The Reeducation of Cherry Truong: A Novel

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9780312322687: The Reeducation of Cherry Truong: A Novel
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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 their homeland and finds herself on a journey to uncover her family's decades-old secrets--hidden loves, desperate choices, and lives ripped apart by the march of war and currents of history.

The Reeducation of Cherry Truong tells the story of two fierce and unforgettable families, the Truongs and the Vos: their harrowing escape from Vietnam after the war, the betrayal that divided them, and the stubborn memories that continue to bind them years later, even as they come to terms with their hidden sacrifices and bitter mistakes. Kim-Ly, Cherry's grandmother, once wealthy and powerful in Vietnam, now struggles to survive in Little Saigon, California without English or a driver's license. Cherry's other grandmother Hoa, whose domineering husband has developed dementia, discovers a cache of letters from a woman she thought had been left behind. As Cherry pieces their stories together, she uncovers the burden of her family's love and the consequences of their choices.

Set in Vietnam, France, and the United States, Aimee Phan's sweeping debut novel reveals a family still yearning for reconciliation, redemption, and a place to call home.

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About 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.

Excerpt. Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:

Chapter One

HOA

 
PULAU BIDONG, MALAYSIA, 1979
Hoa struggled to ignore him, her eyes concentrating on the damp towel hanging in front of her, her movements quick and methodical. It was impossible: Bac Nhut was not asleep, he was watching her. Hoa had caught the old man’s eyes fluttering as she adjusted her canvas partition, his mouth too delicately closed, his head conveniently propped in her direction. Their families and neighbors were away at the mess hall for lunch, leaving the old pervert free to leer without witnesses.
She was not afraid of her neighbor, only repulsed. Hoa felt confident she could defend herself from his thin, weak limbs if he dared touch her. Sometimes she wished he would—her desire to strike him, to expose his depravity, overwhelmed her usually complacent nature. For weeks, Bac Nhut pretended to nap in his shanty when Hoa returned from bathing, even though she altered her shower time every day. Revolting. Back in Vietnam, she’d tell her husband. No, she realized. In Vietnam, this wouldn’t happen. They had walls back home.
In the camp, since no one was better than anyone else, they had to get along. This, even her husband had to agree. If she complained about the old man’s lewd behavior, word might get back to the Malay guards and she would be branded a snitch. Punishment, gossip, suspicion. Refugees from every zone would snub her, and Hoa couldn’t endure embarrassing her family like that.
She refused to look at him, though his gaze crept along her still damp arms and legs. Usually, Hoa hung up the laundry like the others to serve as makeshift walls and further protection, but today their few clothing items were clean. So she concentrated on changing her garments behind a crate of Coca-Cola bottles, dressing efficiently, calmly. He would not have the pleasure of knowing the discomfort he caused her. He should be ashamed of himself. She was not some young, thin tramp asking to be ogled. Deplorable man. At his age. Their grandchildren sat next to each other at camp school.
A long shadow grew over the sand and Hung emerged atop Zone A. Hoa smiled in relief, but ducked her head as her husband moved toward the shelter, his scowl deepening. She put on her blouse, pulling up her waist-length hair and began combing. When she peered to the side, she saw that Bac Nhut had shifted his body to face the back of his tent.
Their shelter was a four-meter-long thatched roof supported by water-rotted wooden stakes, too small of a space for Hung to properly stalk around. Not even a chair to sit on, only bamboo mats and army blankets on the soft dirt for beds. The new arrivals in Zone C had it worse—plastic blue tarp shelters barely supported by skinny tree branches. The Malaysians treated the refugees worse than their dogs. While others eventually adjusted to their new surroundings, Hung refused to do so. He stood, resting one arm on a sapling post, glaring at everything.
Hung was eight years older than Hoa, but no one looking at them would ever know. Almost sixty, Hung hardly had a white hair, while Hoa discovered more in her bun each day. His face remained soft and moist, while Hoa’s complexion had dried out years before.
“How was the meeting?” Hoa asked.
“They may not have an answer until next month,” Hung said. “Five of us, no problem. But with ten, they need to talk to the French delegation again.”
Her comb caught in a large wet tangle at the nape of her neck. She patiently picked through it, ignoring the soreness in her scalp. “We have been here well over a year,” she said.
“Do you think I’ve forgotten?”
Hoa took a deep breath. “I’m only saying, maybe it will be easier if we leave in groups. Perhaps the officials are right. Who wants to sponsor ten people together? Too much responsibility.”
“If we traveled this far together, it shouldn’t be so difficult to complete it. Please, Hoa, you know nothing about this.”
Despite his age, Hung stood as tall and rigid as when she first saw him at their engagement ceremony. His puffed-up chest and thin-lidded eyes supported the impression that Hung looked down on everything around him. Hoa suspected that this was one of the reasons their immigration applications kept getting delayed. Always mindful of dressing neatly in his wrinkled slacks and sun-bleached dress shirt—rather than the tank tops and shorts the other men on the island wore—Hung felt quite proud of his reputation as a snob. He did think he was better.
Hoa remembered when Bac Le, who departed with his family last week for America, had suggested to Hung that he slip some money to the delegation officials. Hung’s solemn lecture on the dangers of bribery embarrassed both families. The Les departed without saying good-bye.
“What do the boys think?” Hoa asked. Their sons Phung and Sanh also had attended the interview.
“So passive,” Hung said. “Why did you raise such weak sons? Yen would have argued alongside me.”
Hung never hid his preference for their middle son, whom he boasted inherited his strength and persistence. He regularly derided his other sons as Hoa’s creations—too feminine and indecisive. They hadn’t seen Yen in five years. He left Vietnam to go to law school in France and claimed refugee status when the war ended. Last month, the Truongs had an offer to immigrate to Australia, but Hung declined. He wished to seek asylum in only one country.
“Sanh was so rude to the French delegate,” Hung continued. “Hardly speaking at all, claiming he’s forgotten his French. The liar.”
“Maybe he wasn’t feeling well.”
“I don’t care. He knows how important this is. And the only time he spoke was to ask how their resettlement process compared to the States’. Can you believe that?”
Hoa put down her comb. “Why was he asking about the States?”
“Who knows what goes on in a liar’s head? He keeps crying that he wants to leave and the French are taking too long. But if we have to wait, we have to wait. God will look out for us.”
The other refugees were returning from the mess hall. The Malays probably served smelly chicken again. The Vietnamese would rather eat their rations. Soon the shelter would swim with the popping sizzles of cooking oils, the sharp aroma of contraband fish, and the relentless snap snap of the women chewing betel nuts. Hoa briefly shut her eyes in disappointment. She only wanted a few minutes alone. She had not been truly alone, and calm, since they left Vietnam.
That was months ago. Her prayer room—a closet, the only space that was solely hers in their house in Saigon—had probably already been cleared out by her sister-in-law, wiped clean of Hoa and the rest of the escaping Truongs. She could hardly recall this sanctuary, her thoughts cluttered by more recent, tangible memories: huddling under a plastic tarp and thin, mud-crusted blankets during the monsoon season in Zone C; paltry rations that consisted mainly of canned sardines and a scoop of rice; waking up to rat bites on her legs; dirty latrines; the taunts and insults of the Malay guards.
Still, some of their neighbors accepted this as their new home, so desperate to resettle in any place that wasn’t Vietnam. They opened hair salons and noodle shops within the township, and joined church choirs. Even when paperwork cleared for immigration, some felt reluctant to leave. Their son Phung said it was because their people could acclimate to anything. They’d lived with war and displacement for centuries. Their history allowed them to make anywhere home.
“This isn’t a home,” Hoa reminded her husband. “Please, we have to leave. I don’t care what country we go to first.”
Hung lifted his hand and Hoa instinctively turned her head. He didn’t finish. There were others around. The last time he struck her within eyesight of the camp gossips, he’d endured dirty looks and pointed whisperings for weeks. Hoa exhaled, calmly facing him.
“What kind of mother are you?” he spat. “So selfish about your own concerns. Do you not want to be with your son? What would God think of your behavior?”
She didn’t move as he stomped out of their shelter. She’d learned not to run after him. After so many years together, she realized it was better when he left.
*   *   *
During the afternoons, the Vietnamese liked to go bathing and to wash laundry at Pantai Beach or at the waterfall. Hoa knew her family preferred the beach, which reminded her sons of their old home in Nha Trang. A warm breeze tossed whispers of sand along Hoa’s feet. Women crouched near the shore, wringing shirts and underwear clean. Naked children stomped in the water, shrieking as the prickly waves engulfed their feet, joyously throwing chunks of dirty plastic and misshapen aluminum cans at each other.
Only immediate family could live together in the camp. Phung’s family was in Zone E, Sanh’s family in Zone B, and Yen’s wife and son in Zone D. People could request zone transfers, but they were rarely granted. Refugees preferred to stand in line for their immigration requests. Hoa didn’t like her family spread all over Bidong Island; it only spanned two kilometers in diameter, but at times could feel much larger. A day could pass and she wouldn’t see one of her sons or grandchildren. Her daily trips to the beach or to their shanties made sure this didn’t happen.
Hoa’s feet began sinking as her steps slowed for her thoughts. Hung was mistaken. Hoa did miss Yen. Though she never flaunted it outright like Hung, Hoa also preferred her middle son. This did not mean she didn’t love her other boys. She’d long ago given up her own comforts for her sons and then their wives and...

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ISBN 10:  1250024021 ISBN 13:  9781250024022
Publisher: Picador, 2013
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