Andrew X. Pham
Andrew X. Pham is an author, and also the founder of Spoonwiz.
The younger years of Andrew Pham’s childhood were spent in Vietnam. He was born in Phan Thiet, a town renowned for its fish sauce. Before the Vietnam War, Andrew’s father worked double shifts as a school teacher. Andrew’s mother did laundry for her neighbors to earn extra money to support their struggling household. During the war between the North and the South, Andrew’s father earned money by working for the Nationalist army in the propaganda department, that is until he was captured by the Vietcong and forced to stay in the Minh Luong Prison reeducation camp for several grueling months. When he was released, Andrew’s father returned to his family and began to plan an escape to America. They chartered a boat to smuggle them across the border into Malaysia. And so Andrew, his mother and father, his aunt Dung, his older sister Chi, and his three younger brothers Huy, Tien, and Hien, boarded a thirty-foot boat with a fishing crew that nearly fell apart beneath them on the open sea before they were rescued by an Indonesian freighter ship.
Andrew’s family stayed in a refugee facility called Jakarta in Indonesia for eighteen months. The First Baptist Church of Shreveport, Louisiana took the Pham family under their wing and loaned them airfares to America, found Andrew’s father work, and rented them one of the church properties. A few months after moving to America, word reached the family that Andrew’s opium addicted grandfather had died in Vietnam. The news was a heavy blow for Andrew’s father. Andrew’s mother delivered Kay, the sixth child of the family, shortly thereafter.
After nine months in Louisiana, the Pham family decided to move to California, so that they could be closer to Andrew’s father’s relatives. The only place they could afford was in a bad neighborhood in San Jose: Locke Drive. They regularly escaped the dangerous neighborhood by taking day trips to the beach. The children all had to deal with their father’s temper and old-world disciplinary methods. Thong, Andrew’s father, beat his children because it was the way he knew how to show love. However, one day Chi’s high school teacher saw bruises and Thong ended up being arrested for child abuse. Chi left her family, dropping the charges to her father, after escaping from her detention facility and wasn’t seen again until after her sex change operation. The Pham family let her fade into the background, and she became the family’s secret shame. Andrew was a bit of a deviant in high school, and his friends were like him: alienated and in the minority. They got into fights with the other minority groups regularly. Andrew went to UCLA to study engineering after high school. When Chi came back to her family, she was a he, and went by the name Minh. After several months of listless behavior, Minh committed suicide. His tragic death was the catalyst for Andrew’s journey to Vietnam and self-discovery.
Catfish and Mandala
(All citations taken from Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam)
Andrew’s journey of self-discovery began in San Francisco, at the end of the Golden Gate bridge. Biking North along the coast, he met many other travelers. He learned the hard way that most bikers ride South, because of the grueling climbs into Oregon and Washington. He made his way through Portland, Oregon and ended the United States leg of his trip in Seattle, Washington.
After a three-week stay and failing to find cheap steerage for a boat ride to Japan, Andrew caught a plane instead and landed in the Narita International Airport in Tokyo for a 45-day layover on his way to Vietnam. He marveled at the people in the Tokyo area as he made his way to the outskirts of Kyoto and back. Andrew uses his unique imagery to paint a picture of the state of pollution in metropolitan Japan: “Steamy runoffs from manufacturing plants crack the river white. The sun sets in apocalyptic colors as though the air itself is burning, turning the smog gold, the clouds molten, dangerous. Smokestacks poison the sky. The skyline of bridges and skyscrapers folds behind even more skylines of the same” (46). After suffering through a bad storm, Andrew departed for Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in South Vietnam. So far he had biked over 2,357 miles.
On the plane ride into Ho Chi Minh city, Andrew talked with an older returning Vietnamese, who asked him if he had family to visit. The man was kind enough, but saw Andrew for what he was: “He pauses, eyeing me again, probably thinking I am one of those lost souls he’s heard about. America is full of young-old Vietnamese, uncentered, uncertain of their identity. The older generation calls them mat goch—lost roots” (63). Andrew’s bike is damaged in customs at the airport, but his distant relatives meet him at the gate and invite him into their modest home. “Twenty years have passed since I’ve seen Grandaunt Nguyen, my grandmother’s cousin-in-law. As a child, I used to play with her sons, whom I must call Uncle despite the fact that we are the same age. I have never written them, nor they me” (67). The brothers Viet, Hung, and Khuong in Saigon showed Andrew a good time during his stay, complete with dangerous motorcycle rides and cobra heart shots.
Andrew’s old home was converted into a community health clinic, and he reflected on being a stranger to his own homeland: “Too many things changed. Too much time passed. I’m different now, a man with a pocketful of unconnected but terribly vivid memories. I was looking to dredge up what I’d long forgotten. Most of all, I am wishing for something to fasten all these gems, maybe something to hold them in a continuity that I can comprehend” (98). His time in Saigon shifted more and more into a time of self-realization. He felt his memories of the more innocent Saigon in his childhood be torn away by the needy Saigon he faced upon return. “The bitter bile of finding a world I don’t remember colors my disconsolate reconciliation between my Saigon of Old and their muddy-grubby Saigon of Now” (102). He recounts one extremely emotional afternoon after giving money to a beggar child with a familiar face: “I stood rotten with doubts, more lost than I had ever been in my life. Why do I care for this persimmon-faced child? Is it simply because she bares a likeness to someone I once knew? Is that what it takes to remind me that I am Vietnamese? That I am human, capable of feeling the misery of another? If so, I am a worse bigot than those I despise, those who have hounded me in America” (108).
He spent nearly two months with his distant relatives in Saigon. After his experience there, Andrew rode north towards Hanoi, stopping in the sleepy town of Vung Tau. On the way out along Highway 1, it was made painfully clear just how most of Vietnam viewed people like Andrew: “I tell them I’m Vietnamese American. They shriek, ‘Viet-kieu!’ It sounds like a disease. The news travels down the procession and the excitement subsides. Half of the group peels away, losing interest since I am not a real foreigner” (125). He struck up a brief romance while in Vung Tau, but it quickly deteriorated once Andrew made it clear that he was not looking for marriage. Before heading to Hanoi, he decided that he needed to stop by Minh Luong Prison, where his father was kept in a Vietcong reeducation camp during the Vietnam War. On the way, he traveled in a family-owned bus, which took him on a side trip to Rach Gia and the Cu Chi Tunnels. When Andrew visited what used to be Minh Luong Prison, he found a village instead. His driver told him what Andrew often feared in his journey: “’Forget this place. Go see the world, … Everything has changed. Your roots have turned to dust. Nothing here to bind you’” (161).
With his sights set on Hanoi, Andrew returned north to Saigon and then back to Vung Tau. He first headed to Phan Thiet, the place of his birth. He recognized his childhood home with its various landmarks, but through a small history lesson learned from the woman who now lives in his grandmother’s old house, he is only reminded how painful a search for the past can be. “In this Vietnamese much, I am too American. Too refined, too removed from my que, my birth village. The sight of my roots repulses me. And this shames me deeply” (183). After a brief stint holed up with a stomach flu, Andrew rode on to Mui Ne where his family crossed the border during the Vietnam War. He remembered some aspects of that place, but as usual, time and an excess of people had changed it. Andrew was delayed at the Muong Man train station due to lack of funds, but eventually he hitchhiked on a cargo train with a swarthy bunch of men who at first distrusted him for being a viet-kieu, but gradually warmed to his personality.
At last Andrew arrived in Hanoi, the city of his father’s roots. There he explored the city area with local tourists, and even saw the exhibited body of Ho Chi Minh. Andrew expressed his respect for the man and his accomplishments: “For here was a man of inconsequential beginnings who crept through the land of the white man as a menial laborer and returned to wrestle his homeland from empires” (228). He took a scenic boat ride in Ninh Binh, a “mid-sized industrial town sixty miles south of Hanoi” (244), and along the way was attacked by cruelly playful children who pelted him with rocks and called him a Russian. “In America, I was a Jap, a Chink, a gook; in Vietnam, a Russian” (244). On his way to Ky Anh village, Andrew met a one-legged man riding a bicycle, who showed his hospitality by offering Andrew a place to sleep in his humble hut. During his visit with this man, Andrew learned the healing properties of a silver coin and found the answer to a question from an old acquaintance of his: “’Tell your friend Tyle. There is nothing to forgive. There is no hate in this land. No hate in my heart. I am a poor man, my home is a hut with a dirt floor, but he is welcome here. Come and I shall drink tea with him, welcome him like a brother’” (267).
Andrew took a couple side trips out of Hanoi to the former Imperial city of Hue and a smaller city called Hoi An, where he learned of the still-living delicacy called Gaping Fish, which is exactly as it sounds. He spent time with fellow travelers, enjoying their company over the locals for the time being. He pushed hard on his bike, fighting sickness, into Qui Nhon. He spent a hellish exhausted night in a hotel that was less than hygienic. “The day’s exhaustion falls on me like a boulder. The room is stale with mildew. I open the window shutters to let in some air, then go into the bathroom to mix a bath with the complimentary thermos of hot water. This makes about two gallons of tepid water. A rat pokes its head up the floor drain. I put a bucket over it” (305). His stay at the hotel was highlighted by a nearly crippling sickness, but a local pharmacy got him up and biking again. In Nha Trang Andrew reconnected with a man named Cuong, who changed his name to Calvin to sound more Western. Calvin’s confessions of feelings of inferiority as a nation left both Andrew and himself depressed, and suddenly Andrew’s journey took on a different purpose. “Phan Thiet, the town of my birth, the end of my journey, lies only a few hours’ ride away, but the marching drums that have driven me onward for a year now have abruptly quieted. An unexpected lull. The finish line seems unimportant, secondary, symbolic” (337).
He started his journey to find his roots, his essence, but instead Andrew Pham learned something else entirely: the human condition. His travels carved into him experiences and memories that altered his outlook on life, as living is prone to do. On the shore of a small town, no different from the hundreds of others in Vietnam, Andrew came to a brilliant conclusion: “For our truths change with time. There is nothing else. No mitigating circumstances and no power to undo the sins. No was. Only is. Between us, there is but a thin line of intention” (339). Andrew returned to the United States, but continues to travel. His journey is far from over.
- Pham, Andrew X. Catfish and Mandala: A Two-Wheeled Voyage Through the Landscape and Memory of Vietnam. ISBN 0-374-11974-0. (1999)
- Pham, Andrew X. The Eaves of Heaven: A Life in Three Wars. ISBN 0-307-38120-X. (2008)