The Reeducation of Cherry Truong

BOOK: The Reeducation of Cherry Truong
13.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub


For Amélie



Title Page


1978: To Kim-Ly Vo from Tuyet Truong

Prologue: Cherry

1980: To Cuc Bui from Hung Truong

1. Hoa

1980: To Kim-Ly Vo from Tuyet Truong

2. Cherry

1983: To Cuc Bui from Hung Truong

3. Hoa

1980: To Kim-Ly Vo from Tuyet Truong

4. Kim-Ly

1984: To Cuc Bui from Hung Truong

5. Xuan

1981: To Kim-Ly Vo from Tuyet Truong

6. Cherry

1985: To Cuc Bui from Hung Truong

7. Cam

1982: To Kim-Ly Vo from Tuyet Truong

8. Kim-Ly

1986: To Cuc Bui from Hung Truong

9. Hoa

1987: To Cuc Bui from Hung Truong

10. Cherry

1983: To Kim-Ly Vo from Tuyet Truong

11. Sanh

1984: To Kim-Ly Vo from Tuyet Truong

12. Cherry

Family Tree


Also by Aimee Phan

About the Author




Kim-Ly Vo
Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Mother, I hope this finds you well. I think about you and our family often. I think about you every hour of every day.

I know you are angry. I wish I could explain the circumstances that forced me to do what I did, but I don't know who else could be reading this letter. I can only ask that you trust me, a difficult and perhaps impossible request. Please believe me. This wasn't my choice.

Why couldn't I tell you? Why didn't I respect you enough to tell you personally? I tried to find the words, but they would not come. How can you tell your own mother that you are abandoning her? What kind of daughter would do that?

I am not that kind of daughter. I will make this up to you. If you've taught me anything, it is that determination will help me endure and overcome even the most trying situation. This is what I struggle with now, yet I remember you and our family, and I know we will see each other again. I promise you.

Your devoted daughter

Tuyet Truong

Pulau Bidong, Malaysia




, V
, 2001

Cherry releases the grip around her brother, steadying her trembling feet onto the hot, bright concrete. Lum jumps off his motorbike, leaving his sister to dig her fingernails into their seat, battling vertigo. After inhaling several hot muggy breaths, her eyes finally open.

Identical plots of demarcated land and bleached sidewalks surround her. Wooden beams and smooth stone piles litter the construction site. Men in bright-yellow polo shirts and black jeans crouch along the ground, planting new trees and arranging signs advertising the new housing division. Her gaze resettles on her brother. Lum is beaming.

“What do you think?” he asks.

“It's Orange County,” she says.

“No,” he says, shaking his head. “It's better.”

They squeeze between a cement mixer and a mud-splattered orange tractor. “It's still in the early stages,” Lum says almost apologetically as local contractors in hard helmets and goggles stand under a trailer awning examining blueprints. “We're going to bring in mature landscaping for the border, not like those flimsy baby-stick trees at other subdivisions. Lawns for every home. We're working on the irrigation system with a Hong Kong company.” Ahead, construction workers monitor a backhoe clawing the earth and spitting piles of dirt into a white truck. Cherry shakes the dust from their hour-long motorbike ride out of her flip-flops—first the left foot, then the right.

Her brother had told them that he worked as a manager in a housing development company, but Cherry never imagined this. All these employees, the layers of responsibility. Surrounded by waist-high piles of wooden beams, they cross the lot toward a single French country-style house. She tries to keep up with her brother, but her steps feel heavy from jet lag, having only landed in Saigon fourteen hours earlier. Instead of touring landmarks or museums, she gazes at the exterior of a house that nearly replicates their parents' home in Newport Lake. Even the materials look similar, alternating between creamy stucco and stone. The bare windows reveal the progress inside: unfinished plywood, rolls of insulation, cans of paint scattered about.

“This is what you've been doing?” she asks.

“Yeah,” Lum says, looking triumphant. “Are you surprised?”

“No,” she says, forcing a smile. “I just thought you hated tract housing.” Cherry's eyes travel to her brother, then the house, then back at him. The arched doorways, the skinny turret. Years have passed since he has been home, but he cannot ignore the resemblance.

“I was young,” Lum says, an uneasy smile distorting his face. “Aren't you glad I've grown up?”

If only their parents were standing here, too, so they could see their transformed son: the responsible, successful Lum.

The construction foreman waves for her brother. Cherry stumbles across the graveled site, careful not to get in anyone's way. Her head feels dusty, heat presses on her eyes. The development walls loom so high she cannot see the rice fields and shantytowns outside of them. Near the entry gates, several crew members cluster for a cigarette break. Their eyes skim Cherry's small waist and bare legs. She asks for a cigarette; they hesitate briefly, but eventually hand one over.

“You're Mr. Truong's sister?” a man with a long mustache and a baseball cap asks, offering his lighter. “From America?”

Cherry nods, trying to downplay her struggle with the Zippo lighter.

“He's a smart man,” he says. “All this? His idea.”

Arms crossed, Lum looks absorbed in discussion with his colleague. His face is confident, contemplative, an expression Cherry doesn't recognize at all. Suddenly, his image doubles, then multiplies. Cherry blinks a few times and turns away.

“We're very proud of him,” she says, coughing up some dust.

“Wait until you see the finished product. You'll be happy.” He gestures up to a sign.

Cherry hadn't noticed it when they drove in. On a clean yellow billboard, in red block letters, her eyes take a minute to focus:

*   *   *

Three months ago, the day her acceptance letter arrived, Cherry didn't open the envelope. She volunteered at the neonatal care unit at the hospital Tuesday and Thursday afternoons and her mother didn't see any reason to delay the celebration. The white manila envelope was large and thick, full of forms to fill out. Schools didn't waste extra paper on rejects.

Driving home, she passed her relatives' cars along the sidewalk and in the driveway. Her cousin Dat's Lexus sat parked in front of their neighbor's house, and he would only come for news from UC Irvine, his medical school alma mater. He also attended Irvine as an undergraduate, just like Cherry, the only school that mattered to her family.

“Congratulations, Cherry!” Auntie Hien gushed, smothering Cherry's face with one of her trademark sniffing kisses. “Do you want to specialize in pediatrics? Dermatology?”

“Anesthesiology,” Uncle Chinh predicted. “That's where all the money is. Anesthesiology, like Dat, right?”

At the dining room table next to the prominently displayed acceptance letter, Cherry's mother fretted over a pristine violet sheet cake. In bright-blue piping gel, she carefully scrawled “Doctor Cherry Truong” atop the buttercream frosting.

“Your father is supposed to be back with the ice cream,” her mother complained when Cherry approached her side. “I ask him to do one thing and he can't even get that right.”

They waited ten more minutes before her mother decided to proceed with the celebrations. Uncle Chinh arranged the family around the cake to take pictures. Then the relatives took turns handing her envelopes full of money to use on books and school supplies. Auntie Tri reminded Cherry to smile with her teeth. In a rare slip of affection, Grandmother Vo kissed Cherry on the cheek, proud that at least one granddaughter had graduated from college, and was on her way to medical school.

“I was smart like you once,” Grandmother Vo said. “But I was expected to raise a family. I never had your opportunities. Don't squander them.”

As Cherry walked away, her grandmother quietly passed Cherry's mother a folded check, their slender, elegant fingers briefly touching. The tuition deposit for UC Irvine. Their discretion wasn't necessary. Of all her medical school applications, Cherry hadn't bothered applying for financial aid to UC Irvine. It was the one school Grandmother Vo had agreed to fully fund.

Her cousins Duyen and Linh sat on the staircase. They'd come straight from their shifts at the beauty salon, and were complaining about Kim, the new hairstylist whom they believed was stealing their clients. Cherry sat on the stair below them, where she had a view of the garage door, to keep a lookout for her dad.

“Are you going to call your brother?” Duyen asked, as she passed Cherry a fried vegetable cracker from her plate.

“I haven't had the chance to read the letter myself,” Cherry said.

“No,” Duyen said, shaking her head impatiently. “About the wedding.”

In the corner of the living room, Dat and his fiancée, Quynh, sat on the dragonfly-embroidered couch, showing their aunts the proofs from their engagement photo session. Their engagement was a well-known eventuality, since they were only waiting for Quynh to finish pharmacy school. When Quynh waved, Cherry smiled insincerely and looked away. Cherry had not told Lum. She wondered if anyone else in the family had.

“We looked yesterday for the bridesmaids' dresses,” Linh said. “She wanted this awful tangerine shade, but I talked her into choosing green. Green is still a nice summer color, right?” Since Quynh had no sisters, and her only female cousin still lived back in Vietnam, she had asked Cherry, Duyen, and Linh to stand in her wedding.

“The guest list is already up to three hundred,” Linh continued. “They're going to have to reserve two ballroom spaces.”

“Who could they be inviting?” Cherry asked.

“Their friends, colleagues from my brother's clinic, our parents' friends,” Duyen said, shrugging her tanned shoulders.

“Dat doesn't have any friends.”

“Cherry,” Duyen scolded.

“I'm serious,” she said. “Besides Quynh's friends and our family, no one likes him. Is he going to invite strangers?”

“What's your problem?” Duyen asked, giving her cousin a sharp look.

“Quynh and Lum broke up years ago,” Linh reminded her. “Can't you just get over it?”

Cherry ignored her, allowing them to return to their silly debate over dress colors. She hated when they ganged up on her, pinching history between their overmanicured fingers. She looked across the living room again, where Quynh chatted with her future mother-in-law and Dat dabbed his sweaty forehead with a napkin. When they were little, people used to mistake Dat and Cherry for siblings, assuming Lum and Duyen were brother and sister. It never failed to aggravate her. Cherry didn't want to look like Dat.

“So we were thinking Maui,” Linh said.

“Sorry?” Cherry asked, refocusing on her cousins.

“For your graduation present,” Duyen said, softly pushing on Cherry's hip with her bare foot.

“Oh, right.” Another dangling carrot toward UC Irvine. With the money they'd be saving for living expenses—because naturally Cherry would live at home—Grandmother Vo had offered Cherry and her two cousins a vacation. “Why Maui?”

BOOK: The Reeducation of Cherry Truong
13.41Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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