Catfish and Mandala book Review

I picked up this book on an Amazon book splurge. I also picked up a few other books about Vietnam ( Story of Kieu and a book of poetry by Ho Xuan Huong ), but this is the one I picked out to read first. In a way, it’s subject matter is a spiritual continuation of the Namesake, which I had read earlier last year. Where the ending of the Namesake left me uneasy, reading Catfish and Mandala ( shortened to CaM for the rest of this review ) left me feeling hopeful and more at peace with the idea of moving forward with my life.

PLOT SPOILERS BELOW!!!!!!

Semi-autobiographical story of the author’s past, with arrows pointing to his future. It covers alot of the same well tread territory as the Namesake, but the narrative structure is different. He covers the present and the past by taking turns, with the two narratives often related to each other, but as often as not simply continuing the thread that was interrupted by the other. The present precedes the past, which is also prologue to the present. It’s a elegant structure for the book, and keeps the ideas fresh in the mind of the reader by never leaving one thread alone for too long.

The event the precipitates everything in the novel the the apparent suicide of this older sister, Chi. This devastating event causes him to just leave it all and begin traveling. In a way, it is similar to the Forrest Gumps run – that feeling of “running away”. In the monotonous repetition of the physical self, one begins to feel the oblivion of the mental, conscious self. Of course, like any good bildungsroman, his decision to bike out on his own has him meeting people and seeing places that give him the opportunity to grow and accept the things that has happened to him.

The Namesake left me nervous, since it was a book deeply rooted in the past, with loss and regret permeating each page. A classic tragedy, the primary character acts normally and watches as his world falls apart around him. Only in the last few pages do we see a gleam of hope as the main character begins to understand the events and people around him. Instead of starting at the beginning, CaM picks up in the nadir of the main character. His sister has just died and his family is still struggling to cope. But the remainder of the novel is dedicated to his healing process. In a way, his coming to terms with his Vietnamese culture is similar to what he wishes for his sister. You see, his sister committed suicide as a man, not as a woman. We see that she was always prone to boy-like behavior from the start, and the stress of life in Vietnam and then the subsequent immersion in American culture gives her the impetus to change sexes. In doing so, she gains comfort in the change, but she loses her family ties, and is thereafter burdened with this secret that she must keep. This is revealed only at the end, but to the author, he feels ultimately it is not the sex change that drives her to suicide, but her inability to resolve the conflict between her Vietnamese and American sides. In the same way, he feels dead inside, and his journey is a way for him to not only understand himself, but to understand his sister in a way that he never did in life.

Surprisingly, a great part of the novel doesn’t take place in Vietnam. His journey winds its way through the U.S., then takes a detour through Japan before finally dumping him in Vietnam. At first he feels more strange there than anywhere else, a by-product of his self consciousness about the way the people single him out as a returning native. Slowly though, he begins to see that fitting in isn’t a matter of meeting all of the external measures that are imposed on you by others, but to be comfortable with one’s state on the inside. It also doesn’t mean creating an impossibly high standard that others must accept before they can accept you, but being at peace with one’s status at the moment.

I think it’s hard to explain this concept, but I definitely understood it. As someone struggling to learn Vietnamese and fit into both cultures, I often felt the tugs of both sides as they pulled me into their orbits. My failings and foibles in one were always remarked upon and I would despair of ever “fitting in”. But slowly, as I immersed myself into the Vietnamese culture here in Seattle, I began to feel at ease. Part of it was definitely just the act of learning, and the knowledge that I was working towards learning the language and the culture. I think that created its own anxiety though, because I feared that I would never reach “fluency” in the language or the ways of the culture. Over time though, along with some helpful words from people along the way, I began to grow at peace with my progress. Yes, others would mock my halting words, or my terrible accent, or my 2nd grade  ( or worse ) grammar, but some of these same people also encouraged me to go on. They pointed out that what I was saying was funny to them, but they could also tell when I improved, and besides, what else was I to expect from myself? I realized that all this time, the person making me feel weird was me, and that to finally “fit in”, I had to accept that my place in fitting in wasn’t that of a native speaker who grew up immersed in the culture. It was that of an immigrant’s son who had grown up trying to fit in with the white kids, never thinking he’d ever want to learn Vietnamese.

Great book, highly recommended to anyone interested in the ways immigrant children try to fit in. Not really a good travel guide per se of Vietnam. Too many picaresque stories and near apocryphal tales to be taken literally, but a great picture painted with broad strokes of Vietnam and its children living abroad.

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