Catfish and Mandala: A Two Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam was a very well written, insightful narrative by Vietnamese-American author Andrew “An” X. Pham. His stories consist of first hand accounts of life in Vietnam as a young boy, leaving Vietnam during the fall of Saigon in 1975 with his family as refugees, adjusting to American life and culture, and his voyage to return to his homeland and revisit family and the places of his childhood. You learn about the Pham family and Ans other extended family, or clan as they say in the book, some have made it to America and some stayed in Vietnam. His mother, father, and brothers and sisters and his relationships with them are major aspects to the story, their early struggles as refugees leaving Vietnam are remarkable, some explaining the broken family dynamics. As I was reading this book at times I felt that Ans memories were racing all over the place, making connections about his current situations to his past throughout the entire book. His journey to return to Vietnam as a “Viet-Kieu” teaches An a lot about himself, the people that he comes from, and the land that he comes from. Some of the major themes I took away after reading this book were the sense of An trying to discover his identity, the lasting effects of the Vietnam war on society (those in Vietnam and those in America), and An trying to understand his overall relationship with his family. Overall, I feel that Catfish and Mandala gives a great firsthand account, from a very unique perspective of returning to a war torn country trying to discover ones roots.
Identity I found to be a prevalent theme throughout reading this book. Right from early on An speaks about not living up to his fathers expectations “ I can’t be his Vietnamese American. I see their groveling humility, concessions given before quarts are asked. I hate their slitty-measuring eyes. The quick gestures of humor, bobbing of heads, forever congenial, eager to please” (Pham 25) It is not that An is embarrasses of his background but he sees how Asian men are treated in America and does not want to conform into a stereotype. He was a straight A student that had a degree in engineering, but you would be fooled to think that we has ever interested in doing that by reading the book. An has dealt with racism since he was young in the United States being Vietnamese. I think he is surprised by how differently he is treated for being Viet-Kieu. Immediately he gets first hand experiences of how the Viet-Kiue are treated by those who stayed in the homeland of Vietnam after the War. Many people assume he is Korean or Japanese, at times he even plays along to avoid conflict, but usually when find out he is Viet-Kiue they are not impressed or even upset. But not always, he is regularly asked for advice on how to get rich like Americans by poor Vietnamese that have heard of the American dream, An writes “ I am perceived as a gold mine of free advice. I am used to entrepreneurs of every creed ribbing me: What the heck, Brother, they all say, spill the beans. Let us in on the secret so we can roll in the dough” (Pham 154) He feels bad for these poor Vietnamese people when he sees how little they have. He starts to feel a sense of guilt, when he sees beggars that remind him of a childhood friend he never saw again. Even explaining to these people the idea that he is on a vacation biking though there country makes him feel guilt. He wants to relate to the people of Vietnam but at times he cannot because he sees right through peoples intentions. I feel as the deeper you get into Ans journey throughout the book more and more memories come back to him as he searching for his true identity.
The lasting effects of the war was prevalent throughout the book also. Ans family story of adjusting to life in southern United States and eventually California, all of the scarifies his family made to ensure their children would have a shot at a normal American life, and his families struggles that had stayed in Vietnam brought me the most insight to life after the war. A quote from his father about survival stuck out to me, “ The easiest lesson had always eluded him. A survivor does not have the luxury of counting his blessings”. (Pham 322) This stuck out to me because as I read about the stories of those who had made it to America and those that didn’t I learned that everyone had to make sacrifices. People risked their lives to sneak their families out of the country and sold everything they had to pay for it. Many ended up leaving their homes, possessions, loved ones behind while fleeing communist rule. Those who had been associated with the United States and Vietnamese Nationalist Army had a tough time if they were caught. Ans father had served time in a labor camp that had lasting effects, lasting effects that will spill over into his children. Many of the people An meets along the way are desperate to make money to find a way out of Vietnam and are curious about American life. Upon a few encounters An meets girls that the thinks are genuinely interested in him but they all turn out to be prostitutes. He states , “ Who are these strangers? These Vietnamese, these wanting-wanting-wanting people” (Pham 102). You do get the feeling that many people want something from An once they realize he is Viet-Kiue. This points out to me that the re-unification of Vietnam by the communists wasn’t an easy transition for the people and not everyone benefitted from the newly liberated Vietnam. The people that lived in the south that had actually benefitted from working for and with the United States were left high and dry after we pulled out. Without jobs the people resorted to finding other ways to make ends meet and at a last resort become a beggar. Many of the people An encounter are very poor and do not make hardly any money no matter what job they hold.
The third theme that stuck out the me most throughout reading this novel is the struggles An had with his family and the relationships they had. Ans Father the tough loving, son of an abusive aristocrat, the head of the house never was able to show his children love in a normal manner. He was abusive and held his children to high standards. Ans mother, the backbone and provider of the family. Some might argue that she was the head of the household because of her sternness and boldness. He has two younger brothers who are gay and afraid to tell their parents. Kay is his youngest sister and sounds to be the most Americanized out of the family. Then there is Chi/Mihn, An describers “She became the family’s big shame, as if we’d somehow failed-failed her as we’d failed ourselves” (Pham 215). Chi/Mihn was born transsexual and was never an accepted member if the family. An feels great resentment in not reaching out to do something before Chi/Mihn took their life. I think what is symbolic about this quote and Chi/Mihns place in the family is that this deals with something that is looked at as an “American”, the idea that her “Vietnamese” parents would never understand or accept this. It is even stated in the book that relatives said the suicide happened because Chi/Mihn became “ too American”. This was sad to learn about a person who was stranger within their own family, who were strangers to a new country. Ans relationships with his brothers and Chi when he is young reflects the parents tough love an many points in the story. The are a dysfunctional family but you cannot take away the fact that they do care about each other in the end of it all.
In conclusion, after reading Catfish and Mandala I stand by my opinion that it gives a great firsthand account of the lasting effects of the Vietnam war on a country (and it’s people) from a unique perspective. Throughout the book many times I found myself thinking how interesting it was to get an American-Vietnamese take on things. The interactions with people in American, Mexico, and Vietnam all also differed in ways for An being Viet-Kieu. Ans story is an adventure but also a conquest for personal reflection and understanding of his roots. He is hit with all kinds of emotions while traveling across Vietnam and meeting the people that live there. Near the end I felt that he had established a sense of belonging despite being so far from America. He had found people that he could relate to, he met those he felt sorry for, and he took away many lessons of what life in modern day is like Vietnam. With traveling to Vietnam I think he develops a better understanding of his parents and they reason they raised his family the way they did. He understands how fortunate they are to have had the opportunity to leave and provide for their children in the United States.