Recently I finished a book titled Catfish and Mandala by Andrew Pham. The basic premise of the novel is of a Vietnamese American man who was born in Vietnam, but later moved to the United States as a young boy as a war refugee with his family. In a journey of self-discovery, he bikes up the Seattle from San Jose, CA and afterward he takes a boat to Japan. Finally after leaving the island nation he arrives at his destination of Vietnam the place he had to flee as a child because of the war.
This novel is very personal which surprised me because he details not only his journey biking through Vietnam but also his journey of surviving in the states. He has to deal with the personal issues of being trapped between the land of his birth, and his adoptive nation. In America, the people are quick to remind him of his English accent, and his ethnic background. He must endure the racist ideology that because he is not white or black he is not American. It was this struggle of identity and his family trauma that forced him to quit his career, and leave to Asia. Yet when he arrived at the place of his birth he saw the scars of a nation that was once was at war. He saw the corruption in the streets, the prostitution at night, and the animosity towards the Việt Kiều (Vietnamese who live aboard). The author came across many war veterans and tourists who sought to understand this historic country. As he continued his travels he had a hard time understanding what made Vietnam so special. He began to understand the local people a lot more as his time there prolonged. The hatred towards him was not because he was American, but because they were jealous. That they were getting closer to the white man, to culture, education, and a way of life that was beyond daily drinking, and vice.
At the end he recognizes that he is Vietnamese, and comes to terms with his ancestry, and the war that forced him to leave his original home. Yet he realizes that through all the pain, and sacrifice he has a new home and it isn’t as bad as he thought it was and as more immigrants come in the coming decades he should offer a welcoming hand. The issues and anxieties he faces are going to be the same ones that others will face when they travel to America.
This novel is what I consider a light read. It flows fairly well, and it’s really not that long in length. I wouldn’t recommend it per say, but it does have it’s placed. If you’re an immigrant or your family has ancestry whom are non-Caucasian I do recommend this book because many of the themes are universal towards the immigrant story. The other value I find with this novel is that you get a fairly decent insight into the country that is Vietnam. Granted the novel is a bit dated being written in the 1990’s and much has changed I presume, but you learn simple facts such as the national icon of the nation being a prostitute and other small details. These types of details can give you an insight that can’t easily be found in a history book.
I came across this book because I had previously read The Woman Warrior which is a novel with similar themes, but in a different writing style. I don’t usually come across too many Asian-American literature novels that specifically deal with the immigrant experience The Joy Luck Club is most probably the most famous in recent decades but beyond that novel there isn’t many with the same type of exposure. So I decided to give the novel a shot, and I don’t regret it.