, but Mother likes to get a sense of what the coming year holds anyway.

I vow
to rise first every morning
to stare at the dew
on the green fruit… (1.4.7)

This is a new tradition for Hà, one that is super important to her, if only so her brothers don't notice everything about her tree before she does.

TiTi shoves into my hand
a tin of flower seeds
we gathered last fall. (1.5.3)

This might be a tradition of Hà's, and of other young kids in Saigon, to gather seeds to plant with a friend.

Each of us bows
and wishes
and hopes
and prays. (1.6.7)

One of Hà's most meaningful traditions is to honor her missing father by setting up and alter for him. This is kind of like visiting a graveyard for a dead loved one.

I dye my mouth
sugary black
and insist on
stories. (1.14.5)

The birthday tradition has changed this year (maybe due to money shortage) so Hà gets a candy and a wish instead of the usual large dinner. What is your birthday tradition?

Everything is
more edible
with nuoc mam. (2.14.2)

The traditional fish sauce they use is a traditional food for them, and they rely on it to make strange foods tastier.

Just like that
mother amends our faith,
saying all beliefs
are pretty much the same. (2.17.9)

Here their religious tradition must change (on paper, anyway) in order to survive in America, since they will not get help if they are not Christian.

Chant, my daughter.
Breathe in, peaceful mind.
Breathe out, peaceful smile. (3.39.2)

One of the oldest traditions on the planet, chanting is a big part of Hà's life. It is a way for her to deal with big feelings, and to keep calm instead of freaking out.

Mother invites our cowboy
And MiSSSisss WaSShington
For egg roles. (3.54.1)

Here Hà and her family (along with the cowboy and Mrs. Washington) celebrate Christmas in a sort of hybrid of traditions: They share traditional Vietnamese food, and swap presents per the usual Christmas tradition Everyone is happy, despite the party being different for both Hà's family and her American friends.

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