Wednesday, May 29, 2013

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


  1. Stacy,

    Your post is very astute and it opened my eyes to one of Andrew's struggles that I may have overlooked in my reading. Evidently, Andrew has always felt all the pressures of the "first son", yet he never stepped up to his role as the "first son". Thinking about your post, made me realize how the Pham offspring have always struggled with gender and identity issues. For example, "Chi", never felt comfortable in her female body; Andrew who, as you mentioned, wasn't completely comfortable with his masculinity and often felt frail; and Andrew's two homosexuals brothers, who never felt accepted by their parents and community and as a result they are forced to live in secracy. I think that all of this is a lot to take and the more Andrew tries to adjust to his role as the "first son" the more fearful he becomes of the responsibility.

    - Christina

  2. This post has opened me up to yet another question that I feel is important. In some cases, being attracted to the same sex is genetically passed down. In Andrew's family, his two brothers are gay and his sister is a transgender. Could it be possible for there to be a genetic predisposition that is creating this sexual identity? Perhaps that could have something to do with why Andrew's father is accepting yet uncomfortable at the same time of his children's gender identities. All of the siblings showed signs of their sexual identity in their youth and did not seemingly choose to be gay. It could also be possible that with all of the sexual identities going on, Andrew could have also went on this journey to confirm his and to explore his individual identity.

  3. It seems that An does not really want the responsiblities of being the oldest male. His relationship with Chi always seemed like a younger brother admiring his older brother, not older sister. Perhaps he too feels that Chi was born in the wrong body and she had the rights and responsiblity of being the oldest male. The only time he seems to own his rights as the eldest is when he disciplines his younger brothers and says it is his right to do so. But soon he gives that up too when his brother comes at him with a knife. The family dynamics are very interesting throughout the novel.


  4. I feel that because Chi was the more dominant "male" as they grew up, Andrew never had to take on the responsibilities as he should have. It seems that even when she was away, Andrew left the responsibility of being the oldest son to Chi. Even though she was away, Chi was the best example for her siblings to follow because she lived a life that was true to herself. After her suicide he had to come to the realization that it was his role to claim and perhaps this is part of the reason behind his journey to Vietnam in the first place. Being thrust into the role of being the leader of the Pham family caused Andrew to panic and reconsider his life. How could he be a good example for his siblings when he was living a life that was untrue to himself?