Vietnamese-born Andrew Pham finally returns to Saigon, not as a success showering money and gifts onto his family, but as an emotional shipwreck, desperate to find out who he really is. When his sister, a post-operative transsexual, committed suicide, Pham sold all his possessions and embarked on a year-long bicycle journey that took him through the Mexican desert; around a thousand-mile loop from Narita to Kyoto in Japan; and, after five months and 2,357 miles, to Saigon, where he finds nothing familiar in the bombed-out darkness. At first meant to facilitate forgetfulness, Pham's travels turn into an unforgettable, eye-opening search for cultural identity which flashes back to his parent's courtship in Vietnam, his father's imprisonment by the Vietcong, and his family's nail-bitingly narrow escape as boat people. Lucid, witty and beautifully written,
Eighteen years later, after his older sister Chi committed suicide, An, now Andrew, headed on a bicycle into the Mexican desert, where he encountered a Vietnam veteran and realized that he needed to go back to Vietnam to understand where he had come from and what he had left behind. He decides to go by bicycle -- riding up the coast of California to the Pacific NW whence he flies to Japan, which he tours by bicycle, and finally to Vietnam.
As his journey progresses, his family history slowly unfolds -- in a skillfully constructed, novelistic approach. The book alternates between a fascinating travelogue of Vietnam's cities and countryside, and the difficulties of a proud immigrant family struggling to adjust to American life with its new freedoms, racism, and contrasts of poverty and prosperity. As Viet-kieu in his homeland, Pham faces a mixture of suspicion, affection, envy and very real danger. His descriptions are visceral and sensual: he is particularly cognizant of food, and the reader's reactions veer from mouth-watering to stomach-churning. His connection to Vietnam is anything but sentimental -- although he empathizes with its inhabitants, he has a love-hate relationship that is complicated by his knowledge that but for chance, their fate could have been his.
The slow unraveling of his family history is riveting -- from his parents' disapproved-of marriage to his sister's anguish in trying to come to terms with life in America and with her sexual identity. In many ways Catfish and Mandala is a quintessentially American tale, beautifully written, heartbreaking and ultimately hopeful. Highly recommended, especially for anyone who is interested in the history and culture of the Vietnam War and its aftermath.
At 8 years old, Andrew became one of Vietnam's boat people, the refugees who fled their country by a dangerous open-ocean journey in the wake of the Vietnam War. As an immigrant to America, Andrew finds that he is not entirely welcome and the legacy of the Vietnam War is never far away. His trip to Vietnam is an attempt to understand his lost homeland and to make peace with the suicide of his oldest sister, Chi. Adult Andrew is a masterful storyteller who weaves effortlessly between modern-day Vietnam and haunting memories of his war-torn childhood. Still fluent in Vietnamese, he is able to explore the country in a way few foreigners can, providing real insight to life in poverty and the effects of tourism on native culture. Drop by drop, he reels out the story of Chi in between chapters until the book mounts to a powerful and surprising conclusion. After reaching the ultimate revelation, the book struggles a bit, feeling contrived where each page before felt authentic. However, five disappointing pages were not enough to spoil the book.
I savored this book slowly with a glass of wine before bed each night and I recommend you do the same.
The story of Pham's father's imprisonment in the Labor Camp is brief, but heartbreaking just the same. After reading pages 16-20 I will never look at catfish the same.
Pham's ability to weave past with present is brilliant. He recaptures his family's flight from Vietnam to the U.S. when he was a small child seamlessly while recounting his own journey from the U.S. back to Vietnam as an adult. His confusion over what he remembers is intertwined with his inability to articulate what he is really looking for. Pham finds himself asking "what am I doing here?" time and time again. As he faces prejudice and violence and corruption I asked the same question.
The best and least expected parts of the book were when Pham talked about his transgender sibling -- that story, which we see only in glimpses, is far more compelling than the author's.
I shared so many of his impressions. The streets of Hanoi jammed with motorcycles loaded with everything conceivable going every which way, ridden by masked men and women on cellphones with babies and small children riding along; not to mention the trucks and the people and the cars and the constant car horns and the pollution. The food, some delicious but some quite questionable (e.g. organs), and the water you can only drink out of the ubiquitous plastic bottles, both of which eventually gave him dysentery. The people, welcoming and (of him) scornful at the same time.
I liked the interwoven strands of his previous life and his journey, and how he discovered himself in the process.
In "Catfish and Mandala", there is a story about the book's author, a self-centered young adult going on a "rebel's" journey to his homeland of Vietnam. This story was far too bitter and narcissistic to be enjoyable. The author really needs to do some deep soul searching, and not just the surface level plumbs represented in this book. As a reader, I really don't care that the author ran away from home on his bike to another country as a young adult while trying to pacify the lack of control he felt as a child, and the author does nothing to bring me to the point of caring.
The author does, however, write very movingly about his father's journey to escape Vietnam with his family at the close of war in the 1970s. I only made it halfway through the book, but the father's struggles are enthralling to read. I only wish is comprised a larger chunk of the book. Because the book had those fascinating glimpses into another world, I bumped my rating up to 2 stars.