Friday, May 31, 2013

The Caning

Bamboo in Catfish and Mandala is a symbol that evokes repression and fear. Thong Pham uses the bamboo canes to discipline his children as well as show them his love. In turn An uses the canes to torment and discipline his younger brothers, until Hien comes at him with a knife in defense (238). It is not until this instance that An realized how violent he acts towards his brothers; he is glad Hien did this because it allowed An to learn to control his anger. An is fearful of his own strength and the abilities of his brothers to fight back. However, their father, a traditional Vietnamese father, may go overboard in his disciplining; for him discipline often becomes uncontrolled rage. For Chi, the bamboo is a symbol of repression. Her father tries to beat femininity into her because he does not know any other way to deal with abnormality of his child. However, his approach seems to backfire because she only becomes more and more masculine as the story and the beating progresses. In the end, Chi, now Minh, a transgendered male, uses these violent experiences to build a wall of security and form a defense mechanism towards the harshness of the world. However, this wall is only so strong. Minh breaks down after years of desperately trying to find acceptance and understanding from the ones he loves. After the rejection from his wife, Minh is unable to rebuild. Minh feels emasculated because he has never felt more comfortable in his body, yet at the same time his inability to reproduce tears he and his wife apart and shatters his world. 

By Devan

Tree of Saigon

This illustration is inspired by An's return to his home town of Phan Tiet, which begins on page 178 of the novel, continuing to page 183. I drew a tree to pull from the ghost tree that An describes, but also to show An's view of the city. This hope and nostalgia he holds is symbolized by a dying, withering tree, showing how An had a dream of a happy city like his memories, but these have been stunted and killed by reality.

The tree is then covered in memories, both old from An's childhood and some that are new from his return experiences. These things adorn the tree but do not necessarily grow on it, to show that An is caught between the forming of new memories and the dying of the old memories. The only exception to this is the coconuts on the floor, showing his memories of "the coconut groves" (178) have not remained as he once held them.

In the tree are things related to experiences and memories An recalls; from left to right: the tamarind pods that used to fall from the ghost tree, the monkey that is now chained to the dying star fruit tree, the red paper flowers An was once bullied amongst, a hammock like those that used to dot his city, the squatty huts and shacks that filled Phan Tiet, the star fruits that used to grow, a bicycle for the man who must bike scrap metal to feed his family, large buildings for the seemingly "urban" lifestyle that has spread into An's city, and a noose in part for the ghost tree and in part for Chi's suicide. Finally, while the coconuts rest on the ground in the grass, the roots of the tree remain suspended, symbolizing how An feels out of touch with his roots in Vietnam.

By Alex

The Row of Flowers

Hang Bong, the Row of Flowers, is the euphemistic name of the prostitution hub Andrew observes in Saigon. It is representative of the lingering effects of the American war, and shows that the reunification of Vietnam has not resulted in significantly increased quality of life. Women in Hang Bong are flowers--beautiful, but reduced to objects for sale, robbed of humanity. They are just another one of the many wares on offer in the streets of Saigon, being sold alongside snacks, goods for consumption. Foreigners are the ones who get the best women, which reflects the inferiority complex many Vietnamese feel when they compare their condition to the West. By comparing the women to flowers, the women are presented as delicate and fragile. This vulnerability makes their situation more tragic, as instead of being cultivated and nurtured, these flowers are picked and sold off to the highest bidder, no longer able to grow independent and free from outside forces. The garden of Vietnam has been uprooted and sold off.

By Gregory


Chi was doomed to be a failure to her family just by being herself.  Throughout much of her life and even in death, she was regarded as a failure particularly in the Vietnamese culture.  She had been born a biological girl, forced to take on women's roles while feeling trapped in a girl's body.  She would dress like a boy and was viewed by An as more of an older brother than an older sister.  Andrew Remarked that Chi had simply wanted to be male without reaping the benefits of being the eldest son, showing that she had no care for Vietnamese tradition and only wanted to pursue her own desire of being a boy.  She rebelled against her family, receiving many beatings from her father for her insubordination.  After her death, she had been described to be "too American."

Her suicide was seen as a failure by her family in different ways, depending on the family member.  Andrew believed that he had not been there enough for his sister, not having tried to really understand her.  His parents see failure in their inability to raise a proper daughter in housework, caring for the family and being obedient, a submissive woman who valued their culture and family more than herself.  However, she had embraced the American culture, allowing herself to be more free and open about herself and rebelling against her parents and her culture.  She had become "too American," which seems painfully ironic as they had all uprooted themselves from Vietnam to seek better lives in America, and yet she was unable to freely live her life like they had intended.

Gender roles aside, there did not seem to be anything particularly praiseworthy of Chi.  She was mostly left to herself, aside from changing the diapers of her baby sister.  Andrew even mentioned that their father never asked her questions about anything, whereas he and his brothers would be asked about their grades.  He did mention that Chi had inherited all the bad parts of their parents, such as their father's stubbornness, but it was not something that was praised.  The only praises she received was from Andrew, who described her as "handsome." 

By Grace


An's  depiction of the little girl carrying a baby in a shoulder sling was something that stood out in my mind vividly (Pham 106). I decided to sketch her the way my mind saw her. As I sketched her, I realized that the sketch was looking more and more like a portrait and it reminded me of the connection An made with an old photograph of his former girlfriend, Trieu. By sketching her into a portrait, I felt it signified the past--a window to remember--as the girl was a window to his memories. Her innocence represents all that An is trying to express to the reader: that war has defiled his innocence and those around him. Looking into the eyes of my sketch I see warmth, but I also see experience and hardship. Her simplicity and humility is heartbreaking; An feels the exact helplessness and vulnerability looking at her. 

By Julia 

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Chi: Cultural Separation and Connectedness

After Chi ran-away, at age sixteen, American language and values began to dominate Andrew's culturally hybrid identity. His dream manifested themselves in English and Vietnamese wasn't expected to be spoken within his household. Chi's Americanness, which can be seen in her individuality and bending of gender expectations, affected Andrew to the point that he too let his thoughts become preoccupied with own masculinity while trying to forget his Vietnamese roots. His journey to Vietnam is a journey about finding himself through understanding Chi. As his journey progresses so does his understanding of culture and his own self-actualization through his gender. Chi's absence, and later suicide, encouraged Andrew's American assimilation just as his understanding of her revived his cultural roots. For Andrew, Chi connects his dichotomized cultural identity.

At the top of my illustration I drew Chi as she leaves in the middle of the night. She is at the top and center of the drawing because she is central to Andrew's journey. She is the division between the Vietnamese culture and the American culture, however she is also the bridge between the two worlds for Andrew.

By Alexandra

Vietnamese, American or Both?

A rampant theme throughout Catfish and Mandala is Pham’s struggle to find his national identity. He is shown to see himself as an American misfit and failure while also seeing himself as the lost Vietnamese son. He constantly categorizes the people around him as Americans, Vietnamese, or Vietnamese-Americans. Page 64 describes a scene where the Vietnamese on the plane embarrass Pham and he tries to distance himself from them. He realizes that he cannot do this because by blood, he is one of them. As he was born in Vietnam but is an American citizen, Pham has an innate need to reconcile these two identities. Even when he returns to Vietnam, Pham does not fit in because of the time he has spent in America. In the United States, Pham has a hard time assimilating because of the cultural difference in the home he was raised in. Perhaps Pham should refrain from trying to define himself as either Vietnamese of American, but accept himself as a mixture of both. Human beings are more complicated than the place they call home; therefor defining oneself by national identity alone could never suffice to encompass an individual’s character.

By  Courtney

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

A Biker With No-name

In Catfish and Mandala Andrew X. Pham descries his relationship with a homeless boy named, by the tourist, No-name on his biking trip across Vietnam. The relationship develops very quickly and they become close friends both dreading the other's departure. No-name and Andrew are both stuck with people that don't understand them. No-name, because f his inability to speak, is unable to communicate with others and becomes an outcast in his country, Vietnam, and his people. His inability to speak also causes him to develop a special relationship with the tourists as they favor him other other kids This causes the other beggars of Hanoi abuse him and refuse to relate to him. Andrew on the other hand is able to speak the language in both his home country, Vietnam, and his home, U.S.A., but he is segregated in both countries because of his accent and appearance. In America Andrew speaks English with a Vietnamese accent which prevents him from fully assimilating to the country. While in Vietnam he speaks with an American accent which combined with his foreigner look labels him as a Viet-kieu and separates him from the locals. In both cases language causes a separation between the person and their fellow peers. No-name's inability to speak causes him to be an outcast just like Andrew's accent leads to him becoming an outcast in both of his countries.

An important part of being an outcast is the removal of the thing that makes people significant, the name. In the case of No-name his separation from his culture is apparent in the fact that he does not receive an actual name. Instead he is labeled as No-name by the tourists he encounters. A degrading and insignificant label causes the boy to be separated from society. Andrew, too, has a birth name yet people refuse to call him by that name instead choosing to lower him to a label. In Vietnam he loses his name and becomes Viet-kieu. Andrew is fit into a label that Vietnamese locals refuse to change even when he attempts to demonstrate that he is Vietnamese and shares a love for the country. The same circumstance takes place in America where his is labeled such things as Asian and Vietnamese instead of his birth name. In his home he becomes a No-name, putting his naming rights in the hands of other people which refuse to accept that he is more than a label.

In different countries but in similar ways the story of No-name and Andrew are paralleled.  The history of being outcast leads them to develop a close and intimate relationship which Andrew is unable to have with anyone else. The relationship is based on their mutual understanding of each others pain and struggles without having to tell their own stories. No-name is Andrew just like Andrew is No-name, people without proper names in society.

By Oscar


Needless to say, I have drawn a very grim looking catfish on a bicycle.

Catfish is a staple food in the Vietnamese diet, and it is reflective to some degree of the identity ascribed to An by the meals he eats while in Saigon: that of the Viet-kieu. To supersede, the image is linked to the "magic pot" of catfish given to An by his mother in times of great uncertainty, and it seems noteworthy that in Vietnamese culture the catfish is symbolic of sustenance and the capacity to survive. In the memoir itself, while the catfish signifies the preceding, it also represents transformation. The catfish swims along murky floors and nourishes itself upon the excrement of people, much in the same way Andrew moves along the grime and poverty of Vietnam, ingesting it (both physically and mentally) and transforming it within himself. There are several ironic facets of the illustration. The roots sprouting from the tires allude to An's feelings of rootlessness. It seems ill-fitting then that they be attached to this vessel of freedom, but that is the point, and each tire represents Vietnam and America respectively. The catfish is also cycling upon water, and he appears malaise because he has begun to realize this: that no matter how vigorously he pedals, he cannot escape that ocean of memory, nor the weight of Vietnamese diaspora.

By Eric

The Second Son

In Andrew Pham's Catfish and Mandala, An is disconnected from his Vietnamese culture, but also from his position in the Pham family. Though he is the eldest male, his sister Chi takes the masculine first born role that is supposed to be his. On page 189, he explains that he has the privileges of the first born son, but he felt they should have been hers. He even states that he viewed her as an older brother. Before the family moves to America, Chi already relates more with her masculine side, which she proves to An by showing she can pee just like a man (216). When the Pham family arrives in America, Chi continues with her responsible role by helping the family. She takes care of their youngest sibling at the beach, accepts the beatings of their father, and even runs away to protect the family when he is prosecuted. Chi makes the majority of the sacrifices for the family, which is what the eldest son should do out of filial piety. Instead, An claims he was a "street urchin" and does not assume any greater responsibilities in the family. After Chi commits suicide, he is still unable to take his proper place. He even leaves his family to take a bike trip to Vietnam, which is not what the eldest son should do. Vietnamese culture expects the eldest son to take care of the parents as they age. By leaving his family to travel and question his own cultural identity, he is placing himself before his family obligations. Even when he is in Vietnam, his masculinity is constantly questioned. On page 212, he writes about how the men he meets on the train laugh at his frailty, "like they always do". An's journey to Vietnam is not only to rediscover his culture, but also to test his masculinity and help him find his position in his family.

By Stacy

Washing Hands

What does it mean to pursue a culture?  What does it mean to become ingrained with it? Pham uses very physical language to describe the quality of being American and the quality of being Vietnamese. In Catfish, cultural belonging is something that characters can tell with their senses. For instance, Pham mentions the strong scent of fishsauce repeatedly. On page 260, where a gang has decided he is a Viet-kieu, Pham smells under his armpit and declares he his “pure, undiluted fishsauce” --this echoes the scene on page 63 where a guy at the airport calls him the same thing. In Vietnam, Pham has a difficult time escaping his status as Viet-kieu, as if he is marked with this “American” quality that the Vietnamese citizens can sense; mostly through sight, because of his bike and his glasses.
In this picture I contrast the scene where Pham uses smell to describe his roots and the mention of the family’s baptism, which neatly fits into the theme of identity being something that can be sensed. This contrast also fits with the contrast between Pham’s effort to find his roots in Vietnam and Minh’s effort to find himself in the more individual-centered America. On page 184, Pham recounts that Old Pham said that Minh became ‘too American.’ There are two pumps in the picture for both Pham and Minh to ‘wash their hands’, a metaphor for pursuing a new cultural identity, with two different solutions which represent the two identities. There’s one pump filled with fishsauce, for Pham’s effort to return to his roots, and one American flag-patterned pump for soap, which symbolizes not only Minh’s rejection of Vietnam’s gender expectations, but his baptismal fresh start as a male. 

By Casey

The Padded Soles of Memory

For Andrew, guilt as a survivor exists on a cultural level as Viet Kieu and on a personal level, as the brother of Chi. He cannot resolve one issue without confronting the other. He finds, as his empathy for the Vietnamese people grows, so does his willingness to explore his memories of Chi.

Following his confrontation and deliverance from the mob at the Ham Tan inn, Andrew’s outlook undergoes a transformation. The market bound peasants appear, to his eyes, as almost romantically wholesome. He feels compelled to share rather than denigrate. Even as he compares the swarming children to an “infestation of locust” he thinks of their hunger and wonders if food can be found (179). The manner in which he describes the cycling scrap-metal collector who has “fathered a child” and sacrificed to “support his family” reveals in Andrew a growing realization of the persistent dignity behind the poverty (179).  The mechanic who occupies his childhood home shows him plainly the drastic effect of circumstance, something which he had previously taken for granted. Faced with this truth, he consciously acknowledges both his guilt and his luck (181).

Ironically, Andrew’s description of life on Locke Drive comes across (at least for the brothers) as idealized and somehow adventurous. He uses positive descriptors like “colossal” and “treasure land.” “It wasn’t,” he says “as bad as it looked.” He and his brothers, “reveled in the family’s poverty” (190). Likewise, the neighborhood mercantilism which Andrew finds so distasteful in Saigon, he remembers as “serious business” and “industrious” on Locke Drive (191).

At first it seems that time and perspective have tempered Andrew’s recollections, that perhaps life was not, as he says, that bad. But, when he uses only three words; “he caned her,” to describe his father’s last beating of Chi, it becomes apparent that although he has started a process of self-examination, he still hedges and holds back; he qualifies with “somehow” and “as if” (215). In Andrew’s eyes, Chi still remains the object and the source of shame.

By Brian

Differences Among Generations

Generational differences are often a lot to deal with. Adding a cultural difference can lead to extreme hatred. In the Vietnamese culture, boys are praised while girls are thought of as inconveniences. On page 189, Andrew says, “But I [Andrew] don’t think that’s why Chi wanted to be a boy. She was just never meant to be a girl.” Chi, although born in Vietnam, became Americanized when they immigrated to America. It is uncertain whether or not she had the gender struggle in Vietnam, but in America it was the main force in her life. Because her father still thought of himself as Vietnamese, in his eyes, it is acceptable to beat your children if they disobey you or your ideals; however, in America, beating of a child is not acceptable and is in fact illegal. Chi’s father beats her when he finds out that she is wrapping her chest and that leads to his arrest. Had he been more inviting of the American culture, he might have been able to learn other ways to cope with his disagreements with his daughter. For example, he could have talked to her with words instead of with his fists. However, no matter how he had discussed it with her, he should have been able to realize that it is her life and she can do whatever she chooses to do with her life, even if her father disagrees with it. 

By Brittany 

An Experiences A New Saigon

As An begins to see the current state of his hometown, he is surprised by the changes he sees and shocked by the poverty and corruption. He remembers Saigon from his childhood, but that Saigon is long gone. Even 20 years after the end of the war, remnants of its horror live on throughout the city. Even the younger generations have become victims of the war. The streets are riddled with beggars and one particular beggar girl causes pain and grief to surface in An. The beggar girl makes An question how different his life could have been for him and his family had they not fled Vietnam when they did. This beggar girl represents those possibilities because An feels that could easily have been him or his sister Chi, begging on the streets in order to survive.

Viet on the other hand seems annoyed with the beggar girl and sends her on her way. Viet has experienced a desensitization in a sense because experiencing this is nothing new to him. He was An’s age when the city fell and he has seen the effects of war throughout the years that An missed by coming to America. Viet is unaffected by the poverty and feels in no way that he owes these beggars anything. Viet himself is a victim of war because he has experienced hardships, but not to the extreme of the beggars. An on the other hand is deeply affected and runs after the beggar girl to give all the money he had. Even he is confused by these emotions and actions and grieves for what his life could’ve been if they had not escaped all those years ago. This experience in Saigon causes many emotions to surface in An and forces him to face the immense grief that he has been harboring. It also forces him to face the possibility that what he is searching for may not be found in Vietnam.

By Andrea

Saving Face with Alcohol

"I suspect I will remember my days in Saigon through an alcoholic haze" (82).

Why does Andrew drink so much during his time in Vietnam? On page 84, this is partially explained by his almost distant, anthropological observation of his own cousins (and himself): "That is how Vietnamese men bond. We only talk when we drink" (84). It is also a gendered activity, as indicated by the fact that the women of the family leave the men alone and are not invited to join, even though they are the ones serving the beer and cleaning up after the men. There is the unspoken implication that alcohol is how the Vietnamese men cope with their troubled lives in the lingering aftermath of the war. Perhaps Andrew himself would not be able to handle all of the emotions and vivid memories all at once, if he were to stay in the country he was exiled from, completely sober. Because the alcoholism in the family is so customary and given a "manly" face, when Andrew finally breaks down emotionally, his family tries to help him maintain a sense of dignity by denying his that his tears are actually from weeping (109).

By Hannah

Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Money Makes the World Go Round


An has quite a lengthy interlude with a ‘persimon-faced’  beggar girl while in Saigon. He identifies her as having a remarkable resemblance to a girl he was once intimate with and gives her the contents of his pockets. He goes so far as to say, “I was her. She, me. She was Trieu. Could be my sister Chi. Could be my own daughter. Random. My world- her world” (107). It seems odd that such a peculiar happenstance such as a run-in with a random beggar girl would bring An to such a profound notion of his own narrow escape of such an existence.

He goes on to present the solution as his parents money separating him from the destitution of Southern Vietnam and while that may have been a contributing factor, it hardly seems to be the solution as a whole. His cousin Hung makes money enough to drink himself into a stupor but still lives in relative squalor. He may be better off than the Trieu-look-a-like beggar girl, but really gives the impression of living a variation of the desolate life of South Vietnam.

It almost seems indelicate for An to compare his life (or what his life could’ve been) with that of the beggar child who has lived the nightmare he only thinks of on a whim of a daydream. He constantly makes reference to ‘westerners’, implying that he isn’t one, but doesn’t the distinction between their lives (the beggar girl and An’s) distinguish him as a westerner? He escaped her fate by finding refuge in the west; does that distance him from his fellow Vietnamese or is it irrelevant how he has lived since leaving?

By Kelsey

Monday, May 27, 2013

Humility and Shame

Catfish and Mandala presents humility and submission as one of the defining traits of the Vietnamese community in the U.S. Andrew is evidently ashamed of this humility; he despises the fact that he has to be submissive to conform to his culture. Subsequently, he rebels and quits his job, takes on a journey, just so he won’t feel so “Asian.” Later in the memoir, he describes many behaviors that aren’t full of humility, but rather rowdy, embarrassing, and somewhat uncivilized. For instance, when Andrew was on the plane he mentioned that he wanted to sink in his seat, so he wouldn’t be associated with the people of his own culture.

 Andrew’s shame results from the Vietnamese tradition of submission and humility towards westerners but not among themselves. This eagerness to please and blind submission shame Andrew because they make him feel like a second class citizen and like he is inferior to Americans. Moreover, Andrew’s insistence on holding on to his American identity doesn’t only originate from his frustration from the ignorant terms that insensible people in the west use to identify his race such as “orientals”, but rather it originates from his own shame towards his own culture. He is imprisoned by his family expectations of him; their disappointment in Andrew is reflected on Andrew’s self-loathing, and lack of self-worth. Eventually, Andrew’s dissatisfaction with himself and his family transformed into a strong sense of refusal, and shame towards his heritage --(according to Andrew) a heritage that once took his sister’s life away, made his parents suffer, and forced his two gay brothers to live in secrecy. 

By Christina