In my play RED FLAMBOYANT I write much about the Trung Sisters, two legendary heroines of Vietnam that fought to liberate the country from centuries of Chinese rule. Trung Trac and Trung Nhi were their names.
Every year a small seaside town in South Central Vietnam called Phan Rang, holds a parade in observance of the Trung Sisters. The local high school is called upon to select the two prettiest girls to play the Sisters. It is a high honor to be chosen, and equally high is the speculation on who would play each sister. Of course, everyone knew who would play Trung Trac this particular year. Nhung, was tall and beautiful and outspoken as well as the most popular girl in school. She was a shoe in.
Speculation on who would play the youngest sister, Trung Nhi, was less clear as there were so many young girls in the school that would fit the role. One thing was for certain. It had to be the prettiest girl in the school.
Tuyet was a quiet, modest girl. When asked by her schoolmates if she wanted to play Trung Nhi, she scoffed at the idea. She said “My father would be so angry if I took time out of my chores and schoolwork to be in a parade.”
In the big bright gymnasium, schoolgirl whispers filled the room. As predicted, Nhung was chosen to play Trung Trac. But who would be chosen to play Trung Nhi? As the parade director walked by each girl, their backs straightened and they beamed their best “pick me” smiles. Tuyet held her head down and anchored her eyes straight to the floor. She beamed her best “don’t pick me” frown. Then she heard her name being called. She cringed. More whispers filled the gymnasium as she realized what fate had in store for her.
Playing Trung Nhi in the annual Phan Rang parade was truly an honor, but for Tuyet, it was an honor that came with a few problems. For one, she was a modest high school girl that tried very hard not to bring attention to herself. So, playing one of the Trung sisters in an annual parade celebrating the Trung sisters is definitely the last thing one should do. The other problem for Tuyet was each parade participant was expected to pose for pictures and each was responsible for paying the photographer. Since Tuyet was one half of the Trung Sisters, she simply could not opt out of posing for photos, as this would surely anger Nhung. Tuyet’s additional dilemna was she could not ask her father for the money as this would surely anger him, because everything angered him, she thought. So, Tuyet decided not to tell her family about the parade. Nhung agreed to pay for the photographer, but this would mean Nhung would keep all the photos. Tuyet was willing to live with this. In fact, the less evidence of this day, the better.
It was the day of the parade. Nhung and Tuyet made their entrance as Trung Trac and Trung Nhi, wearing bright colorful dresses and hats and wielding fake swords. Since the parade committee was not able to locate any elephants in time, the Trung sisters rode in on horses instead. This boded well for Tuyet, as horses would draw less attention to her than elephants. As the parade came to an end, Tuyet drew a sigh of relief thinking this day was nearly over for her. Then she heard her sister yelling from the crowd. Now, if all Tuyet heard was “There’s Tuyet!” that would be one thing. But appending “Father” to that sentence was the last thing Tuyet wanted to hear, and indeed, she heard “Father” in that sentence.
She didn’t want to look but of course she did. She turned her head and saw her sister jumping up and down cheering for her. Then she saw her father. What was he doing? He was jumping up and down cheering for her as well. When she spoke to him afterwards, he said “You look beautiful.”
Now, if this story were to end here, it would probably be considered a nice story. Maybe something a little better than ordinary, but less than extraordinary. For me, what makes this an extraordinary story is that Tuyet is my mother.
All this time, I had no idea she played Trung Nhi when she was in high school. It was only until I took this trip to Vietnam, about a year and a half after writing RED FLAMBOYANT, did my mother tell me this story. Extraordinary.