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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 is a freelancer who reads travel books during the commercials.