Book Summary

Andrew Pham eludes the present by going in search of a dimly remembered past. Spurred by the suicide of Chi, his transsexual sister, plus a turbulent family history and an escalating disillusion with the American dream, he abandons career, home, and possessions and plunges into a grueling, solitary quest for answers. Pham takes to his bicycle and grinds across the cloudy landscape of his soul; climbs mist shrouded mountains of doubt and tumbles repeatedly into the ditch of self-discovery. Purged by the arduous miles, Pham’s inner demons finally give way to the natural beauty of his homeland and the symmetry of inner peace and acceptance.                  

With the fall of Saigon in 1975 Andrew’s family, while trying to flee the country, find themselves intercepted by the Viet Cong. His father, Pham Van Thong is arrested confined to the Minh Luong Prison and Labor Camp. Months later, following Thong’s release, the family bribes a small crew of fisherman and become “boat people.” They escape Vietnam only to find themselves detained again. With nowhere to go, they spend the next eighteen months in an Indonesian refugee camp. Finally though in September of 1977, sponsored by the First Baptist Church of Shreveport, Louisiana, a young boy, Pham Xuan An, whose name means “peaceful spring,” arrives in America.

Andrew X. Pham’s personal trek begins in the Mexican desert, carries him up the California coast and follows the length of Japan. Not until he reaches Vietnam though does his true journey begin. But, he carries with him an excess of baggage in the form of guilt, anger, and unrecognized self-loathing; all of which guarantee to slow him down. The marginalization which he endured as a refugee in America manifests as an outward disdain for all things Vietnamese. Beginning even as his plane disembarks, he finds nothing but dirt and backward ways among the nationals of his homeland. The damage done to his bicycle by airport staff is but a preview and promise of the hard miles stretching between Andrew’s questions and the attainment of eventual answers.

Not only do Andrew’s eyes and mind reject what he sees in Vietnam but so does his body. Everything conspires to make him sick. A constantly troubled stomach accompanies his troubled soul. He finds himself repulsed by the poverty and put off by an atmosphere where he perceives everything as being for sale. He rejects the Vietnamese tenacity and talent for survival in the same way his body rejects local cuisine. Likewise, he endures rejection as Viet-kieu; viewed as a foreigner, a traitor, an object of scorn and even a target of violence. In Vietnam as in America, Andrew is singled out by his very appearance and betrayed by his own accented speech. Still, he cannot become someone else and he cannot go on without food. He must carry on or quit.

Andrew’s ramblings unfold as multi-layered memories. He sifts through the remains of a half remembered pre-American childhood all the while stealing furtive glimpses into his parents’ elusive history. He finds himself constantly confronted by a reality which contradicts recollection. The structures he equates with a long lost home have been torn down or altered beyond recognition. He is an enigma to his relations. His lack of financial success in America confuses them; refutes their conceptions of a good Viet- kieu. Others that he meets wonder why he returned at all. His musings reveal opportunities lost and issues left unresolved. The beloved star-fruit tree of magical childhood memory is withered and near death. It seems a bad omen. The past does not behave as he expects it to. He dredges up memories which once unearthed are blunt, merciless and demanding of attention.