Catfish and Mandala

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From differences in religion, race to gender and age, human beings have fought for many years due to their identity issues. The development of a person’s sense of self is always unique and also dependent on where he or she comes from, the beliefs, and other differences. However, self-identification always comes with the need to travel to places where a person feels they will be in a position to find their identity. In the quest to identify one’s identity, the possibility of cultural shock is always very real. Andrew Pham, the author of the “Catfish and Mandala” memoir talks about the confusion that plagues societies in regards to the complexities that come with the identity of people, their homes, and families. Cultural shock is one the key themes in Pham’s book.  Though Pham shows that he could not understand or solve the mysteries that surrounded the identity, he attempts to show that it was possible to discover an identity that was balanced. In search of an identity, people are usually forced or at least required to travel or to the countries, they see as the origin of their identity. Like people who travel as tourists to other countries, people seeking to solve their identity issues tend to experience a lot of cultural shocks. It is normal to become surprised at how people lead their lives, which may be different from what a person is used to in their home or host country. Such cultural shock is evident in the experiences that Pham tells his readers he was going through. He notes that instead of the geometric construction that he saw as “mandala-like” in one’s self-identity and one that he sought, he only found more contradictions (367). Pham had to go various phases of cultural shock, for him to establish his identity and come to terms with the loss of individuality. While Pham’s quest for self-identity was necessary to satisfy his desire, the cultural shock that came with the quest was unexpected.

One of the phases of culture shock that people go through can be compared to the honeymoon phase, where a newly married couple is excited with each other and are eager to explore or try out new things in their relationship. Similarly, a person in a new surrounding may get the cultural shock, but it impacts on the person at first as a new thing to be explored. At this point, a person sees a lot of positive aspects in the new culture. As he begins his narration in his book, Andrew Pham seems more excited and curious to discover his other identity as a Vietnam. As a Vietnamese American, Pham noted that he “…was looking to dredge up what he had long forgotten” (347). He also noted that he wished for “…something to hold them in continuity…” (347). Pham said this before making his trip to Vietnam and this shows that he was excited about learning his other heritage even though he grew up in America. Pham also returned back to Vietnam not only for the purpose of discovering where he came from, but also to know why his sister who commuted suicide, killed herself and why she was not in a position to fight off the pressures that may her plagued her life (Pipkin 367). Pham felt that he could only come to terms with his identity if he returned to Vietnam.

The other phase of cultural shock that Andrew Pham experienced could be compared to a negotiation phase which expatriates or tourists go through. When an immigrant is in a foreign country, they start feeling homesick after the honeymoon phase where they are excited. In the negotiation stage of cultural shock, doing small tasks such as shopping or moving from one location to another becomes a challenge for the visitor or immigrant.

Language barriers are also some of the other challenges that immigrants or visitors often face. In one of the chapters, Pham writes that he would be told that living in America “made you forget your language” (350). In another instance, Pham noted writes of statements like “You are too dreamy” and “Be careful what you do” (352). The type of cultural shock based on Pham’s views came when he met with people back home, who based on his opinion, found that it may have been impossible for him or any other Vietnamese American to return to Vietnam and become integrated. It was in this instance that Pham learned that self-identity was not only made difficult by the process of discovering where the person belonged, but it was further made difficult by the exposure of dual cultures.

Pham also experienced a cultural phase where it was difficult for him to make an adjustment when he went back. It was during his trip that he realized he was fond of spending his time with the tourists he was traveling with, as opposed to spending it with the Vietnamese people who would have given him the satisfaction of feeling like he belonged. This is similar in Cohen’s book where one of the characters in the short stories noted that she felt used being in her host country (Mukherjee 272). In most instances, he points out in the book that he was at times treated as an outsider and identified as a Viet- Kieu. In one instance, he noted that he would often get very sick because of the bacteria that was in the Vietnamese diet which he was not used to when he was in the U.S. In the adjustment phase of cultural shock, travellers usually communicate more with the people in the communities where they visit. In this stage, they learn and get used to their unique experiences. However, for Andrew Pham, this was the stage in which when he communicated freely with the people in Vietnam he often felt rejected because they found him to be more educated and different in the way he communicated to be considered one of them.

Lastly, the other stage of culture shock is the reverse cultural shock which takes place when the person returns home from their host country. When visitors or those seeking to identify their origins, they usually find it hard to become integrated with the culture in the new country (Rodriguez 570). The same also happens when the person goes back to their host country from their homeland. The person may find it hard to re-integrate back to the society that he or she once was used to and where they spent their entire childhood. Though the process of being integrated into the Vietnamese society may have been made worse by the aftermath of the war in Vietnam, there was a lot that changed. For example, women’s status changed after the war in Vietnam and they had to turn to working as prostitutes and doing menial jobs just to survive. This was a move that resulted in a reduction of their status in the society and perhaps this may have had something to do with the suicide of Pham’s sister. Pham was dismayed when he went to Vietnam and saw the level of poverty that people faced. The differences between his experiences in both countries were apparent in things like how certain activities were viewed in both countries. An example is where Pham compared to the beatings that children got when they were in the U.S, which was in a negative light, yet when in Vietnam, the beater was only seen in a positive light where he was disciplining his children.

Did you like this sample?
  1. Mukherjee, B. “Two Ways to Belong in America.” In 50 essays a portable anthology. 5th ed., BedfordShire, Bedford, 2013.
  2. Pham, A. Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala and the. London, Picador, 2000.
  3. Pipkin, J. W. “Andrew X. Pham’s Catfish and Mandala and the Dialogics of Identity.” Life Writing Journal, vol. 10, no. 4, 5 Aug. 2013, pp. 367–383.
  4. Rodriguez, R. “Memoir of a bilingual childhood.” In 50 essays a portable anthology. 5th ed., BedfordShire, Bedford, 2013.
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