Andrew Pham, in his biography Catfish and Mandala, narrates his experiences as he traveled, in search for this identity, through the rugged terrains of the United States, Mexico, and Vietnam. Within the text, particular emphasis is given on Pham’s experience as a Vietnamese-American. This is specifically apparent in his travel through the Mexican desert as it is presented in the text “Exile-Pilgrimage.” Given that the text describes Pham’s experience as he discusses the position of the Vietnamese-American with a Caucasian-American, the title may be understood as presenting Pham’s view regarding the Vietnamese-American’s inability to situate his position within the two contrasting histories and cultures of the Vietnamese and the Americans. This is apparent if one considers that the Vietnamese-American is placed in a position of exile in both the Vietnamese and American soil. Within the text, he states.
By returning as a tourist (to Vietnam) we prove to ourselves that we are no longer Vietnamese but Vietnamese Americans. We return…to taunt the Communist regime, to show through our material success that we, the once pitiful exiles, are now the victors… Mostly, we return because we are lost. (Pham 7-8)
As can be seen in the aforementioned excerpt, Pham’s position as a Vietnamese-American leads to his adherence to opposing viewpoints regarding his identity as well as his national affiliation. As he yearns to return to Vietnam, in order to regain his roots, he also yearns to oppose his roots as he perceives himself to be different from the other Vietnamese people due to his ability to gain independence within the American soil. Such independence however is not fully attributed to Pham, as well as to other Vietnamese-American’s, since they are still perceived as the ‘other’ within the American soil.
This conception of the Vietnamese-American as the ‘other’ is particularly apparent in Pham’s discussion with Tyle. Their discussion focuses on Tyle’s experience in the Vietnam War and his desire to seek redemption from the atrocities that he has committed in this war through Pham’s person. The difficulty experience by the Vietnamese-American is particularly evident here since, as Pham himself notes within the text, although the Vietnamese-American chooses to situate himself apart from his ancestor’s country as well as from its history, he is still forced to embrace this history as he is continuously perceived as a Vietnamese as opposed to being a Vietnamese-American within the United States. Pham himself notes the problem that this poses on the Vietnamese-American. He states,
Who are my people? I don’t know them. Are you my people? How can you be my people? All my life, I’ve looked at you sideways, wondering if you were wondering if my brothers had killed your brothers in the war that made no sense except for the act of sowing me here-my gain-in your bed, this rich-poor, generous-cruel, land…I am the rootless one, yet still the beneficiary of all your and all their sufferings. (8-9)
Within this context, Pham conceives of his condition as a Vietnamese-American as a condition that leads him, as well as other individuals like him, to a position of ‘rootlessness.’ It is a position of ‘rootlessness’ since as a result of his mixed heritage, he is forced to succumb to both cultures. Hence in the process, due to the conflicting viewpoints and history of both cultures, he is made to exist in the boundaries of both cultures. Although to exist in the boundaries may enable one to have access to both sides, the difficulty lies in not having full access to both sides. This thereby leads to the Vietnamese-American’s inability to create a definite identity for himself which is evident in the case of Pham.
Pham, Andrew. “Exile-Pilgrimage.” Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. New York: Picador, 1999.