Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

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Overview

Winner of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Winner of the Whiting Writers' Award
A Seattle Post-Intelligencer Best Book of the Year

Catfish and Mandala is the story of an American odyssey—a solo bicycle voyage around the Pacific Rim to Vietnam—made by a young Vietnamese-American man in pursuit of ...

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Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

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Overview

Winner of the Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize
A New York Times Notable Book of the Year
Winner of the Whiting Writers' Award
A Seattle Post-Intelligencer Best Book of the Year

Catfish and Mandala is the story of an American odyssey—a solo bicycle voyage around the Pacific Rim to Vietnam—made by a young Vietnamese-American man in pursuit of both his adopted homeland and his forsaken fatherland.

Andrew X. Pham was born in Vietnam and raised in California. His father had been a POW of the Vietcong; his family came to America as "boat people." Following the suicide of his sister, Pham quit his job, sold all of 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." In Vietnam, he's taken for Japanese or Korean by his countrymen, except, of course, by his relatives, who doubt that as a Vietnamese he has the stamina to complete his journey ("Only Westerners can do it"); and in the United States he's considered anything but American. A vibrant, picaresque memoir written with narrative flair and an eye-opening sense of adventure, Catfish and Mandala is an unforgettable search for cultural identity.

1999 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize winner for nonfiction.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble

I took a break from reading Andrew X. Pham's brilliant, haunting memoir of his trip through Vietnam, Catfish and Mandala, to watch TV. My remote control landed me on MTV, right in the middle of a Road Rules: Semester at Sea marathon. Confession: I am a Road Rules junkie. This travelogue-cum-voyeuristic adventure soap opera series has the power to reel me in like nothing else on television does.

And as I sat on my couch, savoring this mind candy, I got an extra treat. I had happened upon the episodes where the cast is in Vietnam. These episodes of Road Rules were full of images to complement my day's reading.

Pham's descriptions of riding his bicycle through the clogged streets of Saigon were made all the more vivid when I watched the cast trying to race around the congested, polluted city. The cast ate many of the Vietnamese delicacies that turned Pham's stomach. The cast was confronted by beggars, as was Pham, who was plagued with guilt about them throughout his trip.

As the episode drew to a close, I realized that surprisingly, despite a massive difference in perspective, the Road Rulers and Pham had similar observations of Vietnam that stemmed from the bizarre experience of being an American in a country America was at war with. I also realized that not only is Pham's book wonderful in its own right, but it's also an important addition to the growing body of literature about the relationship between America and Vietnam.

However, Catfish and Mandala's premise -- Pham bikes from California to Vietnam, the land of his birth, in an attempt to make sense of his trans-national identity -- renders it a challenging and extremely complex read. There is more here than just a story of a native son returning home.

A recurring theme throughout Catfish and Mandala is the fact that Pham doesn't feel at home anywhere in the world. His ethnicity and familial obligations prevent him from truly assimilating in America. In Vietnam, his American passport earns him the moniker Viet-kieu, a term that means "foreign Vietnamese" and that is highly stigmatized. Often in Vietnam, his claims to his ethnicity are challenged violently.

But epithets, fists and dysentery don't stop Pham from traveling to through Vietnam on his bicycle; the town of his birth is his final destination. Although the places of his youth bear no resemblance to the country he remembers, Pham draws a grounding sense of knowing, and ultimately, closure from them. It's as if seeing how different Vietnam is from his memories gives him the courage to make peace with the role his roots play in his American life.

Pham is a "boat person" who came to the US in 1977. His father, a former Nationalist Army propagandist, is a survivor of a communist reeducation death camp. His mother meticulously plotted their family's harrowing escape from Vietnam under constant threat of incarceration.

Pham spends most of his life trying to reconcile his desire to live his own life with the remnants of the life his parents' left behind. "Our father sacrificed for us as his father had sacrificed for him, each one of us racking up a debt so large we'd never dare to contemplate pursuing our own dreams. No, there are no independent visionaries in a line of sacrifices," Pham writes.

His decision to pick up and bicycle to Vietnam, something he views as wholly "unethnic," stems from these frustrations. Pham's journey is also prompted by the suicide of his transsexual sister Chi.

Intertwined with stories of his time in Vietnam, Chi's troubling relationship with Pham's father is recounted throughout Catfish and Mandala, as are the tales of his parents' personal histories, and Pham's own life story. This makes Catfish and Mandala less a travelogue and more an autobiography. But Pham's narration, and the stories themselves, make Catfish and Mandala breathtaking. In Vietnam, Pham bridges the gaps between past and present, and leaves with a true sense of himself.

And along the way, he gives the reader a painfully intimate look at whom he is, and what Vietnam has become, that a reader will be richer for taking the time to understand. Pham's fascinating book is a very heavy, but ultimately an incredibly worthwhile read.

—Emily Burg

Emily Burg is a freelancer who reads travel books during the commercials.

From the Publisher

"Thoreau, Theroux, Kerouac, Steinbeck, Mark Twain and William Least Heat-Moon—the roster of those who have turned to their travels for inspiration includes some of America's most noted scribes. Now add Andrew X. Pham to the list . . . Catfish and Mandala records a remarkable odyssey across landscape and into memory."—The Seattle Times

"An engaging and vigorously told story . . . a fresh and original look at how proud Vietnamese on the war's losing side reconciled having their identity abruptly hyphenated to Vietnamese-American."—Gavin Scott, Chicago Tribune

"A modern Plutarch might pair Pham's story with that of Chris McCandless, the uncompromising young man whose spiritual quest led him to a forlorn death in Alaska. Pham, instead of seeking out remote places where he could explore fantasies of self-sufficiency, instictively understood that self-knowledge emerges from engagement with others. In his passionate telling, his travelogue acquires the universality of a bildungsroman."—The New Yorker

"A trip so necessary and so noble makes others seem like mere jaunts or stunts."—The New York Times Book Review

"Part memoir, part travelogue . . . Catfish and Mandala [is] a visceral, funny and tender look at modern-day Vietnam, interwoven with the saga of Pham's refugee family."—Annie Nakao, San Francisco Examiner

"Far more than a travelogue . . . Catfish and Mandala is a seamlessly constructed work deftly combining literary techniques with careful, evenhanded reportage . . . A gifted writer . . . Pham opens readers to the full sadness of the human condition on both sides of the world, marveling at spiritual resilience amid irreconcilable facts."—Roland Kelts, The Philadelphia Inquirer

"No small achievement . . . Scenes of [Pham's] wild road adventure [are] worthy of Jack Kerouac."—The San Francisco Chronicle

"Stunning . . . A brilliantly written memoir in which a young Vietnamese-American uses a bicycle journey in his homeland as a vehicle to tell his eventful life story . . . Pham (born Pham Xuan An) fled Vietnam with his family in 1977 at age ten. Raised in California, he worked hard, went to UCLA, and landed a good engineering job. A few years ago, rebelling against family pressures to succeed and a patronizing, if not racist, work environment, Pham quit his job. Much to his parents' displeasure, he set off on bicycle excursions through Mexico, Japan, and, finally, Vietnam. 'I have to do something unethnic,' he says. 'I have to go. Make my pilgrimage.' In his first book, Pham details his solo cycling journeys, mixing in stories of his and his family's life before and after leaving Vietnam. The most riveting sections are Pham's exceptional evocations of his father's time in a postwar communist reeducation (read: concentration) camp and the family's near miraculous escape by sea from their homeland . . . An insightful, creatively written report on Vietnam today and on the fate of a Vietnamese family in America."—Kirkus Reviews

"[Pham] fuels his memoir and travelogue, full of both comic and painful adventures, with a broad appreciation of the variety and vividness of creation. The people, the landscapes, the poverty and grime of Vietnam live for us through him, a man full of sadness and unrequited longing and love . . . a powerful memoir of grief and a doomed search for cultural identity."—Vince Passaro, Elle

"In narrating his search for his roots, Vietnamese-American and first-time author Pham alternates between two story lines. The first, which begins in war-torn Vietnam, chronicles the author's hair-raising escape to the U.S. as an adolescent in 1977 and his family's subsequent and somewhat troubled life in California. The second recounts his return to Vietnam almost two decades later as an Americanized but culturally confused young man. Uncertain if his trip is a 'pilgrimage or a farce,' Pham pedals his bike the length of his native country, all the while confronting the guilt he feels as a successful Viet-kieu (Vietnamese expatriate) and as a survivor of his older sister Chai, whose isolation in America and eventual suicide he did little to prevent. Flipping between the two story lines, Pham elucidates his main dilemma: he's an outsider in both America and Vietnam—in the former for being Vietnamese, and the latter for being Viet-kieu . . . In writing a sensitive, revealing book about cultural identity, Pham also succeeds in creating an exciting adventure story."—Publishers Weekly

"Perhaps the most American writing theme is the road trip as search for identity. Pham has written a memoir (and, in the process, a travelogue) that will be widely appealing. His family immigrated to the U.S. after escaping from Vietnam, where his father had been held in a communist 're-education camp' after the war. Once in the U.S., his parents worked grueling hours to afford to educate their children. During those years Pham's sister ran away after being beaten by her father, and when she returned years later, she had become a transsexual. Eventually, she commited suicide, and her death was a dark, unspoken family secret. Pham, who had become an engineer, had an identity crisis and left his career to bicycle through the U.S., Mexico, Japan, and, eventually, Vietnam, to examine his roots. Seeing his native country through Americanized eyes, he finds it both attractive and repellent. Ultimately, he must reconcile to being an outsider in all cultures."—Eric Robbins, Booklist

Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In narrating his search for his roots, Vietnamese-American and first-time author Pham alternates between two story lines. The first, which begins in war-torn Vietnam, chronicles the author's hair-raising escape to the U.S. as an adolescent in 1977 and his family's subsequent and somewhat troubled life in California. The second recounts his return to Vietnam almost two decades later as an Americanized but culturally confused young man. Uncertain if his trip is a "pilgrimage or a farce," Pham pedals his bike the length of his native country, all the while confronting the guilt he feels as a successful Viet-kieu (Vietnamese expatriate) and as a survivor of his older sister Chai, whose isolation in America and eventual suicide he did little to prevent. Flipping between the two story lines, Pham elucidates his main dilemma: he's an outsider in both America and Vietnam--in the former for being Vietnamese, and the latter for being Viet-kieu. Aside from a weakness for hyphenated compounds like "people-thick" and "passion-rich," Pham's prose is fluid and fast, navigating deftly through time and space. Wonderful passages describe the magical qualities of catfish stew, the gruesome preparation of "gaping fish" (a fish is seared briefly in oil with its head sticking out, but is supposedly still alive when served), the furious flow of traffic in Ho Chi Minh City and his exasperating confrontations with gangsters, drunken soldiers and corrupt bureaucrats. In writing a sensitive, revealing book about cultural identity, Pham also succeeds in creating an exciting adventure story. (Oct.) Copyright 1999 Cahners Business Information.
Library Journal
As a child, Pham fled Vietnam with his family and settled in California. Here he recounts his return--by bicycle, as he wheels up the West Coast, boards a plane, and finds himself at the airport in Saigon, cursing out the "nitwits in flip-flops" who wrecked his bike. Clearly, this is no sentimental journey; Pham's is a soul divided. He's a contentious guide, but the journey is heartrending and invaluable. (LJ 10/1/99) Copyright 2000 Cahners Business Information.
Booknews
Pham was born in Vietnam in 1967, moved with his family to California, and now lives in Portland, Oregon. Here he chronicles his return to Vietnam, his travels on a rickety bicycle, and his search for cultural identity. While his father's time in a communist reeducation camp is discussed, the heart of the narrative is Pham's depiction of his five- month journey in Vietnam. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
The New Yorker
A modern Plutarch might pair Pham's story with that of Chris McCandless, the uncompromising young man whose spiritual quest led him to a forlorn death in Alaska, Pham, instead of seeking out remote places where he could explore fantasies of self-sufficiency, instictively understood that self-knowledge emerges from engagement with others. In his passionate telling, his travelogue acquires the universality of a bildungsroman.
Kirkus Reviews
A brilliantly written memoir in which a young Vietnamese-American uses a bicycle journey in his homeland as a vehicle to tell his eventful life story. The veteran-penned "going back" book has become a subgenre of the American Vietnam War canon. So, too, has the multigenerational Vietnamese-refugee family saga. Now comes a stunning first: a family tale by a Vietnamese-American that centers on an eye-opening trip to his native land. Pham (born Pham Xuan An) fled Vietnam with his family in 1977 at age ten. Raised in California, he worked hard, went to UCLA, and landed a good engineering job. A few years ago, rebelling against family pressures to succeed and a patronizing, if not racist, work environment, Pham quit his job. Much to his parents' displeasure, he set off on bicycle excursions through Mexico, Japan, and, finally, Vietnam. "I have to do something unethnic," he says. "I have to go. Make my pilgrimage." In his first book, Pham details his solo cycling journeys, mixing in stories of his and his family's life before and after leaving Vietnam. The most riveting sections are Pham's exceptional evocations of his father's time in a postwar communist reeducation (read: concentration) camp and the family's near miraculous escape by sea from their homeland. The heart of the narrative is Pham's depiction of his five-month adventure in Vietnam, often not a pretty picture. Because of his unique status as a budget-minded Viet Kieu (overseas Vietnamese), he runs into significant harassment from the police and many unfriendly civilians. For every moment of self-discovery and enchantment there seem to be ten of disappointment and dispiritedness—plus nearly constant physical pain fromhis journey and a bout of dysentery. But Pham perseveres. He returns to his home, America, with a smile on his face. An insightful, creatively written report on Vietnam today and on the fate of a Vietnamese family in America.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780312267179
  • Publisher: Picador
  • Publication date: 9/2/2000
  • Edition description: REV
  • Pages: 352
  • Sales rank: 175,708
  • Product dimensions: 5.64 (w) x 8.17 (h) x 0.93 (d)

Meet the Author

Andrew X. Pham was born in Vietnam in 1967 and moved to California with his family after the war. Catfish and Mandala was the winner of the 1999 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. Mr. Pham lives in Portland, Oregon

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Read an Excerpt



Chapter One

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, barechested, 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 goingnowhere, 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?"

    "Korea."

    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 girl 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.

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Customer Reviews

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( 31 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 31 Customer Reviews
  • Posted August 12, 2009

    I Also Recommend:

    A beautiful memoir

    Vietnamese strikes me as a poetic language. The words form themselves not specifically around grammar, but more around ideas. In regards to Pham's style, his ability to speak both English and Vietnamese allows for some very important ideas expressed through beautiful, poetic prose. I would bring up the influence of Faulkner, which has become natural while discussing most modern authors, except that I don't think Pham has ended up sounding like him (certainly not in the same way as Garcia Marquez or Morrison, for example). As a matter of fact, what stuns the most in Catfish and Mandala is the originality of voice. That, in itself, is no small praise.

    Pham is in a school of his own. The content practically begs for interpretation from its form on the page as testimony. It tells the story of many traumas and I think it attempts to make peace for them all. At the end of some chapters, I found myself gasping for air, since the prose is intense and the ideas challenge. His passion, his energy, it's all written in this book. And I should think that if I liked it so much, then you are also likely to enjoy. Pham, I hope, will receive some very big praise eventually, and I would never hesitate to purchase another product of his labor. This book, make no mistake, deserves your money.

    I can speak the same for another memoir by Lac Su, "I Love Yous are for White People". It's raw and uncut. A beautiful story which I recommended below.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 21, 2007

    Catfish and Mandala: A Search For Identity

    Catfish and Mandala, is the story of a young Vietnamese American who is trying to find himself. He feels neither American nor Vietnamese. He is a man without a country and is striving to obtain a sense of belonging. To do this, he decides to go on a bike ride back to his homeland. On his way he hopes to remember his childhood and get a sense of his identity. Along the trip he is reunited with distant relatives and discovers how much Vietnam has changed. Throughout the novel the themes of self-discovery, perseverance, individuality in society, and family are prevalent. The author, Andrew Pham, is constantly realizing things about himself through the experiences he faces while traveling on his bicycle. Throughout the journey, he considers turning back, only to decide to push onward. In his search for acceptance into a society, his family plays a pivotal role. They represent the things he loves and hates in each culture. The best part of the novel is the beautiful writing. Andrew Pham is a master of the English language. Every flowing sentence paints a picture on the canvas that is the reader¿s mind. He weaves together a story through flashbacks to his family¿s escape from Vietnam and the memoir of his solo bike expedition. The use of each story adds to the understanding of his feelings as he searches to find himself. I enjoyed everything about this book. This is a great book to read because of the exquisite use of language. Pham also teaches several important lessons about life as an outsider, dealing with family, finding identity, and persevering throughout difficult situations. Pham offers insight to the plight of immigrants to the United States. All these important lessons are mixed into an intriguing and thought provoking story of a bike ride.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 17, 2006

    Gripping Memoir of Pain, Love, Lust and Loss

    Having just completed Catfish and Mandala, I am a bit bereft that I can not continue to know Pham's saga and life adventure. His is a story of the canyons and crevices of the heart and soul, snatches of beauty gobbled up and savored and the essential wandering and wondering associated with being alive. Anyone who has a remote understanding of cultural clashes, any experience with familial secrets or a vague sense that 'I too need to find something that defines why I am me' will thoroughly enjoy Pham's quest.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 24, 2006

    Incredible.

    This is an incredible book, if not one of my favorites. It was given to me as a gift from a dear friend last year for Christmas, and then later assigned in my English class perhaps I was destined to read and comment the novel. Whatever the case, it is an incredible memoir, not only an insight into a man's search for his identity and soul, but into a journey so few of my own generation really know or can comprehend outside the history books. Simply, the work chronicles Phan's bicycle journey up and down the Vietnamese landscape. Highlighting his personal triumphs and family's demise, the memoir also parallels the face of contemporary Vietnam, with the strength of her culture but the division of her country. It is laced with Phan's struggle to understand himself just as it ponders the decisions Vietnam must make to survive, but at the end of it all, it is simply a story about strength and acknowledgement, about forgiveness and awareness, things all too familiar and prophetically universal. All too often my generation views Vietnam merely as our parents' 'homeland,' as our ethnicities that we can hardly trace the history of, as something we might check off on a box and join the organization on campus. But recognizing our ethnicity, our face, is more than just the obvious, as Phan finds out in the two-wheeled journey, that it is the very essence of who we are and how we make the certain decisions and life choices that others don't. The book is poetic in every sense of the word, graceful and brutally honest in its descriptions, and makes no apologies. It won't answer or heal anyone's wounds, but for me anyway, who could never before fathom the struggle my parents endured, it was a great insight into who we are. I'd recommend this anyday.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted April 1, 2000

    Excellent book!

    As a Vietnamese-American, I can truly relate to this book. I arrived in the U.S. in 1975 at the age of 3 and for years considered myself to be more American than Vietnamese. My first trip to Vietnam took place in 1997, and I returned in 1999 for my honeymoon. Those trips helped me to find myself and to learn more about the culture that I didn't want to be a part of for so long. Now I'm proud to be both Vietnamese and American!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted April 5, 2013

    Interesting insights into Vietnam

    I purchased this book in preparation for a trip to Vietnam. I ended up reading part of it during the trip. It was a very moving book. The experiences of his family exposed the Vietnam war in ways that I had never experienced. Reading explained some of the things that we saw, although the Vietnam we saw felt very different than the one he experienced. I would be interested in reading his view of Vietnam now almost 20 years after his original bike ride.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2013

    Shazi to jene

    I am through w/ you!!! You cheated on me! And i looked for you every day! I am crying!

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted December 13, 2012

    A new literary classic

    This book defines the Asian-American identity struggle in Kerouac-ian style. If you love "On The Road," and Vietnamese people, then read this book. Also, from a literary standpoint, it is one of those books that can be deeply examined. One of my faves.

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  • Posted May 30, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    A Difficult Journey

    This is the memoir of a man whose family left Vietnam on a leaky boat, spent time in an Indonesian detention camp, and arrived virtually penniless in America. The author describes his family as "dysfunctional" and apologizes for writing this book, which does indeed hang out the family's dirty linen. The book is as much about the family as it is about a voyage of self-discovery that the author, an engineering graduate, takes to Vietnam and elsewhere to acquaint himself with his roots. This journey is often times brutal and unpleasant reading. In Vietnam, he is regarded as a pariah and treated as such. He finds himself a foreigner-an American, actually-in his native country. I recommend this book as an insight into a nasty part of history and as a commentary as to what immigrants go through when arriving in the US.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 10, 2006

    The Post Article Review

    Catfish and Mandala is one of 'THE MOST' boring books of this time. I would not recommend this book to you unless you are a sap that like Vietnam stories. Don't waste your time buying this book because it is very disappointing.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 20, 2004

    A major book on being Minor!!!

    Yes. 'Catfish and Mandala' is a major book on being a minor: Asian, Vietnamese, foreign-Vietnamese, gay, transexual,etc. This book really touches me deeply. I love Mr.Pham's writing style for its brutal nakedness, yet elegant and poetric. He gathers his stories, as well as people's around him, and turned them into a book that many people can relate to. Started with melancholy loaded in his heart, Mr.Pham's bike trip turns out to be the journey of finding identity and salvation, for himself and his real-life-based characters, as well as for the readers. A beautiful work! I'm gonna end with one of my favorite quotation from the book: '..There is nothing else. No mitigating circumstances and no power to undo the sins. No was. Only is. Between us, there is but a think line of intention.' May joy and peace stay with you, Mr. Pham.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 23, 2003

    Perhaps the Best Book I Have Ever Read

    The fall of Saigon, incredible family hardships, a harrowing escape from Viet Nam. In eventually making it to California and as the family is realizing the American dream, they experience tragedy. A story so honest, so courageous and so sad that it must be true. Mr. Andrew X. Pham in his travels and through his story is able to make more sense of the Viet Nam war and what came out of it than anything else I have found in all these years. For this I thank him.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 18, 2002

    Outstanding!!!! I couldn't put it down!

    I just returned from a bike trip in Viet Nam and I read Catfish & Mandala along the way. I thought I was reading my own diary except that his was far more brutally true and had a deeper experience than an American could have. I don't think you have to like bicycle adventures or travel to enjoy this book. Its honesty, insight and humor make for a very exciting read. It is on my Christmas list for many friends!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted October 23, 2002

    Catfish and Mandala: 10 Thumbs up!

    Catfish and Mandala is the best book that I have read this year [2002]. I am a member of a Barnes and Noble Book Club in the state of Maryland and it was one of our assigned readings. I read this book from cover to cover in a mere one week. It was so riveting, poetic,exciting in a word:fantastic. Andrew Pham is brilliant in his description of the land of his birth. He was open and honest, and painted pictures with words. I could actually see all those places that he descibed as though I were right there. I, too am a bicycling enthusiast, and his book has encouraged me to do some touring on my own as well. I am eager to read more of his literary works.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 19, 2001

    Powerful!

    This is a superb literary work as well as a complex and deeply moving exploration of cultural identity. Andrew's courage and honesty in exploring his and his own family's pain is remarkable. This is the assigned text for a class I teach on refugee issues. All of my students love the book. I continue to enjoy it each time I read it along with my students.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 9, 2001

    A second time around is even better . . .

    I picked up Catfish and Mandala while vacationing in Hawaii a few years back. The book had inspired me to return to my homeland and become reacquainted with my own culture after 26 long forsaken years. You see, I was one of the fortunate Nationalists of South Vietnam to have come over before the fall of Saigon. For the longest time, I was ashamed of my own culture and pretended to be an American. But I am 34 now and no longer ashame of my true identity. I did my trip and it has opened my eyes to a whole new world. I highly recommend Catfish and Mandala to people of all nationalities, especially immigrants because the book reminds us who we are and where we came from. You can pretend to forget about your culture, but you cannot change the color of your skin. Just like me, I may be 'White' on the inside, but I will always be a 'banana' on the outside.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted June 6, 2001

    Learn who I am

    I learn about Catcfish book through friend. She highly recommended this wonderful book and currently many people at my work read and fell in love with it. It is so poetic and lovely. I met Andrew at his bookreading at Castro last year. He was so funny and his gay brother Huy, too. It is incredable how first time write wrote this way. In same chapter he went through three different time frames. Current event, his childhood memory, his parents or other sibling's life. He said, 'I just worte whatever came to my heart'. What a great gift he gave us. Following Viet- Mercury, Vietnamese community is not welcoming his book, because it contains too much stories about their secrecy. We all endeaver to find who I am through our lives. Most of us do not have couage to take off from our lives and go away. I send big Applause to his courage to take off to trip and find himself. By the way, I started eating catfish in Clay pot when I go to Vietnamese restaurant and it tastes pretty good.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2001

    I cannot loan you this book....

    Andrew Pham is one of the most incredible writers. Sorry, you will not be able to borrow this book. Maybe you could get it as a gift... Having lived in southeast Asia, I have always wanted to go to these areas where Andrew bicycled, and now I have even more interest. His sister would be so proud of his accounts of their lives. I certainly am proud to rave about it.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 6, 2001

    I Didn't Want It To End!

    Whenever I travel abroad, I try to take along a travel narrative of the country I am visiting. How wonderful it was have Catfish and Manadala accompany me on my recent trip to Vietnam. Not only does Andrew Pham open up his heart and soul to us - his prose and descriptions of Vietnam today are so precise, at times I found myself relying more on his words than those in my guide book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 10, 2000

    Breathtaking!

    Andrew Pham will hook you on the very first page of this book, and take you along for an unforgettable ride to the last page. While the story of his travels is engrossing, this is really a book about people, family, relationships, etc. Wonderfully written, it might just become one of your favorite books.

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