Catfish and Mandala
A Two Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam
By Andrew X. Pham
Picador and Farrar, Straus and Giroux Copyright © 1999 Andrew X. Pham
All rights reserved.
Exile – Pilgrim
The first thing I notice about Tyle is that he can squat on his haunches Third World — style, indefinitely. He is a giant, an anachronistic Thor in rasta drag, bare-chested, barefoot, desert-baked golden. A month of wandering the Mexican wasteland has tumbled me into his lone camp warded by cacti. Rising from the makeshift pavilion staked against the camper top of his pickup, he moves to meet me with an idle power I envy. I see the wind has carved leathery lines into his legend-hewn face of fjords and right angles.
In a dry, earthen voice, he asks me, "Looking for the hot spring?"
"Yeah, Agua Caliente. Am I even close?"
"Sure. This is the place. Up the way a couple hundred yards."
"Amazing! I found it!"
He smiles, suddenly very charismatic, and shakes his head of long matty blond hair. "How you got here on that bike is amazing."
I had been pedaling and pushing through the forlorn land, roaming the foreign coast on disused roads and dirt tracks. When I was hungry or thirsty, I stopped at ranches and farms and begged the owners for water from their wells and tried to buy tortillas, eggs, goat cheese, and fruit. Every place gave me nourishment; men and women plucked grapefruits and tangerines from their family gardens, bagged food from their pantries, and accepted not one peso in return. Why, I asked them. Señor, they explained in the patient tone reserved for those convalescing, you are riding a bicycle, so you are poor. You are in the desert going nowhere, so you are crazy. Taking money from a poor and crazy man brings bad luck. All the extras, they confided, were because I wasn't a gringo. A crew of Mexican ranchers said they liked me because I was a bueno hermano — good brother — a Vietnamito, and my little Vietnam had golpea big America back in'75. But I'm American, Vietnamese American, I shouted at them. They grinned — Sí, sí, Señor — and grilled me a slab of beef.
Tyle says, "So, where are you from?"
"Bay Area, California."
"No. Where are you from? Originally".
I have always hated this question and resent him for asking. I hide my distaste because it is un-American. Perhaps I will lie. I often do when someone corners me. Sometimes, my prepared invention slips out before I realize it: I'm Japanese — Korean — Chinese — mixed — race Asian. No, sir, can't speak any language but good old American English.
This time, I turn the question: "Where do you think?"
Something about him makes me dance around the truth. I chuckle, painfully aware that "I'm an American" carries little weight with him. It no doubt resonates truer in his voice.
The blond giant holds me with his green eyes, making me feel small, crooked. So I reply, "We nips all look alike."
But it isn't enough. He looks the question at me again, and, by a darkness on his face, I know I owe him.
"I'm from Vietnam."
A flinch in the corner of his eye. He grunts, a sound deep from his diaphragm. Verdict passed. He turns his back to me and heaves into the cactus forest.
I stand, a trespasser in his camp, hearing echoes — Chink, gook, Jap, Charlie, GO HOME, SLANT-EYES!-words that, I believe, must 'have razored my sister Chi down dark alleys, hounded her in the cold after she had fled home, a sixteen-year-old runaway, an illegal alien without her green card. What vicious clicking sounds did they make in her Vietnamese ears, wholly new to English? And, within their boundaries, which America did she find?
A man once revealed something which disturbed me too much to be discounted. He said, "Your sister died because she became too American."
Later in the night, from the thick of the brush, Tyle ghosts into the orange light of my campfire. He nods at me and folds himself cross-legged before the popping flames, uncorks a fresh tequila bottle, takes a swig, and hands it to me. We sit on the ground far apart enough that with outstretched arms we still have to lean to relay the bottle.
I grip the warm sand between my toes and loll the tart tequila on my tongue. A bottom-heavy moon teeters on the treetops. Stars balm the night. We seem content in our unspoken truce.
When the bottle is half empty, Tyle begins to talk. At first, he talks about the soothing solitude of the Mexican desert. Life is simple here, food cheap, liquor plentiful. He earns most of his money from selling his handicrafts — bracelets, woven bands, beads, leather trinkets — to tourists. When times are tough, there are always a few Mexicans who will hire him for English lessons or translations. And the border isn't too far if he needs to work up a large chunk of cash. Between the mundane details, his real life comes out obliquely. Tyle has a wife and two boys. He has been away from them nine years. I am the first Vietnamese he has seen since he fled to Mexico seven years ago.
When four fingers of tequila slosh at the bottom of the bottle, he asks me, "Have you been back to Vietnam?"
"No. But someday I'll go back ... to visit."
Many Vietnamese Americans "have been back." For some of us, by returning as tourists we prove to ourselves that we are no longer Vietnamese but Vietnamese Americans. We return, with our hearts in our throats, to taunt the Communist regime, to show through our material success that we, the once pitiful exiles, are now the victors. No longer the poverty-stricken refugees clinging to fishing boats, spilling out of cargo planes onto American soil, a mess of open-mouthed terror, wide-eyed awe, hungry and howling for salvation. Time has veiled the days when America fished us out of the ocean like drowning cockroaches and fed us and clothed us — we, the onus of their tragedy. We return and, in our personal silence, we gloat at our conquerors, who now seem like obnoxious monkeys cheating over baubles, our baggage, which mean little to us. Mostly, we return because we are lost.
Tyle says, "I was in Nam."
I have guessed as much. Not knowing what to say, I nod. Vets — acquaintances and strangers — have said variations of this to me since I was a kid and didn't know what or where Nam was. The contraction was lost on a boy struggling to learn English. But the note, the way these men said it, told me it was important, someplace I ought to know. With the years, this statement took on new meanings, each flavored by the tone of the speaker. There was bitterness, and there was bewilderment. There was loss and rage and every shade of emotion in between. I heard declarations, accusations, boasts, demands, obligations, challenges, and curses in the four words: I was in Nam. No matter how they said it, an ache welled up in me until an urge to make some sort of reparation slicked my palms with sweat. Some gesture of conciliation. Remorse. A word of apology.
He must have seen me wince for he says it again, more gently.
At that, I do something I've never done before. I bow to him like a respected colleague. It is a bow of acknowledgment, a bow of humility, the only way I can tell him I know of his loss, his sufferings.
Looking into the fire, he says softly, "Forgive me. Forgive me for what I have done to your people."
The night buckles around me. "What, Tyle?"
"I'm sorry, man. I'm really sorry," he whispers. The blond giant begins to cry, a tired, sobless weeping, tears falling away untouched.
My mouth forms the words, but I cannot utter them. No. No, Tyle. How can I forgive you? What have you done to my people? But who are my people? I don't know them. Are you my people? How can you be my people? All my life, I've looked at you sideways, wondering if you were wondering if my brothers had killed your brothers in the war that made no sense except for the one act of sowing me here — my gain — in your bed, this strange rich-poor, generous-cruel land. I move through your world, a careful visitor, respectful and mindful, hoping for but not believing in the day when I become native. I am the rootless one, yet still the beneficiary of all of your and all of their sufferings. Then why, of us two, am I the savior, and you the sinner?
"Please forgive me."
I deny him with my silence.
His Viking face mashes up, twisting like a child's just before the first bawl. It doesn't come. Instead words cascade out, disjointed sentences, sputtering incoherence that at the initial rush sound like a drunk's ravings. Nameless faces. Places. Killings. He bleeds it out, airs it into the flames, pours it on me. And all I can do is gasp Oh, God at him over and over, knowing I will carry his secrets all my days.
He asks my pardon yet again, his open hand outstretched to me. This time the quiet turns and I give him the absolution that is not mine to give. And, in my fraudulence, I know I have embarked on something greater than myself.
"When you go to Vietnam," he says, stating it as a fact, "tell them about me. Tell them about my life, the way I'm living. Tell them about the family I've lost. Tell them I'm sorry."
I give Tyle the most honored gift, the singular gift we Vietnamese give best, the gift into which one can cast all one's sorrow like trash into an abyss, only sometimes the abyss lies inside the giver. I give him silence.
I am a Vietnamese-American man. In my work boots, I am of average height, of medium build, and not too ghastly of face. I like going to the movies and reading novels in cafés. If I had to choose one cuisine to eat for the rest of my life, I'd take Italian without hesitation, though I do harbor secret cravings for hickory-smoked baby-back ribs and New Orleans gumbo. And I like buying cookbooks more than cooking. I enjoy tennis, basketball, baseball, football, and, lately, yes, hockey — from the bleachers or in my La-Z-Boy. My choice daily wear is a pair of five-year-old Levi's and a mock turtleneck (I have a drawerful, all the same size, same brand, different colors). I don't wear yellow, red, orange, or anything bright: they complicate the laundry process. No G-string underwear. Socks, plain white or black only.
My family arrived in America on September 17, 1977. I was ten. Of the Vietnam War I knew little, recalling only vignettes and images. Too young to know about its politics until I was about to enter American middle school. Fifth grade, Mr. Jenkin's class, I raised my voice against a teacher for the first time. Eighteen months in America, that much English learned. He was lecturing on the history of the Vietnam War. Something he said must have set me off because I shouted at him, summoning forth adults' drunken words I'd picked up eavesdropping: America left Vietnam. America not finish war. One more day bombing, Viet Cong die. One more day! No. America go home! America chicken! Mr. Jenkin colored, a tomato-flush rising from his buttoned collar to his feathery blond hair. I could tell he wanted to strike me, but I knew they didn't do that in America so I didn't say I was sorry. Chopping the air with his hand, he screamed, No! No! Wrong! And five minutes of English I couldn't understand.
Much later, I realized with some guilt that perhaps his brother had died in the War, and if it had gone on, he might have lost another. I wish I could tell him now that what I really meant was that my father was in prison because of the War. I was shouting about our imprisonment, about the dark wet cells, the whippings, the shootings, the biting rats, and the fists of dirty rice we ate. These things I remember unfogged by the intervening years. Somehow terribly vivid, irreducible.
I was there. After Saigon fell on April 30, 1975, our family fled deeper south, hoping to find a boat that would take us to Thailand. Outside of Rach Gia, a port city, the Viet Cong had set up a road barricade and caught us along with some three hundred people heading toward the coast to flee the country. Women and children were locked, fifty to a room, in a wing separate from the men. We took turns sleeping on wet concrete, side by side. After a month, the women and children were released with permission to go home. The men were either executed or trucked off to the jungle to work.
My mother and I regularly visited my father at the Minh Luong Prison and Labor Camp. We lodged with peasant families and stayed for weeks near the compound so she could watch him working in the field under guard. Hiding behind bushes, I watched him whenever I could find him. Like her, I felt that if I kept my eyes on him, stayed vigilant enough, bad things wouldn't happen. Some nights, she lay awake until dawn after hearing gunshots snap in the nearby woods, where they executed prisoners.
Two decades have thundered by since his imprisonment. Although we rarely talk beyond the safe grounds of current events, education, investment, and work, he has frequently shared his tales about the Viet Cong reeducation camp with me. The adventure stories he had told me as a boy on his knee were replaced by his death-camp saga. I believe it had something to do with my being his first son, with my having been there at the prison watching over him, witnessing what he thought were his death rites. In the years of telling, they became almost as much my stories as his. And this was strange, since my father and I have never shared much, never done father-and-son things, no camping trips, no fishing excursions; no ball games, no hot dogs in the park; no beers and Super Bowl on the tube. Still, the stories passed back and forth between us even when I had grown and moved away. My father, Pham Van Thong, was bequeathing his rarest pearls of wisdom, imparting a sense of value for life.
Of his last days in the death camp, Thong remembers the silence most. It was a thick creature that sat on his chest and lodged its fists in his throat. In the Viet Cong prison hut, he heard only his heart. Above, an indigo sky spilled light into the room, dyeing the gaunt faces of his fellows squatting on the dirt floor, fifty-four prisoners waiting for the execution call.
It came twice every week over the loudspeakers. Sometimes days passed between the calls, sometimes the calls came back-to-back.
Every evening just after they had scraped the last of the rice and the broth from their tins, silence fell as crickets wooed the coming night. The hut stank with fear and the food in their belly soured. Always, someone vomited.
He waded through his swamp of emotions. As the end neared when the indigo was deepest, two feelings remained. Sorrow for his wife, his children. Regret for a thousand things not done, a thousand things not said, a thousand things taken for granted.
His best friend in prison, Tuan, a helicopter pilot, edged close to him. Sitting on his hams, Tuan leaned over and whispered in his ear, "Thong, promise me."
He squeezed Tuan's shoulder. It was December 17, 1975. If they called his name tonight, Tuan would die and his promise would be worthless. Tuan believed the VC would release Thong in a few years. He would carry Tuan's last words to his wife and son. Thong didn't tell Tuan he believed that death was the only way out of Minh Luong Prison.
"You'll get out soon. Your wife's uncle is a VC colonel — a war hero."
"The bribes didn't work, Tuan. We're broke. Anh borrowed and sold everything we owned."
"No, she'll find a way. Anh is smart." Tuan had never met her.
The gloom obscured his friend's face, but Thong could pick out the hollow cheeks and the wild vacant eyes. Before Vietnam fell, Tuan was a handsome young officer with all the promise of a good military career. He was only twenty-eight. He was married to his high school sweetheart and they had a son. On nights when it was very cold and the prisoners huddled together for warmth, he would speak of her, the way she moved and intimate things. Things not meant for the ears of others, but in this place it was all he had. All that kept him going.
Tuan's quivering voice was rife with self-reproach. "I shouldn't have confessed that I was a pilot. I was scared. When they said the penalty for lying on the confession essay was execution, I lost my mind. I wrote down everything. I confessed everything. Everything I could remember."
"Thanh said I was honest. That's why she loves me. I shouldn't have written about my service in the air force."
He wanted to tell Tuan they wouldn't call tonight, wouldn't come for him, wouldn't punish him. But he didn't. It would have been a lie. He wanted to hear Tuan's voice because it might be the last time they talked. A dying man had the right to talk, Thong said, and they were all dying. If the executioner didn't kill them tonight, jungle diseases would kill them soon enough. Then there were the minefields, the hundreds of land mines they were forced to unearth and defuse with shovels. Death always came round, one way or another.
"You'll be all right," Tuan said, reassuring his friend even through his fear. "You're just a teacher. They don't punish teachers."
Tuan didn't know his secret. No one in the prison did.
"They'll let you go soon. You only violated martial law." (Continues...)
Excerpted from Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham. Copyright © 1999 Andrew X. Pham. Excerpted by permission of Picador and Farrar, Straus and Giroux.
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