the transition generation — “catfish and mandala: a two-wheeled voyage through the landscape and memory of vietnam” by andrew x. pham

The country of Vietnam, where I was born, had been under Chinese domination for over a thousand years, followed by the French for over a hundred more. The communists in northern Vietnam prevailed over the French and sought to unify the country under their rule. The United States, repugned by the spread of communism in Southeast Asia, came to South Vietnam’s aid to ward off the enemy. It was a long and bitter war with heavy casualties on all sides which dragged on endlessly until America, worn down by its fruitless efforts, declared defeat and withdrew its troops.

When Saigon fell on April 30th, 1975, only the victorious Communists rejoiced. For everyone else it was the beginning of a nightmare of poverty, displacement, exile. People fled by any means they could — air, sea, road — leaving everything behind to escape from a future of nothingness under communist rule.

I was 10 years old when all this happened. I often think about it when the month of April rolls around. It was a tumultuous time, an upheaval for our family that changed our destinies forever. But in the end, I always thought that we made it through all right — our family is together, everyone is now happy, healthy, and settled in the United States. But the events that led to where we are today are memories that I push to the back of my consciousness.

When friends ask me about those years in my life, I skirt the subject or gloss over it. It’s not that I find it difficult to talk about, it is just that I don’t have the adequate words to articulate it. So instead I tell them to read “Catfish and Mandala” by Andrew Pham.

Pham is about my age, and his family left Vietnam on a rickety boat that almost sank at sea. They settled in Northern California, and he went on to become a technical writer and editor. When he was in his 30’s, roughly about 20 years after the diaspora, he decided to go back to Vietnam for a pilgrimage across the country on his bicycle. The book he wrote is about that journey, as well as the journey of cultural adjustment to life in the U.S., of going from being Vietnamese to being Vietnamese-American. He describes how it feels to have one foot in the new country and the other hopelessly stuck in the old.

Pham’s narrative is told with flashbacks of his childhood and adolescence. As he pedals through his voyage, he recounts sights, smells, tastes that are at once familiar and forgotten. The customs, traditions, culture. It’s a travelogue of sorts, albeit a sentimental one. He goes to visit his father’s hometown, then his mother’s. He sees old things with new eyes as an adult who is now also a foreigner. The locals call people like him “Viet Kieu” to designate the foreign Vietnamese — i. e. those who were fortunate to have left and then returned.

At various stages of his journey, he evokes memories of his past. Pham is candid about the struggles he faced growing up in the Bay Area, learning English, fighting off bullies, and attempting to assimilate into the mainstream. If it was rough going for him as a child, it was much more difficult for his parents who did not possess the mental and intellectual agility of youth. And since theirs was an above average dysfunctional family, their integration in a new country and culture was fraught with violence and casualty. But the ongoing challenge, however, is finding inner peace while knowing that his true home doesn’t really “belong” anywhere — not in Vietnam any longer, and never quite fully in the U. S.

I smile at her from my anonymity, refusing to answer in our common tongue. I don’t want her to leave. I don’t want to disappoint her with my commonality, to remind her of our shared history. So I let her interpret my half-truths. At this I am good, for I am a mover of betweens. I slip among classifications like water in cupped palms, leaving bits of myself behind. I am quick and deft, for there is no greater fear than the fear of being caught wanting to belong. I am a chameleon. And the best chameleon has no center, no truer sense of self than what he is in the instant.

At times Pham falls  into platitudes and self-pity. But I can indulge him because he made a valiant effort to express that seed of discomfort in his search for identity as a naturalized American — and concludes that in becoming “Vietnamese-American,” he is really neither one nor the other.


And perhaps that is one of the reasons why I am sometimes happier being lost in France.


Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam
by Andrew X. Pham
352 pages

where it all started out

vietnam, circa 1960


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