Wednesday, May 29, 2013

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


  1. Cassey,

    I really like your illustration; it has a lot of depth and creativity. In your post, you mentioned that it seems like Andrew was always trying to escape his “American” identity in Vietnam. I totally agree with that, however, I also think that he is somewhat proud to have some American”ism” in him and that he wouldn’t have chosen to remain in Vietnam if he had to do all over. I feel that Andrew tried to conceal his American identity because it was a mean of protection against street gangs and merchants who over-priced everything for Andrew because they thought that he must be rich. Andrew’s struggle with his identity is the vehicle that moves the whole book as he feels somewhat “different” in the United States, yet he can’t fully assimilate in Vietnam. It is very interesting to try to sense Andrew’s reaction to each Vietnamese encounter and decide his level of acceptance to his culture at each particular moment.

    - Christina

  2. This drawing is very representative of the question of cultural identity that is present in the entire book. Andrew and Chi both struggle with which culture they genuinely belong to, Vietnamese or American. The most interesting part about your drawing is that identity is represented as a choice, which I feel is true in Andrew's case. He cannot choose to be either American or Vietnamese, but he can choose to embrace both cultures and therefore his true identity. When he is able to find peace at the end, it is because he decides to accept his chameleon status as a Vietnamese American.


  3. Well done! This illustration is very creative and insightful, especially for someone reading the book for the first time and trying to the understand the complexity of having a hybrid identity. The book provides no easy answers for the alienation An feels towards both American and Vietnamese culture. I also appreciate that you tied in culture with physicality. Immersing yourself in any culture is not just a mental or emotional experience, but a bodily one as well.

    - Hannah

  4. Casey, this is a brilliant depiction of An's hybrid identity. I really like your focus on physical language as a means to convey that identity, and your illustration of hands, which are typically associated with physicality, captures the point perfectly. One hand is covered in smelly fishsauce, which signifies An's yearning to retain his roots, and the other is washed clean of any Vietnamese identity.


  5. I think you make a good point that in one hand the fishsauce is a representation of An's Vietnamese roots and the soup sort of representation of his new identity as an American. I think the washing of the hands is a nice representation of the idea that both An and Minh embrace their American identity since by washing their hands they both pursue a new cultural identity.In other words, they put their past behind them to embrace their new American identity.


  6. Casey,
    I love the beautiful drawing that you did and the significance behind it. It is very true that Pham uses ‘physical language’ quite often. I think it’s quite interesting that Pham repeats the notion of fish sauce and comments on the smell underneath his armpits. It is as if the ‘Viet-kieu’ smell permeates from his body whether he is aware of it or not.

    I love how you contrasted the family’s baptism with finding his roots. The idea of washing yourself clean is also very intriguing. Perhaps Pham is unsure if washing himself clean means going back to his roots or leaving them behind. He can only ‘wash himself’ with one solution: fish sauce (Vietnam) or soap (American).