dmp: Taking a stroll in my finery (Default)
dmp ([personal profile] dmp) wrote2009-11-12 01:13 am
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Book Review: Andrew X. Pham's Catfish and Mandala

Inevitably, when I get into a conversation with someone about family and heritage, the question crops up: "Would you ever go back?"

It's funny, because how could I "go back" to a place I've never seen before? The standard answer would always be, "Oh, someday, I plan to." A simple, straightforward answer. One more drop in The Bucket List of things to do before I die--own a home, master a foreign language, publish a book, visit Vietnam.

I know cousins, Vietnamese friends, and non-Vietnamese friends who have gone over (To some, an annual pilgrimage to keep in touch with relatives left behind; to others, a somewhat-taboo-and-thus-interesting vacation spot; I even had one Chinese-American friend study abroad there when her original plans for Europe didn't work out). I know it's possible. But my family have never made the attempt. We are lucky, I was told, to be able to leave with our entire immediate families intact, so who is there to visit? It was expensive to book such a long journey for my family of six. None of us kids were interested anyway.

But that was exactly why I picked up Andrew x. Pham's Catfish and Mandala--for despite my parents' apparent disinterest, I always received the impression that "going back" was unthinkable. My father has always been a very stubborn man, who was never open to setting foot in the country he was kicked out of. And according to my mom when asked years ago: "Nothing will be same, so there's no reason. It is not like you'll be able to fit in again." For years, a psychological wall had been erected between myself and my family and our cultural homeland; if we go back, we'll be arrested, shunned, refused--or worst of all, disappointed.

Pham went back, and, settling in my traveler's armchair , I wanted to "test the waters" of visiting using his shoes. Or rather, his wheels.

That said, Pham's story echoed in a lot of places for me: his personal story growing up as a Viet-kieu (overseas Vietnamese) in America, his ambivalent feelings toward his bi-cultural identity and how people project their ambivalent feelings about the Vietnam War upon him, the moments of self-hatred or hatred toward his heritage, alongside moments of cultural grace and wonder. He returned for many reasons: to reconcile his past, to help relieve the pain he felt upon his estranged "sister" Chi's suicide (the quotes I'll explain later).

For a year, he took a bike journey up the Pacific Northwest, down the coast of Japan and finally, to Vietnam in a physical parallel to his metaphorical search for answers. A smooth blend of travelogue and memoir, Pham weaves in tales of his family's escape and settlement in America with uphill mountain treks on a 200-lbs bike; the reunion with various family members and passing friends of various nationalities he makes on the road; his own complicated family history of struggle and abuse with the harsh realities that the poverty-stricken Vietnamese people today face. He has a very negative slant toward his experience in Vietnam: he gets shunned and mocked by villagers, extorted by officials, and even attacked a couple of times by disgruntled men once they find out that he's Viet-kieu (a repeated theme I find fascinating--and a little unnerving--is how eager Vietnamese approach him because they think he's a Korean or Japanese tourist, but how quick they change when he speaks Vietnamese to them. And once, he tried, unsuccessfully, to pass off as Korean businessman to prevent a fight).

The answers that he finds aren't ones that can fit into a fortune cookie or at the tail-end of a Lifetime movie. He finds peace, but it sounds almost like a selfish peace when he's surrounded by so much misery that he refused to assist. But I found it very true and sad to see again and again, the levels of privilege that play out in his actions. He befriends a girl in one village, but backs off when she asks for a marriage of convenience so she can get a green card. On the other hand, he chases a little beggar girl across several blocks and gives her his entire wallet. Numerous times, the natives he meets hold a level of admiration and resentment toward him.

One aspect that is weak in the book is Pham's explanation of Chi's story. Besides his bewilderment and guilt over Chi's suicide, he struggles to connect with her and her situation: that as a transgendered teen. And, the final truth behind his "sister" -- the fact that Chi became a runaway because her parents didn't accept her trans identity, but who eventually transitioned to a man named Minh by the time he committed suicide -- is something I felt was never completely understood by Pham. This, of course, reveals the limit of Pham's own personal revelations, but it's sad as well, that, though the memory of Chi had been the emotional drive throughout the book, Chi's story never gets the light it deserves. Pham can find peace only through the memory of "her", but not the reality of "him."

Nevertheless, Pham juggles so many issues and histories with great skill and his introspection make this an absorbing and contemplative read.

(Anonymous) 2009-11-23 10:06 pm (UTC)(link)
It would be easier if I got e-mail alerts, letting me know you'd responded...

Anyway, I'm about a third of the way into the book. I'm finding it a little tough going, mainly because -- did you get the sense, reading it, that he just absolutely hates himself? He's ashamed of everything he does, he's ashamed of how he acted towards Chi -- and all I would know about Chi at this point is that she ran away and died mysteriously at his house -- and he is very obviously ashamed of the people he meets, their deference to Westerners, his wish to be Western...or at least, not like them.

It's just really difficult, living in his head. But I get it, because I've been there. Going to Israel -- while it's not the same as "the place where my parents are from", or "where I lived, not long ago," but more of an ancestral homeland -- it's just so different from what you expect. Beautiful, and wonderful, and alarming, and terrible, and different.

And then again, I have to wonder -- is it uniquely American to have this strong immigrant experience? Do immigrants to other English-speaking lands, for example, share the same sort of sensation of "this is not my true homeland"? Do they have the urge to start odysseys?