Returning to and bicycling across Vietnam

In many ways quite horrifying, Catfish and Mandala is one of the most gripping and moving books I’ve ever read. The book has a number of narrative lines. The author, Andrew X. Pham, bored with his work as an aerospace engineer, sets off to bicycle parts of the Pacific Rim. He starts on the GoldenGate Bridge and goes up the US coast. He flies to Japan and bicycles out of Narita Airport. He flies to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), takes his bike on a train to Hanoi and bicycles back. The perils of these eccentric trips are interesting, but within the realm of travel writing. So is the self-deprecation for such crazy ventures. The book is unlikely to encourage visitors (especially Vietnamese American ones) to Vietnam. And I don’t think I’ll be able to eat catfish in Southeastern Asia again (much as I liked it in Chiang Mai) after reading his description of the exuberance catfish have for scarfing down  fresh human feces.

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That the trip shows “You can’t go home again,” because what is left there is unrecognizable&is a fairly standard a finding. The resentment by those who stayed for those who left is particularly acute in Vietnam, but this is a difference of degree, not of kind from other places from which people have left.

 
What makes this book exceptional is the juxtaposition of Pham’s reflections on his late-1990s bicycling around Vietnam with his memories of fleeing Vietnam in 1977, when he was 10 years of age. An Indonesian ship rescued his family just before their boat sank. They spent a long time in a refugee camp in Indonesia, an almost as disorienting a time sponsored by a church congregation in the American South, and more hard time struggling in San José, California. The family member who did not survive is an older sister who changed sexes in America. But in some sense, the survivors are also casualties, despite some material success.
Pham is obviously very resilient, both physically and emotionally and makes something of great value from painful personal history and difficult travel. He is harder on himself than on anyone else. He has great compassion for the Vietnamese he meets in Vietnam and for his elders among West Coast Vietnamese-Americans. It seems to me that Pham’s journey into the multiple traumas of his family’s experience yields insights of universal significance. His journey across space also provides considerable insight into the modern phenomena of dislocation: able to travel, but nowhere at home, he is regarded as a crazy alien in Vietnam and America (and Japan)… and as Vietnamese by white Americans and as American by Vietnamese.
This beautifully written and painfully self-revealing book deservedly won the 1999 Kiriyama Pacific Rim Book Prize. It is certain to be one of the classics of diaspora literature. It is hard to imagine a reader who would not learn from the book, and I would not want to meet anyone who is not moved by its emotional force!

(I did not figure out where a mandala occurs in the text; perhaps the whirling bicycle wheels?)

 

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(book’s jacket author photo)

At a Different Light bookstore appearance, clad in standard writer black, Pham said he started writing in 1992, while still an aerospace engineer. His year of bicycle travel cost roughly $4000 (so the Kiriyama $50,000 prize could fund 12 years? He may be resilient, but not that resilient!) He never had any writing classes, just the belief that in America one can be what one wants to be (and he loves America and would fight for America). He acknowledged that healing by confession and introspection is very Western and his parents are very Eastern.

His gay brother Phu said that, although their father is very proud of his author (now winner of a lucrative and prestigious prize), he hasn’t spoken to Andrew since the book washed so much family laundry. In public Phu told him that he doesn’t have any friends anyway, so why should it matter to him(!).

[Pham’s website records: “If I knew then what I know now, I probably would have never written Catfish and Mandala. It brought my parents considerable pain and created a silence between us that lasted four years.” That was followed by collaboration on what became The Eaves of Heaven and translating Last Night I Dreamed of Peace: The Diaries of Dr. Thuy Tram]

He also said that their mother denied ever having in any way been a brothel keeper (a fairly opaque insinuation in Catfish and Mandala). (I asked Phu if he or any of the other siblings has been to Vietnam. He said no, that although he was interested in visiting, it wasn’t at the top of his list of places to go.)

Andrew said that his two gay brothers had stable relationships and careers, while he and his other straight brother have managed neither.

©1999, 2017, Stephen O. Murray

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