Professor John Swensson at De Anza College in Cupertino, CA, sent me a list of questions from his students. CATFISH AND MANDALA was on their reading list.
Questions for Andrew Pham:
1. What made you want to forgive Viet Nam?
It took some time for me to realize that my early rage and hatred for “Viet Nam” was only half mine. The rest was something I felt on the behalf of my parents and our relatives. We “feel” for those we love.
I felt that they had lost everything and had suffered so much. And, yet, it wasn't just Viet Nam that needed forgiveness. It was also America that needed forgiveness. By the time I matured, studied, researched, and formed my own opinion, it was America—or rather its politicians and war-machine conglomerates—that needed more forgiveness than Viet Nam.
Today, as I have crossed the threshold of 50 years on earth, Viet Nam—its harsh painful memories—are like a dull old wound that aches at times, the scar a little unsightly, but one has grown accustomed to it. But, America, on the other hand, is still a hard case to swallow as it has not made proper amends for its war atrocities and use of Agent Orange. And, yet, it continues to be involved in other wars, conflicts, and atrocities around the world.
Forgiveness is an investment in yourself.
Life is short and hard enough, why burden yourself with the heavy cross of hatred?
2. Did writing restaurant reviews influence your writing about food in C&M?
Being a restaurant critic—or rather a restaurant writer—is like getting any job you love. You do it because you love it. You give all your time and effort to become the best you could be.
I learned to care about words. I learned to care that each word I wrote was 25cents in my pocket and that each word had two costs. First, the cost of the reader's time. Second, the cost of “value” to the restaurant. I learned to evoke all the senses and the imagination with just words and to guide the reader to a conclusion that I drew.
So, yes, in this way it influenced all my writing.
3. Do you have any hobbies or professions besides writing?
I have too many hobbies, in fact, too many that I rarely ever write anymore. I read books, articles, technical papers, online blogs, DIY articles, and pretty much anything and everything that catches my attention. What a terrific luxury! That's the wonderful thing about getting out of school: you suddenly have so much time and freedom!
I taught myself to hang glide.
I designed and built my own ultralight trike—and solo flew it by myself.
I built a farmhouse on the Mekong with timber harvested from the jungle. I created a 300m long road through the forest to my house. Built a small farm.
I designed and built 7 houses with my crew of 3 men and my wife.
I like to paint when I have time.
I cook, eat, and travel—life-long passions. Wrote a cookbook too.
I designed and build a wood-fired brick pizza oven. And, of course, make pizza from scratch.
I also designed and build a one-of-a-kind sand filter swimming pool.
I ride my road bicycle and my motorcycle regularly. I also play tennis, gym, and swim weekly.
There aren't enough hours in a day for everything!
4. How did you keep hope alive in that boat? And is there still a piece of you in that ocean?
Well, I was too young to be terrified or to understand death, but I was infected with the fear that griped all the adults in our boat.
Yes, there is a piece of me in that ocean.
I was scared enough that I made a solemn promise to the ocean that I remember to this day. My vow: “Dear Ocean God, Please let us live. I promise that if you let me and my family reach land, I will never venture out upon you again.” That is, I would respect the ocean and never seek to play or cross its surface again.
I remembered this vow so that even when I bought my sailboat—a 33ft sloop—at 28 years old with dreams of sailing to the South Pacific and beyond, I had serious fears about incurring the wrath of the Ocean God. Fortunately, I sunk my sailing dreams by selling my sailboat two years later, richer with experience and poorer financially.
5. What would you have done differently to support Minh after his hardships?
I would have found time for him.
I would have asked the hard questions, both to myself and to him.
I would have tried to be his roommate for a season of our lives.
I would have been a better brother.
6. From a Vietnamese student:
I once hated being Vietnamese. People from other countries sometimes describe us as uneducated and having no manners. We pollute the environment, and trash everywhere we can. In Singapore, buffet restaurants sometimes refuse to serve Vietnamese. I found it embarrassing. But I still love my country. I love every street I grew up with, the food is the best and the people cannot be more generous. I choose to be Vietnamese even though I had the chance to be an American. Let's imagine you could spend more time in Viet Nam before you moved to America, would you think of Viet Nam differently?
I understand and agree with you.
Since the publication of my first book, I've spent more than a decade in Southeast Asia. I already think differently about Asia and, of course, about Vietnam. Experience has a way of changing one's perception.
Here are a few random facts about my connection to De Anza.
I took a Fortran programming course here, in the summer of 1984, when I was a sophomore in high school. I took the bus from San Jose to Cupertino. It was a 2hr+ trip, one way.
For two years in my twenties, I ran the tracks at De Anza from 11:30 pm to 12:30 am, exactly 1 hour, 4-5 nights a week. I was usually the only person on the tracks.
I learned fencing and archery here. I also took night classes on Creative Writing from Cy Gulassa.
Thanks for reading my book.