In the section of the book entitled “Routine,” we see Brother Quang begin English lessons after he and his family have been on board a ship for a week. His sister Ha wishes that he would restrict his learning to simple English sentences like “How are you?” and “This is a pen.” But when no adults are around, he says things like
We must consider the shame
of abandoning our own country
and begging toward the unknown
where we will all begin again
at the lowest level
on the social scale.
Quang's lessons tell us an awful lot. First and foremost, they show him to be an incredibly intelligent young man. Quang has clearly progressed beyond “the cat is on the mat” stage of English comprehension, and is now able to construct highly complex sentences that many native speakers would never use.
On a less encouraging level, however, Quang's lessons show him to be profoundly pessimistic about what the future holds for himself and his family. Though undoubtedly glad to escape war-torn Vietnam, he's nonetheless far from sanguine about his family's future in the United States. He knows that they will have to start a new life from scratch at the very bottom of the social scale. Even Quang's obvious intelligence won't be able to save them from this grim fate, at least for now.
It would seem that Ha is uncomfortable listening to Quang say such things, not because she doesn't want him to make progress in learning English, but because what he has to say reminds her of the numerous difficulties and challenges of what lies ahead.