EPS Review #159 - Catfish and Mandala

Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam, by Andrew X. Pham, Flamingo, 2000, 344pp.

I would have been happy enough with a travelogue of some affluent Westerner cycling from Saigon to Hanoi, but to read one by an immigrant boat-person is even better. Andrew Pham went to school in rough parts of California, studied Engineering like a good first-son, but threw it over to do some writing and make long cycle rides where he met Viet Nam vets who poured out their conflicting feelings to him. Finally he decides to go back to the old country to see the locations and relatives of his childhood.

Pham judges Viet Nam harshly as a tourist destination. Most of the sights have been destroyed and are infested with predatory tour-guides. Only the Cu Chi tunnels are worth seeing: vast, crazy, cramped, and booby-trapped. Two locals look on at fat westerners wedging themselves through a hole, and speculate that butter is what bloats them up. To a native eye, the author looks foreign, perhaps Japanese. As a result, he gets into scrapes, and narrowly avoids being beat up by peasants or abused by the police. It is no easier to be recognised as an emigrant, an object of envy and resentment, who can understand what is said about himself.

Throughout, we get flashbacks to Pham's earlier life. The escape by boat is close and exciting. His description of his father in a death camp (they released him before discovering that he had been a propaganda officer) finds echoes in the Indonesian refugee internment camp. There is a wrenching description of a jade polisher, friendly to Pham, who commits suicide in despair at never being accepted into a host country.

On the road, Pham is very sick a lot of the time. He wonders why he has lost resistance to former microbial friends. Cars and trucks often come close to running him over. One hits a dog instead, which is immediately dragged into a restaurant. An uncle had forced him to eat dog meat as a boy, then laughed that, having eaten it, Andrew must be reincarnated as a dog.

At a beach resort Pham spends time with a beautiful taxi dancer. Finally she suggests that they get married: he could grow to love her and meanwhile save her whole family. Why not? But he can't. He very often looks at scrawny hopeless young men and thinks how their places could easily have been swapped.

Along the way we learn more Pham family secrets involving suicide, sex and rebellion. There is a funny scene where, having been subsidised by Baptists, the immigrants make their first Thanksgiving turkey, which is undercooked and swimming in fish sauce. In the afterword Pham asks his relatives to forgive him writing the book.

Sometimes the writing has a youthful melodrama or sentimentality, but I felt that Pham had earned the right to write any way he likes. Maybe it isn't The Woman Warrior, but it is a pleasant change to read about the immigrant experience by a man.