All of the many challenges faced by Ha and her family ultimately stem from their being forced to leave their war-torn homeland of Vietnam.
They live in Saigon in the south of the country, where Ha’s mother and father originally moved to escape the Communists. Now that the Communists are closing in on Saigon, and the city is ready to fall at any moment, Ha’s mother makes the fateful decisions to up sticks and leave the country. Clearly there is no future for the family in Vietnam.
Although Ha and her family have escaped the clutches of the Communists their problems are far from over. Once they’ve completed a long, arduous sea journey—which itself something of a challenge, especially during the early stages of the journey—they go to the United States, where they will face their biggest challenge of all: assimilating into American society.
Ha finds it difficult to adapt to her new school, not least because none of the other students looks like her. She’s seriously not exaggerating when she says that she would choose wartime in Saigon over peacetime in Alabama. Ha’s estrangement from her new environment is further heightened by her lack of English.
To make matters worse, Ha’s family are generally not welcome in their new neighborhood. There’s obviously a great deal of prejudice against them, as can be observed when a brick with a threatening note attached to it is thrown through the family’s window. In order to counter the prejudice that exists against them, Ha and her family start attending a local Baptist church; it is hoped that this will facilitate their assimilation into the community.
But this presents a further challenge to Ha’s mother, who still feels the need to maintain traditional Buddhist religious practices at home, especially as she needs the comfort it provides due to the painful absence of her husband, missing and presumed dead.