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Catfish and Mandala
A two-wheeled voyage through the landscape and memory of Vietnam

Andrew X. Pham (Farrar, Straus and Giroux)

After Vietnam's "American War" ended, the victorious Viet Cong captured and imprisoned Andrew X. Pham and his family as they, along with scores of others, tried to escape south to Thailand. The soldiers released women and children a month later, but Pham's father remained imprisoned in a fetid South Vietnam death camp, where each night guards would announce a list of those condemned to die.

Mornings, his father told his eldest son years later, he'd scramble out to the latrine, wood planks built over a shallow pond. He could hear the catfish below fighting over what became breakfast. At the end of the day, the hard-worked prisoners were allotted a single bowl of rice and fish soup. "They fed the catfish at dawn and ate them at dusk," Pham writes. Then, as the internees awaited their fates, "the indigo light fell and silence crept in."

So concludes just one of Pham's evocative passages recounting his family's long journey--both physical and psychological--from South Vietnam to Northern California. The subtitle of this memoir is deceptive; one expects a glorified travelogue. But just as Pham cycles not only Vietnam but also, en route, the West Coast of America and Japan (nearly 3,800 km before he even sets foot in the country of his birth), he has also produced a rich memoir that moves well beyond the scope of personal history.

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Much of the book's charm comes from Pham's assured voice. It's unclear how his career as an aerospace engineer prepared him to write so vividly. He has a penchant for composing colorful verbs: "the strip of sky navying over," "tequila lamabadaed into his head," "a brown scarf bandited her face." And while Pham doesn't shy away from mining his recollections as a South Vietnamese boat refugee, he interweaves several contemporary plot threads to fill out his story, most notably his guilt over the suicide of his older sister, a postoperative transsexual.

The book is filled with telling anecdotes: the Cu Chi Tunnel soldiers who look at an overweight Western woman, unable to fit through the dug-out warrens, calculating the wealth of someone so fat. The teenage girl he meets on a train to Nha Trang who can't fathom the beauty Pham sees in the rice fields outside their window. The former professor discoursing about Vietnamese history as he gives tours around Hue, having been blacklisted from better work because of a past association with the Americans. To Pham these are Vietnamese who, but for the hand of fate, could very easily have switched places with him in life's lottery. Perhaps to do penance, he faithfully recounts their stories, kindnesses and biases--slips of conversation that speak volumes about Vietnam's often frenetic present and its war-scarred past.

Even Pham, who had fond memories of his childhood growing up in a South Vietnam village, is assaulted by the country's poverty. He's at once disgusted and impressed by its resilience. "My Saigon was a whore, a saint, an infanticidal maniac," he writes. "She sold her body to any taker, dreams of a better future, visions turned inward, eyes to the sky of the skyscrapers foreign to the land, away from the festering sores at her feet. The bastards in her belly--tainted by war, pardoned by need, obscured by time--clamored for food."

Though Pham sometimes veers dangerously into melodrama (there's another moment when he breaks down upon spying a beggar girl who reminds him of a past love), the sentiment is not misplaced. He feels the disconnect many immigrants confront upon returning "home": Where does one belong? Which place is home? Can one straddle both worlds? In America, Pham wryly notes, he's called a "Chink," a "Jap," a "gook"; in Vietnam, village kids think he is Russian.

Pham's sister Chi was a person thrice dislocated: once as an immigrant, twice as a transsexual, three times as a runaway. After finding brief happiness as a postoperative man wed to a Vietnamese-American woman, Chi commits suicide. It haunts Pham's trip. His family, long estranged from Chi, virtually ignores her death, terming it an accident. The one uncle who can talk about it declares that Chi died because she became "too American"--that is, too selfish. Yet in Chi's sad life lies the experience of a Viet kieu, of any immigrant: a constant search for self, a rootless wanderer looking to belong.

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