I’d been wanting to read Catfish and Mandala: A Vietnamese Odyssey for several years now, so when I saw a used copy in a Kathmandu bookstore, I immediately snatched it up. I have not found many pieces of travel literature that focus on Vietnam and lately I’ve been especially interested in learning and reading about the Vietnam War, the country’s particular brand of communism and the economic changes that are rapidly taking place from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.
Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham served as a spectacular base and jumping off point for further research and learning about the Vietnam War. This book was the perfect place to begin my quest to truly understand this time period in Vietnam. Catfish and Mandala is Pham’s story about his deeply personal journey from his home California back to his birthplace in Vietnam. Pham was a child of the Vietnam War and his parents fled the country when he was around 6 years old. With a bicycle and a vague idea that returning to Vietnam after several decades as an immigrant in the United States would clear up some of the conflict that the uprooting created within his family, Pham departs from California with very little money and very few plans, expect that he wanted to bike ride from Saigon to Hanoi and visit his birthplace in between.
When I began Catfish and Mandala I thought the majority of the book would be dedicated to Pham’s actual bicycle journey in Vietnam. In reality, while the trip makes up a central role in the plot, the real meat of the book intertwines Pham’s troubled recent family history, told from both his point of view and from the point of view of his parents, who sacrificed a great deal for their children to get them safely out of Vietnam to a new life in America.
Catfish and Mandala is an important read for several reasons. First, it offers a very personal back story about the Vietnam War that I feel, especially as an American, I have heard very little about. I think it is important to understand wars and conflict on a larger scale, but to truly get a sense of what was going on in the country at that time, one must understand what was happening on a micro level, with specific people and individual family units. I had a similar feeling about First They Killed My Father by Loung Ung, which is about the Khmer Rouge genocide in the mid to late 70s.
The second reason I think this is am important read, especially for Americans, is that it wonderfully illustrates the trials and tribulations of immigrants in the United States. Through Pham’s storytelling, we come to understand the economic and emotional strains that immigrant families experience in the United States. The reality for the Phams is, as often seems to be, quite different from what they dream America would be like while in Vietnam. This is often a sentiment I cannot really explain accurately when speaking with Nepalis who view the U.S. as some sort of bastion of hope and perfection, somewhere that if they can possibly move to, will be the solution to all their problems. In reality, many Nepalis and other immigrants who end up in the U.S. after much dreaming, work low-paying, low-skill jobs that many Americans do not want to do themselves. They are also isolated from their family and the tight-knit support system of their home country (for a further look into this issue, The Inheritance of Loss by Kiran Desai is a great read). While many of the issues I hear about regarding immigrants to the U.S. deal with people who come illegally from Mexico, I think it would behoove Americans to read Catfish and Mandala to get a deeper understanding about the realities of an immigrant family in U.S.
I highly recommend Catfish and Mandala for those interested in both a broad and a personal history of the Vietnam War years. Pham’s words are carefully crafted and his story is poignant. This is an important book that puts into perspective recent Vietnamese history, as well as challenges faced by immigrant families in the U.S. Pham’s epic bicycle journey through Vietnam, of course, adds great adventure and texture to the book, which in the end, weaves together history, travel narrative and family lineage tales from abroad.