‘Catfish and Mandala’ by Andrew X. Pham

catfish

2001, 341p.

At first I thought that this was going to be yet another of those three-tiered family sagas much beloved by young Asian female writers (think Amy Tan et al) but this is far more about places, identity and memory than duty and relationships.  The author is a young American-Vietnamese engineer, who takes off on his pushbike to revisit childhood places that he has not seen since he and his family arrived in America as boat people.  There’s evocative descriptions of landscapes, places revisited, food eaten, the state of his bowels and the people he meets, but it’s more than this too.

He is not Vietnamese, but Viet-kieu (foreign Vietnamese), resented for making his escape and yet implored for financial assistance and sponsorship by so many people he meets.  Although his intention is to immerse himself in his childhood places and experiences, he is channelled into the more lucrative Western-tourist stream of travel and  accommodation products.  He knows that he is no longer ‘truly’ Vietnamese but he carries with him a deep consciousness that he is not American either: bullied in childhood and stereotyped in adulthood in an America which is itself conflicted over Vietnam, the Vietnamese and their own involvement in the Vietnam War.  He, too,  is deeply ambivalent over the people he meets in Vietnam.  He despises their greed, recoils from their living conditions, feels more at home amongst backpackers and is acutely conscious of the fate that has given him such a different life from what he could have had.

The book is told in three interwoven storylines: that of his parents before their escape; the boat trip to American, then their life in America first sponsored by a Baptist church in Louisana, then moving to California to a larger Vietnamese community.  It is his dead sister Chi who ties the three narratives together, and indeed her alienation and suicide is an unwitting metaphor for the journey in this poignant and insightful book.

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