Catfish and Mandala

by Andrew X. Pham

I joined a book club through the Asian Pacific Islander Wellness Center (, and the latest book we read was Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam by Andrew X. Pham. It was essentially a travel memoir through Vietnam written by a Vietnamese refugee.

I thought it was beautifully written; each passage was like reading poetry. Each page transported me to the author’s harrowing scenes. Moreover, it was exciting to read a book ABOUT an Asian country by an Asian American author. Lots of books out there talk about the white person’s perspective on visiting Asia, but it’s really rare to read a book that is so authentic about Asia.

Even though most of the book was set in Vietnam, I could easily envision lots of the scenes happening in the Philippines or even Thailand — especially the rampant corruption and poverty. But aside from the gorgeously written narrative on the country, the string that went throughout the entire book was the author’s internal struggle and journey from growing up in war-torn Vietnam to growing up as an outcast in hostile inner city America.

Through it all, I recognized my own American journey and learned to appreciate it a little bit more. I was never a refugee, and I thank the Lord for making my passage to America a lot less scarring (you’d understand if you read the book or know anything about the refugees/boat people who risked their lives to come to America). But I did recognize and see a little bit more of my family’s struggles in this book, and for that I really appreciated it.

Here is a choice excerpt:

… 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.

No guilt. I realizesuddenly, looking into her joy-gushing face. We stand on separate islands, nothing between us except our designs. And the perfection of our intention is enough.

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