Catfish And Mandala Summary

Andrew X. Pham

Catfish And Mandala

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Catfish And Mandala Summary

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Catfish and Mandala is the 1999 nonfiction debut by Andrew X. Pham. Pham grew up in California but was born in Vietnam. The book tells of a journey that Pham undertook following his sister’s death by suicide. The author leaves his job and starts a year-long bicycle trip in which he seeks to discover his cultural identity: he begins in the United States before travelling to Japan, and eventually reaching Saigon.

Andrew begins his journey in San Francisco, near the Golden Gate Bridge. He encounters other travelers as he cycles north on the Pacific coast. He finds out too late that it would have been easier to travel south because of the terrain in Washington and Oregon. The United States section of his trip ends in Seattle. After several weeks, he attempts to arrange passage to Japan by boat but is unable to and flies to Tokyo instead, where he stays for forty-five days before going to Vietnam. While in Japan, he travels from Tokyo to Kyoto and back. He describes the pollution he observes in the metropolitan parts of Japan, “The sun sets in apocalyptic colors as though the air itself is burning.” After experiencing a huge storm, and having covered more than twenty-three hundred miles by bike, Andrew embarks on the next leg of his journey, heading for Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in South Vietnam.

While on the plane to Ho Chi Minh City, Andrew converses with an older Vietnamese man. The man asks him about his family. Andrew senses that the man views him as one of the many young Vietnamese people who grew up in America and who, as a result, are struggling with their identities. Meanwhile, Andrew’s bike has been damaged while passing through customs at the airport. Andrew is met at the airport by some distant relatives who invite him to stay with them. He has not seen these people in about twenty years but remembers playing with some of the men when they were children. Three relatives, Viet, Hung, and Khuong, show Andrew around and partake in activities including motorcycle rides and cobra heart shots.

Andrew’s former home has been turned into a health clinic and he feels like a stranger in his native land.  He muses over what he has found, writing, “Too many things changed. Too much time passed. I’m different now, a man with a pocketful of unconnected but terribly vivid memories. I was looking to dredge up what I’d long forgotten.” As he spends more time in Vietnam, his trip becomes more and more about figuring out who he is and where he is from. He wonders if the city he has found on his return to Vietnam will in some way erase the idealized memories of Saigon he holds from his childhood there. An encounter with a young child who is begging in the streets has an emotional effect on him. He feels lost and wonders why he was prompted to give the child money. In his mind, he tries to determine if she looks like someone he once knew, or if this is now what he must do in order to empathize with other Vietnamese people. He fears that, if that is the case, he is just a bad as the people who look down on him in America.

Andrew spends two months with his relatives in Saigon, after which he rides north towards Hanoi. Along the way he discovers that the Vietnamese people he meets look down on him for being Vietnamese American, and have no interest in talking to him, as they do not consider him to be a real foreigner. He meets a woman named Vung Tau with whom he has a brief romance, but this ends when she learns that he is not interested in marriage. Further along the way, he visits the site of the Minh Luong Prison where, at one time, his father was interred in a Vietcong reeducation camp during the Vietnam War. He finds that the prison no longer exists, having been replaced by a village. The driver who has taken Andrew on this part of the trip tells him to forget about finding his past. He tells him everything has changed and his roots are no longer there. Eventually Andrew arrives in Hanoi, the city of his father, and views the city with other tourists. Overall, what began as a journey to discover his roots, becomes a lesson on the human condition. The things he found changed his outlook on life. He explains that, “our truths change with time. There is nothing else. No mitigating circumstances and no power to undo the sins. No was. Only is. Between us there is but a thin line of intention.”

Publishers Weekly says of Catfish and Mandala, “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.”