Really, we’d had luck with the weather during our stay in Vietnam. After hours of schlepping ourselves through a miserable drizzle among the ruins of the Emperor’s palace, my friend, Zita, spoke from under her hood: “I forgot that there must be a reason why this country is so green; it rains a lot.” Then we slogged on through the slick streets of Hue in search of some chow and a cup of hot, rich Vietnamese coffee with sweet condensed milk.
Upon our return home, I sent her the following excerpt from Catfish and Mandala because it so perfectly captured our day in that city:
“The sky is overcast and the city smells wet and moldy. A sprawl of one- and two- story buildings, ancient Hue seems natural in its state of eternal dreariness… The buildings are crumbly, block after block of moss-furred cement and rained-out plaster. The weather wearing them out more quickly than the dwellers can repair them.”
I love this about good travel writing: it takes you (back) – more intensely than any picture can – to the sounds, smells, and atmosphere of Place. Andrew X. Pham brings Vietnam close, lays it in the palm of your hands, and then lets it fly; he lets you see the gritty and mundane of the streets, yet is constantly seeking transcendence in either lyricism:
I could hear chopsticks rattling in her head, calculating, gauging the omens, scheming”
or the human spirit:
“This time my tears made my relatives ashamed for me. Yet, in this alley-world of theirs where there was no space, no privacy, they gave me both. My aunt said to her son, ‘He got dust in his eyes. Its painful. Nghia, go upstairs and fetch him the bottle of eye-drops.’”
He’s humorously honest when describing his experiences on the road:
“I lay down in two layers of clothes, my head on a jacket, and listened to the couple in the next room ‘thrashing rice stalks.’ I could smell her sugary perfume. The dividing wall fell a foot short of the ceiling and air passed back and forth like breaths between mouths of lovers. I squashed an urge to stand on a chair and have a peek.”
And heart-stoppingly veracious about his mixed feelings regarding his Vietnamese heritage. It’s the rampant poverty, the struggle to survive, that moves Pham to write:
“In this Vietnamese muck, I am too American. Too refined, too removed from my que, my birth village. The sight of my roots repulses me. And this shames me deeply.”
In Catfish and Mandala, Pham bikes across Vietnam searching for equilibrium, for his center, as he grapples with his identity as a Vietnamese-American. The reader, happily, profits from his duality, as Pham takes on the role of translator. He speaks with raucous relatives in Saigon (locals don’t call it Ho Chi Minh City), a charming barefooted fifteen-year-old girl selling rice dumplings on the street, a scraggly bunch of blind passengers on the train from Saigon to Hanoi, a former history professor turned motorbike taxi driver blacklisted by the government for having associated with Americans during the war, and an old peasant farmer who invites Pham to stay the night and shares a homemade dish of clay-pot catfish with him. By translating and sharing these conversations with us, Pham provides insight into the lives of Vietnamese people that, as travelers, we can often only dumbly guess at.
As a Vietnamese American, Pham feels that he is a “mover of betweens,” that he “slip(s) among classification like water in cupped palms, leaving bits of myself behind.” (Oh how I can relate.) On the one hand he writes, “It appeals to me. Riding out my front door on a bicycle for the defining event of my life. It is so American, pioneering, courageous, romantic, self-indulgent.” Yet the adjective ‘self-indulgent,’ implies that he questions his whole endeavor. And even as he pursues this dream of his, the words that a good Vietnamese friend and mentor once spoke to him still reverberate in his mind: “’Your sister Chi – too selfish, too into herself. She wants to be herself. That’s wrong. All wrong. To live a good life, you live for others, not for yourself. Your parents bring you into this world so you be what they want. What do you think: I plant a tree for shade. I water it. I put fertilizer in soil. I wait and I work hard for tree, but when tree is big, tree don’t give me shade. Maybe tree give me thorns. Is that good? What do you think?’”
In recurring episodes, Pham recounts his childhood in Vietnam and his family’s escape from the country after the ‘American War.’ He delves into the depths of family psychology and the effects both cultures have had on them, in particular his transgender sister and strict father. There are certain motifs that repeat throughout his life, just as certain motifs are repeated in a mandala. Again and again, Pham deals with the realities of being an outsider caught between wanting to belong and self-realization, the trauma of anger and violence, the struggle to survive and what it means to truly live. Similar to the act of drawing a mandala, the writing of this book seems to have had a therapeutic effect on Pham. And at the end he finds some peace, if not a center.