Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam is a book authored by Andrew X. Pham and printed by Flamingo in 1999. The book is a semi autobiographical narration of Andrew’s own life, with hints pointing at his future.
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The book is narrative in nature and begins when Andrew, fed up with his job as an aerospace engineer in San Francisco, quits his job, takes his bicycle and sets off on a journey that takes him to his native country: Vietnam.
He begins the expedition at the Gold Gate Bridge and bikes north along the US Coast, as he moves along, he meets other travelers encounters the steep climbs into Oregon and Washington, and finally reaches Seattle, Washington. This brings him to the end of his US leg of the journey.
He stays there for three weeks and after failing to find a cheap boat ride to Japan, takes a plane to Japan. He flies to Saigon, then moves to Hanoi and bikes back. The dangers of these odd journeys are remarkable, but within the levels of standard travel writing.
So is the self-criticism for partaking in such ventures. Throughout the book, we get a glimpse of Pham’s earlier life. The flee by boat is close and fascinating. His depiction of his father in a concentration camp (he was freed before officers found out he was a propaganda officer) finds support in the Indonesian refugee imprisonment camps.
There is a chilling account of a jade polisher, who kills himself due to the depression of not being received into a host nation (Pham, pp. 64).
Pham’s narration touches on many aspects of his life: his personal experience growing up as a Viet-kieu (a Vietnamese who grows up in another country), his confusion over his bi-cultural nature and how people express their feelings concerning the Vietnam War upon him; the instances of self –hatred, besides instances of cultural grace and bewilderment.
He returned to his motherland for several reasons, but mainly to resolve his past and to help him allay the pain he felt upon his ‘sister’s’ suicide.
Catfish and Mandala is a smooth mix of travelogue and memoir: Pham merges stories of his family’s escape and settlement in America with steep mountain climbs on his bike, the reunion with several family members and meeting friends of different nationalities while on his bicycle; his own family’s complex and painful background with the harsh livelihood that the Vietnamese face presently.
He takes a pessimistic position towards his time in Vietnam: he is rejected and ridiculed by the natives, fleeced by government officers, and has a violent encounter with disgruntled men after they discovered that he is a Viet-kieu.
The encounter with native Vietnamese is repeated in the book and sounds amusing, especially when the natives approach him thinking he is a Korean or Japanese visitor, but how drastic things change when he speaks fluent Vietnamese, and in one instance, he coolly attempted, unsuccessfully, to walk past as a Korean businessman to avert a violent confrontation.
During his trips, Pham finds weird solution to his questions and inquiries. He finds peace, however, this sounds almost like an egocentric peace for there is so much misery around him and he feels guilty for failing to assist them even though he may not be at a position to do so.
He encounters several privileges as a result of his actions, for instance, he makes friends with a local girl, but retreats when she asks him marry her so that she can acquire a green card (Barnes and Noble, para. 3). In another contrasting instance, he goes after a young beggar girl and gives her his whole wallet. Many times, the locals he meets hold a degree of admiration and hatred toward him.
What makes the book captivating is the combination of Andrew’s description of his trips with his memories of escape from Vietnam in 1977, during which he was 10 years old.
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A ship saved the family from a sinking boat. They stayed for some time at a refugee camp in Indonesia supported by a church. The only member of the family who did not make it is an elder sister. However, in some perspective, the survivors are also victims, despite achieving some degree of success (Ashwill and Thai, pp. 23).
One aspect of the book that is weakly presented is Pham’s account of Chi’s story. Apart from his surprise and self-blame over Chi’s suicide, he effortlessly tries to connect with her and her condition: that of a transgendered teenager.
And the final revelation concerning his sister, the fact that Chi ran away from home because her parents never accepted her biological condition, but who ultimately changed to a man named Minh before killing himself, is a concept that Pham never comprehended in totality (Huang, pp. 95).
This evidently shows the limits of the author’s own personal accounts. It is sad too, that even though the memory of Chi had been the emotional motivation throughout Catfish and Mandala, Chi’s story does not get the truth it merits. Pham can only get peace through ‘her’ memory and not the truth behind ‘him’.
Andrew is plainly very flexible, both physically and emotionally. He creates something of importance out of his painful history and his difficult trips. In addition, he is harder on himself than on everyone. He has great concern and love for the natives that he meets on his return to Vietnam (Travers, pp. 8).
He approaches the tribulations of the Vietnamese families with honesty and a compassion that is exceptional. On a historical perspective, he adds a wholly new element to the Vietnam War. Without lessening the achievements of the US army during the war, or the pain they experienced, Pham extends our view to comprise the Vietnamese heroes of the war.
One remarkable thing about this memoir is that Pham does not take advantage of his misfortunes and tragedies, rather, he takes the opportunity to dig for answers and truths. Yet it is no sort of fiction. Indeed, Catfish and Mandala resembles a literary thriller.
It is the kind of a book that will remain in the custody of its readers for as long possible. Many people miss out on the CATFISH part of the book’s title.
The book is not merely a travelogue or a memoir about a refugee family facing difficulties at home, rather, it demonstrates a man determined to find out the truth, a man faced with difficult choices but not giving up.
It also illustrates the courage of forgiving, of starting afresh, of facing death, of taking responsibility and accepting the outcome. It is not just a matter of being caught between two cultures.
Ashwill, Mark A., and Thai, Ngoc Diep. Vietnam today: a guide to a nation at a crossroads. Maine: Intercultural Press, Inc, 2005.
Barnes and Noble. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. 2011. Web.
Huang, Guiyou. Asian American literary studies. Edinburg: Edinburg University Press, 2005.
Pham, Andrew X. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. London: Flamingo, 1999. Travers, Molly. Catfish & Mandala: notes. Melbourne: CAE Book Groups.