The Reeducation of Cherry Truongby Aimee Phan
"The Reeducation of Cherry Truong transcends ethnicity and culture and dives headlong into the plight of being human….Aimee Phan's prose is beautifully intricate yet powerful in what it reveals and exposes."---Jennie Shortridge, author of Eating Heaven
Cherry Truong's parents have exiled her wayward older brother/b>/i>/b>/i>/i>
"The Reeducation of Cherry Truong transcends ethnicity and culture and dives headlong into the plight of being human….Aimee Phan's prose is beautifully intricate yet powerful in what it reveals and exposes."---Jennie Shortridge, author of Eating Heaven
Cherry Truong's parents have exiled her wayward older brother from their Southern California home, sending him to Vietnam to live with distant relatives. Determined to bring him back, twenty-one-year-old Cherry travels to her family's native country and finds herself on a journey to uncover decades-old secrets---hidden loves, desperate choices, and lives ripped apart by the march of war and the currents of history.
The Reeducation of Cherry Truong is the sweeping story of two spirited and unforgettable families---the Truongs and the Vos---and their yearning for reconciliation, redemption, and a place to call home.
“Aimee Phan is a keen observer and a beautiful writer.” Yiyun Li, author of The Vagrants
“Phan's sensitively rendered novel serves up a fierce tale….She explores themes of identity, love, and redemption with a nuanced grace.” Audrey magazine
“A reader's dream---a fully fleshed-out family drama full of complex characters and enough old grudges for a host of mafiosi. No one is spared Phan's eagle-eyed vision....A truly unique coming-of-age story.” Rebecca Johns, author of The Countess
“A story of loyalties, histories, and identities...Through Cherry's eyes, the complex country of Vietnam is lovingly explored in immense, realistic detail. Readers of Maxine Hong Kingston and Gish Jen will enjoy Phan's sensitive, lush prose and recognize similar questions of identity.” Booklist
- St. Martin's Press
- Publication date:
- Edition description:
- First Edition
- Product dimensions:
- 5.84(w) x 8.34(h) x 1.23(d)
Read an Excerpt
The Reeducation of Cherry TruongA Novel
By Aimee Phan
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2012 Aimee Phan
All right reserved.
Pulau Bidong, Malaysia
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
Saigon, Vietnam, 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 sub-divisions. 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 Harbor. 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 crewmembers 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 moustache and 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: The Future Site of New Little Saigon... The Comforts of America, in your True Home, Vietnam.
The day her acceptance letter arrived, three months ago, 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 butter cream 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 hair stylist who 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 the three of them 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 said.
“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.
“She 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?”
“Grandmother already rented that condo for Dat and Quynh in August,” Linh said.
“You want to go with them on their honeymoon?”
“The condo has three bedrooms. We already talked about it before you came and they’re fine with it.”
The prospect of spending two weeks tagging along on her cousin’s honeymoon sounded like a punishment. This vacation was supposed to be a reward for all her hard work. She wanted to spend it with someone important to her.
The garage door opened and Cherry’s father wandered in holding a plastic grocery bag. He smiled at the guests, until her mother approached him and impatiently tugged at his arm. Cherry immediately stood.
“What do you mean you got lost?” her mother asked as Cherry walked up to them. “We’ve been going to that supermarket for years.”
“They were doing construction work on Jamboree. I had to take a detour.”
Her mother peeked inside the grocery bag. “I told you vanilla ice cream,” she said. “Who is going to eat all this mint chocolate?”
“Mint is Cherry’s favorite,” her father replied.
“It is,” Cherry agreed quietly, taking the bag from him. “I love it.”
The next morning, Cherry brought up the idea of going to Vietnam. Her grandmother and parents rejected it: too far, too expensive, too risky.
“You let Lum live there for five years,” Cherry reminded them.
“He’s a boy,” her father said. “And it wasn’t supposed to be for that long.”
“Some playboy will target you,” Grandmother Vo said, “and trick you into marrying him for a visa. I’ve seen it happen before, trust me. Remember that Lam girl?”
“What happened to Hawaii?” her mother asked.
“I don’t want to lie on a beach and chase after boys,” Cherry said. “I want to see my brother.”
They finally relented, purchasing Cherry a ticket to spend a month in Vietnam. No one else wanted to go with her. Her parents had to work. Linh and Duyen claimed they didn’t want to get stuck in Vietnam, like they heard had happened to others returning to the motherland. But because Cherry wasn’t born there, she probably wouldn’t have such trouble. No one could mistake Cherry for anything else but an American.
“Maybe you can talk some sense back into your brother,” Grandmother Vo said. “Bring him back to where he belongs.” She was not specific on the where, which was not surprising. Lum’s former bedroom had long since been transformed into a guest room and Grandmother Vo’s occasional abode, his clothing, posters and CDs packed up in cobwebbed boxes in the garage.
The day before Cherry was supposed to leave, her mother had a bad dream. She normally wasn’t superstitious, and even as she described it to them the next morning--the threatening Communist police officers, the dark, rat-infested jail cells--Cherry couldn’t help wondering if she was making it up as she went along, recalling melodramatic scenes from an old movie she once saw on television.
“You can save the trip for another time,” her mother finally concluded. “How about next summer? Your dad can ask for vacation leave, and then we can go with you.”
“Why can’t I still go?” Cherry asked.
“Fine,” she said. “Don’t listen to me. You never do.”
Later that evening, her father softly knocked on her bedroom door and tried to play peacemaker. “She is scared,” he said. “She doesn’t want both of her children so far away from her.”
“No one’s stopping her from coming with me. She’s always saying how much she misses Lum. Here’s her chance to see him.”
“Your mother needs more time,” he said. “Leaving Vietnam was difficult for her. It was for all of us.”
Cherry did not press her father to elaborate. She knew better. This was all she knew of her parents’ departure from Vietnam: they escaped by boat and landed in Malaysia. Her parents and brother left for America, while his relatives relocated to France. Then Cherry was born.
“What else do you need to know?” her mother said. “That’s what happened.”
“But why did you and Dad choose America?”
“Are you unhappy here? Haven’t we given you a good future? Why are you complaining?”
“I’m not,” Cherry said. “I just want to know more. I want to know what it was like.”
“Such silly questions. How is knowing how poor and desperate we were going to help you? These things will only distract you, pollute your brain. Look at the problems in your textbooks. Those are the answers you want. Those are the ones that will help you.”
Aside from the afternoon tour of the housing project, Cherry has barely seen her brother. Lum’s company is at a crucial stage in the project, days away from their grand unveiling to clients, and he can’t afford to go sightseeing. He leaves her every morning at the house with Grandaunt and Granduncle Tran.
It’s not so bad. She has a month. She likes exploring the house where her grandparents lived, sleeping in the bedroom that once belonged to her parents. Cherry’s grandparents gave their house to the Trans before escaping the country. The tall, gray concrete house with creaky floors and paper-thin walls sits in a middle-class neighborhood surrounded by other homes just like it. The shady winding street crackles with women young and elderly cooking outside their front doors, trucks and scooters rattling by, and children chasing each other in overlapping, endless games of tag. At night, Cherry listens to the thumps of the water pipes, constantly adjusting to the changes in pressure. She imagines one of them bursting, flooding the house, forcing them all out.
Spending so much time with the Trans, Cherry understands why Lum hasn’t bothered moving out. They are his ideal parents: compulsively doting upon him, preparing his meals, and pressing his clothes, without ever questioning his comings and goings or scolding his table manners. Having lost two sons in the war--the youngest Cherry’s father’s age--Lum’s presence is more than enough to fill them with excited chatter at dinnertime.
In the daylight, Cherry can best recognize Grandaunt’s resemblance to Grandpère, the same lion’s nose and widow’s peak forehead. While these features accentuated Grandpère’s stern demeanor, Cherry finds them unsettling and severe on Grandaunt’s face. Granduncle appears less intimidating, a chubby squat man with ice white hair and a sneeze that can shake the kitchen table. He and Grandaunt owned a tailor shop that catered to foreigners during the war; after the fall, the Communist police forced their business to close. Eventually, through persistent networking with the local government, they landed a uniform contract for the primary schools in Ho Chi Minh City, which allowed them to reopen their shop.
After Grandaunt prepares a breakfast of pan-fried noodles or vegetable soup, they walk around the neighborhoods, attempting to fulfill Cherry’s request to see the city her parents once knew, before the Microsoft billboards and ubiquitous Kodak photo shops. In the Cholon district, Grandaunt points out the Trans’ old apartment and former friends’ homes. They pass the food markets where her Grandmère once frequented and have lunch in Grandpère’s favorite garden. They visit the cemetery where the Trans’ sons are buried.
Cherry never feels more American than when they are walking. She guiltily buffers herself between her much frailer relatives, who never seem nervous as they weave through the steady cross flow of cars, motorbikes and pedestrians, pulling Cherry through the city current.
“They won’t hit you,” Granduncle tries to assure her, “if you go slow enough.”
“In America, we stop for pedestrians,” Cherry says, eyeing a family of four sailing past on a scooter.
Grandaunt shakes her head at yet another illogical foreign habit. “If we all stopped, no one would get anywhere.”
No matter. Grandaunt feels most comfortable at home, cleaning the rooms and preparing meals, and when Cherry sits with her, Grandaunt likes to tell stories. Her subject taboo is clear: nothing about the war and its aftermath (Bad memories, she says, I’m too old to cry any more.) She prefers talking about her childhood in Nha Trang with Grandpère, her sons, and the fables she learned from Cherry’s great-grandmother. Her favorite is the Trung sisters, legendary warriors from the first century, who successfully drove out the Chinese (the first time anyway) to establish the country’s independence. They are considered Vietnam’s national mothers.
“But they were married to the same man,” Cherry says.
Grandaunt waves her hand dismissively. “All marriages have their problems. Look at your grandparents. Perhaps they would have been happier with that kind of arrangement.”
“You mean, Grandpère would have been happier,” Cherry says.
Grandaunt only smiles. “They had a complicated marriage. Many of us do.”
The Tale of Kieu, which Cherry tried to read in college, is another fable Grandaunt likes to repeat. Though the main heroine is a prostitute, her despised social position is a tragedy she is forced into. Every story ends with a lesson: everyone has choices taken away from them. Despair is pushed into our lives. We can only control how we recover.
“Like you,” she says carefully, as they assemble salad rolls for dinner. “You look so healthy and strong now. Your parents must be proud.”
So Lum has told her about the accident. This shouldn’t surprise Cherry, although she suddenly feels self-conscious, wondering how much Grandaunt knows.
“Lum had me call every day while you were in the hospital,” Grandaunt says, dipping another sheet of rice paper into a bowl of water to soften it. “I tried to get him on the phone, but he didn’t want to speak to your parents.”
“My parents don’t know the whole story,” Cherry says. “They still can’t understand.”
“Have you tried to make them understand?” Grandaunt asks.
Cherry falters briefly under the woman’s firm gaze. “Yes.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Grandaunt says, returning to her rolls. “He is fine now. I don’t have to tell you, you can see for yourself. We have been good for your brother.”
“They did ask him to come back.”
“He has a life here now.”
“But it’s not home,” Cherry says, struggling to control her impatience. “It’s not America.”
Instead of becoming angry, as Cherry expects, Grandaunt only smiles faintly, bemused. After spreading the mint, basil, bean sprouts and shrimp together, she wraps and tucks it into a perfectly shaped roll.
“You know who you sound like?” Grandaunt says. “Your grandfather, when he tried to convince Bac Tran and me to leave Vietnam.”
Cherry peers down at the saturated rice paper between her fingers. She held it underwater too long. It is ruined now. Folding it up, she tucks it behind the water bowl. “Grandpère wanted you to escape too?”
“He’d already bought our seats,” Grandaunt says. “He bothered us until the night they left. But the point is, he was wrong. I am glad we stayed. How could I have left my two boys before they were properly buried? And now we have your brother. Not everyone was fated to leave.”
“Maybe,” Cherry says, distracted. It doesn’t matter what she thinks, this relative she hardly knows. Instead, Cherry imagines these two seats on the boat, empty, wasted. They mold the salad rolls in silence, allowing the chorus of children’s chatter and motorbike engines from the alley to fill the kitchen.
The legend of Grandmother Vo’s grudge against the Truongs was far juicier than any mundane story about how any of their parents met. Grandmother Vo always referred to them as those relatives, reminding Cherry and her brother, every opportunity she had, that their father’s family had gone back on their promise to help the Vos escape, disappearing into the night to selfishly save themselves. While the Truongs lived the good life in France, the Vos endured the vengeful wrath of the Communists. They tortured Cherry’s uncles in reeducation camps, killed her eldest uncle, and harassed Grandmother and her daughters, who were trying to make any kind of living they could manage, so Cherry’s cousins wouldn’t starve to death.
Of course, it was more complicated than that. Her father had explained that the Vos were supposed to be on the same boat with the Truong family. Grandpère, who had purchased the contraband seats from the boat captain, was unable to secure enough. He was lucky to provide for his own family. When he came home from his meeting with the boat captain, Grandpère told Cherry’s mother that there were no other seats left--not even for Grandmother Vo.
Her father’s explanation had never satisfied Cherry, but then again, she had no reason to push for further details—until now. Although she believed she understood both sides, she felt protective of Grandpère and Grandmère in France, who had never even met Grandmother Vo, and couldn’t defend themselves against her accusations. Cherry knew she couldn’t always trust her maternal grandmother, who painted herself the victim in every story. As Cherry knew firsthand, Grandmother Vo was no martyr.
But what had happened to the extra seats? Couldn’t Grandpère, with all his connections, have found another boat for the Vos? Couldn’t he have offered another way to help?
Her grandmother, aunts and uncles, and even her cousins, talked as passionately about these lost years as if they had happened. If they’d escaped Vietnam earlier, perhaps Uncle Chinh would have earned his business degree. Perhaps Linh’s little brother, born prematurely in Vietnam, would have survived in America. Perhaps Grandmother Vo’s heart condition would have been detected earlier. Perhaps Lum wouldn’t have lost his way. Perhaps, perhaps, perhaps.
When they put it that way, Cherry couldn’t help but dream with them.
After dinner, when the relatives go upstairs to bed, Cherry finally has her brother to herself. They sit on vegetable crates in the alley, smoking cigarettes and throwing the butts into the dumpster so Grandaunt doesn’t find them in her herb garden. Stray dogs poke their noses into loose garbage, occasionally sniffing at their feet.
“Is this how you got so thin?” he asks, handing over his lighter.
“I don’t know,” she says, not mentioning that smoking is a recent habit. He still occasionally looks at her like he doesn’t recognize her, startled by her company.
“Do you remember Mom’s old nail salon in Tranquility?” Cherry asks. “They gutted the shopping plaza last year. They’re putting in condos.”
“That was a long time ago,” he says, distracted.
“We played in the parking lot,” she persists. “You organized these huge games with all the merchants’ kids.”
Hardly a response. Cherry tries another tactic.
“Dat and Quynh are getting married.”
Not even a sharp inhale or blink of the eye. Lum slowly nods.
“You already knew,” she realizes out loud. She wanted to be the one to share this news with him, to observe his initial, sincere reaction.
“Of course,” Lum says. “I’m in Vietnam, not dead.” The muscles in his cheeks tighten, preventing her from pressing further.
They retreat to typical chatter. Cherry again complains about his busy schedule, and Lum again promises it will let up soon. After the company’s big debut next week, he will have much more time to spend with her.
“You can meet Tham at the ceremony,” he says. “She’ll be back from Hanoi by then.” His girlfriend, this Tham, slips into every conversation they’ve had since Cherry’s arrival, but she exists only in name. She does not drop by the house, and there are no pictures of her in Lum’s bedroom. The relatives never speak about her. It is difficult to take this Tham seriously.
And Cherry still finds it strange to hear him talk about another girl. “How often do you talk to Quynh?” she asks.
Lum exhales loudly. “How often do you?”
Her nose wrinkles, but he can’t see this in the dark.
Lum stares at the lit embers on the ground. “She’s family now, Cherry.”
“You’re family,” she clarifies. “You could talk to her, if you ever came home.”
Lum smiles. “I’ve been busy.”
“Busy. It’s too much to get on a plane to America, but you can make it to France? Twice?” Cherry tries to keep her voice even, but the resentment scratches at her throat.
He doesn’t even look ashamed. “Someone from our family should visit Grandmère.”
Cherry doesn’t answer, stubbornly staring at her nails.
“She asks about you,” Lum says. “She misses you.”
Cherry fights the urge to roll her eyes. “I miss you. We all do.” Her head has begun to ache, but she resists the urge to pull at her hair. “They’re getting older, Lum. Mom is okay, she’s always okay. But Dad. He’s starting to forget things.”
“C’mon,” he says, looking doubtful.
“He sounds pretty sharp every time I call home and he passes the phone right to Mom.”
“You don’t know,” Cherry says, shaking her head. “You haven’t been home with them.”
“That’s right,” Lum says, “because they didn’t want me there.”
One of the stray dogs approaches Lum, licking his hand. He tenderly looks at the mutt, caressing its flea-infested ears, and when he turns to her, his eyes look large and sad. “The thing is,” he says, “if I were a parent, I probably would have done the same thing. I know that now.”
Her vision blurs. Her hands grip at the sticky underside of the vegetable crate. “But it wasn’t just you,” Cherry says.
“I didn’t mind,” Lum said. “I had to take responsibility. I understand that.”
“You can still come back,” Cherry says. “We’re still your family.”
She waits for a spark in his eye, a nod, anything. But it doesn’t come. Instead, he sighs. “Cherry. That family doesn’t exist anymore.”
The pain has seeped to her forehead. She throws her half-finished cigarette to the ground and digs the heel of her flipflop into it, realizing how silly she must look. Lum’s hooded eyes blink sympathetically. Piteously. She is tired of people looking at her like that.
Cherry’s eye is drawn toward an open window in the house across the alley. Two button down shirts hang from the window like curtains. Can the neighbors hear them? Their words barely register above whispers, but given the houses’ proximity, the neighbors can eavesdrop on every word. As recent as yesterday, she sat in the kitchen, listening in on the neighbors’ bickering. But despite the harshness of their voices, the screams, the taunting, their words always felt rooted in intimacy.
She rolls the back of her head against the concrete wall, then stands. “My head hurts.”
“I didn’t mean to give you a headache.”
Standing in the doorway, Cherry watches Lum finish his cigarette. “When they sent you away,” she finally says, “It hurt all of us.”
“I know,” he says, but she cannot see his face in the dark. She has to trust his words.
Later, Cherry lies in bed, watching a spider move across the cracked ceiling. She imagines her brother fast asleep, so comfortable with his life, confident in his knowledge. He hadn’t asked what it was like for her after he left. Maybe he didn’t want to know.. But siblings should share each other’s pain. That is part of the responsibility.
People don’t realize how long it takes to heal. They never dramatize recovery time in the movies because it is slow, the rehabilitation tedious. After months of surgeries, physical therapy and x-ray consultations, Cherry’s body had begun to repair itself. Cherry’s parents tried to distract her from these hospital visits by giving her anything she wanted, anything, except Lum’s return. And when she had resumed her normal life, they couldn’t understand why she looked so miserable. Her rehabilitated body was in better shape than before the accident and she had just received a Chancellor’s scholarship to UC Irvine. They never realized that a part of her wanted to feel that way. Cherry welcomed the scars on her back, the aches that vibrated along her spine. Even now, years later, she can sometimes feel a loose sliver of pain travel through her body, floating around her tissues, something the doctors will never be able to locate and remove. She hopes they will never be able to find it. As long as this abnormality lives inside her, scraping at her nerves, she remembers that while Lum suffers, so far away from home, she does too.
Though the air feels humid, everyone pretends otherwise. Tall dandelion colored canopies rustle over noisy oscillating fans. Guests wilt in plastic chairs, clutching portable automated fans and personal water spritzers. No one but the servers and musicians dare to step out from under the shaded tent. The guests nibble on French pastries and sip iced jasmine tea as they wait for the ceremony to begin. Granduncle wears his brown suit with a yellow tie that Lum bought for him. Grandaunt shows off a pale blue dress she’s been working on for the last week. At her relatives’ urging, Cherry concedes to a blouse and skirt, but soon regrets it, as the fabric sticks to her sweaty skin, perspiration spots already appearing.
The housing development’s model home, the Magnolia has already elicited approving nods and whispèred speculations. The crew has transplanted roses into the garden beds around the perimeter of the house. A silky green ribbon drapes across the double doorways.
Along the aisles, journalists snap pictures and interview clients. Several prominent Asian financial newspapers and wire services are covering the debut of the New Little Saigon Community Project. As Lum stutters through his practice speech in his office trailer, Cherry smirks at his nervousness. The old Lum. But by the time he reaches the stage to introduce his boss, his voice is smooth and assertive, the suave salesman.
After a few speeches and brief applause, Mr. Pham, the chief financier, cuts the ribbon and the audience stands. The words sounded pretty (most expensive housing community project in metropolitan Ho Chi Minh City, private 220-acre golf course, 24-hour guard-gated security), and the space looks idyllic, but now business can commence. The people make their way past the stage, forming a line to enter the model home.
While her relatives get in line, Cherry steals off to Lum’s office trailer to avoid the outhouses. Someone is already in the restroom, so she relaxes on the sofa, enjoying the trailer’s climate-controlled temperature. Cherry peers at the walls decorated with housing permits, real estate awards and photographs of Mr. Pham shaking hands with assorted Vietnamese officials. Lum’s desk is covered with miniature dioramas of the development’s different housing options: the Magnolia, the Westminster, the Bolsa and the Brookhurst.
The woman who steps out of the restroom looks like Lum’s type: tall for a Vietnamese woman, graceful, with long, straight hair down her shoulders and razor-sharp bangs across her forehead. Her face reminds Cherry of the young military women she has seen around town: determined, arrogant. But instead of an olive green uniform, she wears a long grey jersey dress.
“You must be Tham,” Cherry says, standing.
Tham steps back, looking as though she’s been ambushed. “Hello,” she says in English, then shakes her head, realizing Cherry spoke to her in Vietnamese. “And you are Cherry.”
“Did you just arrive?”
“Yes,” she says. “I took a motortaxi from the train station. I was just freshening up.”
They stare at each other for several long seconds, smiling, blinking. Finally, Cherry nods to Tham’s slightly swollen belly. “How far along are you?”
She drapes an arm across her stomach, protective. “You can already tell?”
“I’m going to be a doctor,” Cherry says.
“Well, I think you’re going to be very good,” she says. She thinks Cherry is pleased with her news. Cherry has a feeling that outside of Tham’s family in Hanoi, she must be the first to know.
Although Tham wants to walk together, Cherry persuades her to go ahead and meet up with Lum, saying that she will see them soon. Cherry counts five minutes in the office trailer. Then she counts five more. The numeration, in sync with her heartbeat, grows comforting. Finally, she stands. Her damp eyes wash over the walls that contain a world she knows so little about.
Stepping outside, Cherry sees Lum, Tham, Grandaunt and Granduncle standing in front of the model home. Lum has his arm around his girlfriend. He gazes at her tummy, then kisses her cheek. The four of them, plus one on the way, make a lovely picture: a family Lum has created on his own, without their parents, without her.
“We were waiting for you,” Granduncle says when Cherry approaches. “Let’s go inside.”
They step through the French doors and sigh pleasantly at the gush of air conditioning sliding down their skin. Elegant, neutral-shaded furniture and landscape paintings decorate the expansive space. Fresh flowers and bamboo arrangements balance on marble tables and molded plant shelves. Investors clog the wide staircase, gazing up at the skylight. An ornate chandelier, capturing the morning sun, transforms the hexagonal atrium into a prism of shimmering colors. The relatives and Tham ascend to observe the rooms upstairs, while Lum and Cherry remain on the ground floor. Everything down to the detailing in the tiles looks so familiar.
Cherry fingers one of the flowers, a fresh purple lily. “So, congratulations.”
Lum grins blissfully. “ You, too. You’re going to be an auntie.”
They look at each other. “I’m sorry about last night,” he says.
“I’m not,” she says. “I want to know what you think.”
Lum shrugs. “But there are nicer things to think about. I’m not upset that I came here anymore. I don’t regret Tham or anything else that has happened here.”
“But I regret it,” Cherry says. “Mom and Dad do too.”
His smile fades.
“What is it?” Cherry asks. “What aren’t you telling me?”
Lum’s boss walks by, stopping briefly to pat her brother on the back.
“You’re probably right,” Lum says, straightening his shoulders. “I don’t know what it was like for them. That’s the problem, isn’t it? No one bothers to ask because we already think we know. It’s always been like that.”
Cherry stares down at his black leather loafers, which he spent a good ten minutes polishing that morning. They are already covered in the day’s dust. Her brother is right, and she cannot help but feel that she is the guiltiest of all. Cherry was so determined to recover from the accident, to rehabilitate her body, that she couldn’t be burdened with anything emotional. Not her brother’s feelings or anyone else’s. Her parents and Grandmother Vo encouraged her willful ignorance, indulged it, because they did it too. They’d grown so comfortable with forgetting, they’d begun accepting it as the truth. But that didn’t have to continue. She could start listening, learning, right now.
A group of investors walks between them, gazing around the lush atrium, happily chatting in Japanese. One of them asks Lum a question, and his rudimentary Japanese sounds impressive. As they enter the kitchen, Lum’s face remains locked in its cheerful salesman mode.
“I’m glad you came here,” he says. “It means a lot to me.”
Cherry listens, folding and refolding the housing brochure in her hands, while he reveals his other surprise: one of the perks of working at the company is a substantial discount on the lots. He’s already purchased a corner lot, the four-bedroom Westminster, for himself, Tham, and the Trans. Cherry can have the extra bedroom when she visits, whenever that is. Cherry smiles, but thinks instead of Grandmère’s house: what will happen to it, who will take care of it, with the last of their family gone?
Tham calls out to Lum from upstairs. She says his name playfully, but the certainty in her voice lingers. Cherry asks to borrow Lum’s cell phone and steps outside, where several crewmembers are busy watering the thirsty, drooping rosebushes.
“This call is expensive,” her mother says when she hears Cherry’s voice.
“It won’t take long,” Cherry says. “I’m staying here.”
“Staying where? What are you talking about?”
“Here, Vietnam,” she says, struggling not to stammer. “I’m going to defer medical school for a year. I want to live here with Lum for a while. I need some time to think.”
Cherry knows her mother is no longer confused because there is a cool silence on the line. She presses her ear into Lum’s cell phone, but there is only transpacific static.
“You did this on purpose,” she finally says.
“You wanted to humiliate me.”
“What does this have to do with you?”
“Don’t be stupid. Everything you do is because of me.” She is yelling. Cherry holds the phone away from her ear. “We sent your brother away to protect your future. Daddy made me give him up for you.”
“That’s not true.”
“What do you think you’re going to do there?”
Cherry’s head feels like it’s spinning. “I’m not sure yet.”
“Not sure yet?” Her mother repeats mockingly. “You think you can live off your brother and the Trans’ hospitality forever?”
“I’ll get a job.”
“You? You’ve never worked a day in your life, all so you could study.”
“I’m hanging up,” Cherry warned.
“I made this mistake,” she says. “I thought I was so smart and that is how I ended up with your father.”
“You watch,” she says. “You’ll regret this too.”
Cherry closes the phone. A few seconds later, the phone shakes in her hand. Her parents’ number appears on the caller id. She watches it vibrate several times before it clicks over to voicemail. The phone is silent, recording her mother’s message, but Cherry can imagine the words.
Excerpted from The Reeducation of Cherry Truong by Aimee Phan Copyright © 2012 by Aimee Phan. Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
Aimee Phan grew up in Orange County, California, and now teaches in the MFA Writing Program and Writing and Literature Program at California College of the Arts. A 2010 National Endowment of the Arts Creative Writing Fellow, Aimee received her MFA from the Iowa Writer's Workshop, where she won a Maytag Fellowship. Her first book, We Should Never Meet, was named a Notable Book by the Kiryama Prize in fiction and a finalist for the 2005 Asian American Literary Awards. Her writing has appeared in The New York Times, USA Today, and The Oregonian among others.
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