Critical Analysis of Catfish and Mandala Essay

Catfish and Mandala by Andrew X. Pham is one of the few books that has succeeded in telling the story of people that get dislocated from their roots, their home town and have to settle at a different place.  When the next generation like Andrew Pham tries to search for their identity they realize the dilemma that surrounds them.  The book tries to find the answers to the many questions that this generation faces.  It is true that anybody who relocates from his birth place to a different place, even within the same country have this phase where they don’t know which place to associate with that will form their identity.   

This semi-autobiography of the author is his exploration of his past as he travels through his home land, Vietnam, which also helps him in accepting his identity and hence provides the hope for a better future.  The reason that the writer needed to go on this journey was because his transsexual sister had committed suicide under the pressure of not being able to identify her existence.  This had triggered the author to look for his own identity.  So, he goes on a trip to his homeland Vietnam travelling through various places that had held meaning to him during his childhood.  He hopes to see the same Vietnam that he had left years ago, looking for his dear friend the one he trusted so much.  However, as he travels through the land he is confused and surprised to see the way things had changed.  This book is remarkable in the way Pham explains the changes, his feelings and the confusion of an out of place Vietnamese American.

The main theme that is easy to pick up from this book is that of the confusion that exists for the second generation of refugees.  “I tell them I’m Vietnamese American. They shriek, ‘Viet-kieu!’ It sounds like a disease. The news travels down the procession and the excitement subsides. Half of the group peels away, losing interest since I am not a real foreigner” (Pham, A. page no. 125).  I think the identity of a person is very important for him and the way a person’s identity is created through his nation, his name, his family and through people associated with him.  When a person has to move away from his nation, his family, his friends a part of his identity is lost.  Creating a new identity is not easy especially when the new place happens to be so different from where they come from.  This results in the constant dilemma that the writer also faces.

“In this Vietnamese much, 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” (Pham, A. page no. 183).

When people like the writer himself go back to their roots it is more of a displeasure to see that what they had left does not exist anymore.  The roots they can associate themselves with does not exist anymore.  This does not just further confuses them about their identity but forces them to rethink about their identity.  

“They smashed all the alley homes a long time ago.  New homes are built right against the back of all the street-front houses.  No more alley.  But what about the people who used to live there?  The Vo family?  Gone.  All gone….Come.  Meet the new people and some of the old ones who are still here.  I want to leave .  This place is empty.” (Pham A.  page no.  101).

Pham explains the feeling of seeing everything that should remind him of his roots and yet does not connect to him.  His words are a solace to all those who have gone through the same phase.  Seeing things change so drastically does leave the feeling of emptiness, it is difficult to accept the changes, even though had the person been in the same place he would have gone with the flow changing with the changes brought about.  But it’s different for somebody like the author whose memory holds a different picture not allowing the person to accept a different picture.  It is just not easy to easily accept the change.

 “Too many things changed. Too much time passed. I’m different now, a man with a pocketful of unconnected but terribly vivid memories. I was looking to dredge up what I’d long forgotten. Most of all, I am wishing for something to fasten all these gems, maybe something to hold them in a continuity that I can comprehend” (Pham, A.  page no. 98).

His fear that his roots are completely changed is further affirmed when he visits Minh Luong Prison.  It was the prison where his father was jailed during the Vietnam war.  As he goes to visit the place his driver tells him,  “’Forget this place. Go see the world, … Everything has changed. Your roots have turned to dust. Nothing here to bind you’” (Pham, A.  page no. 161).  It certainly turns out to be that way, a village was established at the place where there once existed a prison.

However, despite going through the horror of being left without his roots, Pham sees this as a journey of his life learning valuable lessons from his meeting with various people.  In this lies his personal success and success of the book because he is able to confirm to his own belief and to the belief of various other immigrants that despite being uprooted and their dilemma about their identity, they can find their identity by believing in themselves.  It is accepting who they are that their true identity is established.

The writer learns somuch through his experience that at the end of the journey he is more calm and composed rather than being disappointed at what he has seen.  His last stop was Phan Tiet, the place where he was born.  “Phan Thiet, the town of my birth, the end of my journey, lies only a few hours’ ride away, but the marching drums that have driven me onward for a year now have abruptly quieted. An unexpected lull. The finish line seems unimportant, secondary, symbolic” (Pham, A.  page no. 337).

The writer concludes by saying that “For our truths change with time. There is nothing else. No mitigating circumstances and no power to undo the sins. No was. Only is. Between us, there is but a thin line of intention” (Pham, A.  page no. 339).  One should learn to accept the changes and should be comfortable in their skin, that’s where their true identity lies.

The book is a good read and succeeds in its purpose of explaining the aftermath of a war.  However, unlike most books written with the same theme this is an optimistic view that considers that changes always happen around us, and that it is one who accepts these changes and adapts according to them is the one who gains peace of mind.


Pham, A (2000.  Catfish and Mandala: A two-wheeled voyage through the landscape and memory of Vietnam.  Picador.