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Inside Out and Back Again by Thanhha Lai is about a young girl named Ha who lives in Vietnam with a father who is missing in action during the Vietnam War. Her mother, Ha, and her three brothers flee across the sea to Alabama after the fall of Saigon. It is in Alabama where Ha discovers that life is not the same as life in Vietnam. Leaving her papaya tree behind, she mourns the loss of her father and struggles to blend in with her classmates in Alabama as they call her racist names and bully her for the way she looks and where she comes from, Vietnam. 

For our study, we'll be reading four poems from the book: The Outside, Sadder Laugh, Rainbow, and Black and White and Yellow and Red.

Background Video #1

Background Video #2

The Outside

The Outside

September 1

Starting tomorrow

everyone must

leave the house.


Mother starts sewing

at a factory;

Brother Quang begins

repairing cars.


The rest of us

must go to school,

repeating the last grade,

left unfinished.


Brother V wants

to be a cook

or teach martial arts,

not waste a year

as the oldest senior.


Mother says

one word:



Brother Khôi

gets an old bicycle to ride,

but Mother says

I’m too young for one

even though I’m

a ten-year-old

in the fourth grade,

when everyone else

is nine.


Mother says,

Worry instead

about getting sleep

because from now on

no more naps.

You will eat lunch

at school

with friends.


What friends?


You’ll make some.


What if I can’t?


You will.


What will I eat?


What your friends eat.


But what will I eat?


Be surprised.


I hate surprises.


Be agreeable


Not without knowing


what I'm agreeing to.


Mother sighs,

walking away.

Sadder Laugh

September 2, Morning



I wake up with


zipping through

my gut.


I eat nothing. I take each step toward school evenly,

trying to hold my stomach



It helps that

the morning air glides cool

like a constant washcloth

against my face.


Deep breaths.


I’m the first student in class.


My new teacher has brown curls

looped tight to her scalp

like circles in a beehive.


She points to her chest:

MiSSS SScott,

saying it three times,

each louder

with ever more spit.


I repeat, MiSSS SScott,

careful to hiss every s.


She doesn’t seem impressed.


I tap my own chest:



She must have heard


as in funny ha-ha-ha.


She fakes a laugh.


I repeat, ,

and wish I knew

enough English

to tell her

to listen for

the diacritical mark,


this one directing

the tone



My new teacher tilts

her head back,


an even sadder laugh.


September 2, Midmorning

I face the class.

MiSSS SScott speaks.

Each classmate says something.


I don’t understand,

but I see.


Fire hair on skin dotted with spots.

Fuzzy dark hair on skin shiny as lacquer.

Hair the color of root on milky skin.

Lots of braids on milk chocolate.

White hair on a pink boy.

Honey hair with orange ribbons on see-through skin.

Hair with barrettes in all colors on bronze bread.


I’m the only

straight black hair

on olive skin.

Black and White and Yellow and Red

September 2, 11:30 a.m.

The bell rings.

Everyone stands.

I stand.


They line up;

so do I.


Down a hall.

Turn left.

Take a tray.

Receive food.


On one side

of the bright, noisy room,

light skin.

Other side,

dark skin.


Both laughing,


as if it never occurred

to them

someone medium

would show up.


I don’t know where to sit

any more than

I know how to eat

the pink sausage

snuggled inside bread

shaped like a corncob,

smeared with sauces

yellow and red.

I think

they are making fun

of the Vietnamese flag

until I remember

no one here likely knows

that flag's colors.

I put down the tray

and wait

in the hallway.

Sadder Laugh
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