The Life of Refugees in the Novel Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai Essay

A refugee can be anyone who is forced to flee their home due to conflicts such as war, famine, persecution and other disasters in order to preserve their life and freedom. After they escape the substantial danger, they must seek asylum in another country until they are finally relocated. While refugees flee home, their lives are turned “inside out”, as they wind through changes and deal with losses. In the novel, Inside Out and Back Again by Thanha Lai, a young girl named Ha and her family live in a war-torn Saigon, South Vietnam.

Ha is a rebellious ten-year-old who, once every so often, likes to test the limits. Ha doesn’t have much of a position now because even though she remains hopeful that the war will soon be over so that life can return back to the way before, she has a grasp on the potential danger that this war brings. She appears naïve because of her age, but she knows more than what she lets on.

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As the war is approaching quicker and Saigon is close to its fall, Ha and her family board a ship, swarmed with countless other people, to America and is forced to abandon the only things she once knew and love. Ha comes across similar experiences that most refugees encounter; she had to confront the difficult changes throughout her journey until her life completely unraveled and turned “inside out”, then she shifted “back again” while slowly adjusting to new traditions of the place she began learning to call home.

Refugees’ lives are turned inside out when they are forced to escape to safety. These challenges that both refugees and Ha go through demonstrates the universal experience of refugees willing to do whatever it may take to get out of harms’ way. In “Children of War” by Arthur Brice, Emir, one of the four teenage refugees from Bosnia discusses the subject of how the war forced him into hiding from the bullets of the raging war. He says, “I had to crawl through my apartment on my hands and knees or risk getting shot. I slept in the bathtub for days, because that was the only place you were totally safe from bullets… You just want to survive this day” (Brice 25-26). This shows that at that point, Emir’s attention was only focused on safety; it didn’t matter if it meant he had to crawl on his hands and knees or sleep in a bathtub. On page one of Inside Out and Back Again, Ha is hiding from the war and its life-threatening accomplices. Ha tells about how the war has affected her daily life. “Maybe the whistles that tell mother to push us under the bed will stop screeching” (Lai 4). Ha’s mother is doing anything in her power to keep her children from danger, by having them take cover underneath a bed at the sound of a whistle, to keep away from the soldiers. In the poem, “Saigon Is Gone”, Ha writes the circumstances they’re forced into, at sea, just to stay out of the Communist’s sights. “The commander has ordered everyone below deck… avoiding the obvious path through Vung Tau where the communists are dropping all the bombs they have left… our ship dips low as the crowd runs to the left, and then to the right” (Lai 67-68). Desperate times call for desperate measures; this indicates that everyone including Ha’s family are willing to endure the harsh conditions just to get away from the dangers of the war. War pushes people to the point of desperation and where their only existing thoughts are invaded by safety. Little things that would usually worry them aren’t even relevant during the current situation. Once the soldiers showed up in her neighborhood, Ha recognized that her life was being turned inside out –that maybe her home was no longer the place she felt safest and the possibility that she was going to have to find and adapt to a new one.

Refugees that are finally relocated must adjust to the traditions of the new country. This can be difficult for some refugees, and even harder for those experiencing an exchange of obligations where the role of the parent and child switches. In “Refugee Children of Canada: Searching for Identity” by Ana Marie Fantino and Alice Colak, expresses that “At home both groups experience a role and dependency reversal in which they may function as interpreters and cultural brokers for the parents” (Fantino and Colak 591). This means that the responsibilities that the child and parent once held are no longer in the same hands, instead of the child depending on the parent, the parent now depends on the child. This universal refugee experience relates back to Ha in the poem, “English Above All”. Ha writes, “Until you children master English you must think, do, wish for nothing else. Not your father, not your old home, your old friends, not our future” (Lai 117). Ha’s mother wants their focus to be on school so that they can be educated since, now, their mother relies on them therefore their priorities are going to have to alter along with their new life. Taking on the big responsibility where the role of the parent shifts to the child can turn the child inside out due to all the pressure. In, “Passing time”, Ha is aware that if she doesn’t do anything at all it doesn’t benefit anyone else, including herself. “I study the dictionary because grass and trees do not grow faster just because I stare” (Lai 129). This is an example of Ha hard at work because she knows that the world doesn’t stop changing because she isn’t doing anything, nothing changes (especially for her) if she doesn’t put in the effort. In a way, Ha is repaying her mother by learning and adapting herself so that she can eventually help her mother adapt to the new country. It’s already difficult enough to arrive to a new country without any prior knowledge, it’s even more difficult when you pile on the demanding challenges of having to adopt a new culture and no longer being able to adhere to your old culture, then becoming the support for your parent. Learning to make a life in a new place can be a struggle for all refugees.

Once refugees learn to reach the point of acceptance of change in their lives, not only does their life begin to get easier but society also acknowledges them as equals. In “Refugee Children of Canada: Searching for Identity” by Ana Marie Fantino and Alice Colak, it states “This may be attributed to a long-held belief that children adapt quickly, bolstered by the tendency of children to not express their sadness.” This interprets that children are usually known for their ability to adapt quickly. With the ability to return back faster, children have a less difficult time compared to adults, of turning back again. “Not the same, but not bad at all” (Lai 234). Ha may have not been able to bring her papaya tree with her to this new place, but she brought the accepting part of herself and it began to emerge here. She longs for her home when she encounters things that remind her of Vietnam but she’s starting off to approve the diverse changes in her life now. In “1976: Year of the Dragon”, Ha describes that this year there is no longer a I Ching Teller of Fate to read their fortune for the year so, their mother makes do of the situation and predicts it instead. Ha’s mother predicts, “Our lives will twist and twist, intermingling the old and the new until it doesn’t matter which is which” (Lai 257). Ha is making friends –growing closer with Pem and adopting the new culture. By incorporating new traditions into the old traditions, it would make it easier on the refugees to adapt. Many factors affect the rate of how fast refugees turn back again; acceptance is one of the crucial factors and Ha was able to grasp the idea and begin to accept change.

Throughout the world, refugees come across many challenges as they are forced to flee their country as well as in search of a new place to call home. As refugees like Ha’s family risk their lives during this transforming journey, they learn to overcome their past experiences and adjust to their new lives within an unfamiliar environment. The novel, Inside Out and Back Again demonstrates that a person, over time, may turn inside out but can conquer that and revert back again.

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