Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnamby Andrew X. Pham
A Vietnamese Bicycle Days by a stunning new voice in American letters.
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Andrew X. Pham dreamed of becoming a writer. Born in Vietnam and raised in California, he held technical jobs at United Airlines-and always carried a letter of resignation in his briefcase. His father had been a POW of the Vietcong; his family came to America as "boat people." His
A Vietnamese Bicycle Days by a stunning new voice in American letters.
Andrew X. Pham dreamed of becoming a writer. Born in Vietnam and raised in California, he held technical jobs at United Airlines-and always carried a letter of resignation in his briefcase. His father had been a POW of the Vietcong; his family came to America as "boat people." His sister committed suicide, prompting Andrew to quit his job. He sold all of his possessions and embarked on a year-long bicycle journey that took him through the Mexican desert, where he was treated as a bueno hermano, a "good brother"; 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 Mexico he's treated kindly as a Vietnamito, though he shouts, "I'm American, Vietnamese American!" 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 a wonderful, eye-opening sense of adventure, Catfish and Mandala is an unforgettable search for cultural identity.
"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
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Read an Excerpt
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 hermanogood brothera Vietnamito, and my little Vietnam had golpea big America back in '75. But I'm American, Vietnamese American, I shouted at them. They grinnedSí, sí, Señorand 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 echoesChink, 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 handicraftsbracelets, woven bands, beads, leather trinketsto 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 uswe, 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. Vetsacquaintances and strangershave 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 heremy gainin 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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