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

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

Amazon.com Review

A great memoirist can burnish even an ordinary childhood into something bright--see, for instance, 's An American Childhood. So what about a really good writer with access to a dramatic and little-documented story? This is the case with Catfish and Mandala, Vietnamese American Andrew X. Pham's captivating first book, which delves fearlessly into questions of home, family, and identity. The son of who suffered terribly during the Vietnam War and brought their family to America when he was 10, Pham, on the cusp of his 30s, defied his parents' conservative hopes for him and his engineering career by becoming a poorly paid freelance writer. After the suicide of his sister, he set off on an even riskier path to travel some of the world on his bicycle. In the grueling, enlightening year that followed, he pedaled through Mexico, the American West Coast, Japan, and finally his far-off first land, Vietnam. The story, with some of a mandala's repeated symbolic motifs, works on several levels at once. It is an exploration into the meaning of home, a descriptive travelogue, and an intimate look at the Vietnamese immigrant experience. There are beautifully illuminated flashbacks to the experience of fleeing Vietnam and to an earlier, more innocent childhood. While Pham's stern father, a survivor of Vietcong death camps, regrets that Pham has not been a respectful , he also reveals that he wishes he himself had been more "American" for his kids, that he had "taken [them] camping." Catfish and Mandala is a book of double-edged truths, and it would make a fascinating study even in less able hands. In those of the adventurous, unsentimental Pham, it is an irresistible story. --

From Publishers 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 VietnamAin 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 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From 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 Reed Business Information, Inc.

From Booklist

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

From 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 dispiritednessplus nearly constant physical pain from his 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. -- Copyright ©1999, Kirkus Associates, LP. All rights reserved.

Review

"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

-- Review
--This text refers to the Paperback edition.

Product Description

Catfish and Mandala is the poignant, lyrical tale 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. Intertwined with an often humorous travelogue spanning a year of discovery is a memoir of war, escape, and, ultimately, family secrets. Viewed through Viet-kieu (foreign Vietnamese) eyes and told in an accomplished voice, Catfish and Mandala uncovers a new Vietnam, its scarred landscape dotted with indefinable, tenacious people grappling with their unique brand of Third World capitalism. Their stories are at once ephemeral and lasting, their faces fleeting, intense, memorable. There is Pham's stepgrandfather Le, the fish-sauce baron of Phan Thiet, who claims his ancestors invented the condiment; his father, a POW of the Vietcong, who finally leads his family on a perilous boat journey to the land of their freedom; and his beloved sister, Chi, a post-operative transsexual who commits suicide. Pham deftly limns the lasting scars of the Vietnam War and the plight of a refugee family, to create a haunting portrait of Americaframed by the perspective of an outsider, a stranger straddling two continents. In Vietnam, he's taken for Japanese or Korean by his countrymen, except 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, of course, he's considered anything except 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 and a moving exploration of memory by a striking new voice in American letters.

About the Author

Andrew X. Pham was born in Vietnam in 1967 and moved to California with his family after the war. He lives in Portland, Oregon. This is his first book.

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