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CATFISH AND MANDALA by Andrew X. Pham

CATFISH AND MANDALA

A Two-Wheeled Journey Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam

By Andrew X. Pham

Pub Date: Oct. 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-374-11974-0
Publisher: Farrar, Straus and Giroux

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 dispiritedness—plus 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.