Thursday, May 10, 2012

Literary Bite: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Faidman

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures by Anne Fadiman is a story about the Hmong people, from their political history to cultural customs, told through the lens of one family’s experience with the American medical system in Merced, CA. 

The book centers on Lia Lee, a Hmong child who suffers from epilepsy (called “the spirit catches you and you fall down” in the Hmong language).  The book alternates chapters following the Lee’s  story in and out of hospitals from Lia’s birth – a tragic case of cultural miscommunications again and again and again – with chapters on Hmong history, cultural practices, and refugee experiences in the US. 
  • "The doctors can fix some sicknesses that involve the body and blood, but for us Hmong, some people get sick because of their soul, so they need spiritual things,” says Lia Lee’s father. “With Lia it was good to do a little medicine and a little neeb, but not too much medicine because the medicine cuts the neeb’s effect. If we did a little of each she didn’t get sick as much, but the doctors wouldn’t let us give just a little medicine because they didn't understand about the soul."
The cultural anthropology aspects of this book were fascinating. I love how understanding the history of a people informs their actions and can help foreigners understand how to work with them. I also have some personal connections to the subject because of my work with refugees (my refugees have been Congolese and Haitian, so not quite as different as the Hmong, but very different nonetheless). There’s sooo much more to deal with than a language barrier; language barriers can be overcome, it’s the cultural barriers that will get you.
  • "The history of the Hmong yields several lessons that anyone who deals with them might do well to remember. Among the most obvious of these are that the Hmong do not like to take orders; that they do not like to lose; that they would rather flee, fight, or die than surrender; that they are not intimidated by being outnumbered; that they are rarely persuaded that the customs of other cultures, even those more powerful than their own, are superior; and that they are capable of getting very angry. Whether you find these traits infuriating or admirable depends largely on whether or not you are trying to make a Hmong do something that he or she would prefer not to do. Those who have tried to defeat, deceive, govern, regulate, constrain, assimilate, intimidate, or patronize the Hmong have, as a rule, disliked them intensely."
The Hmong left China when the government became too oppressive, and eventually settled in Laos until the CIA-run “Quiet War” (post-Vietnam), led over 300 thousand people to flee to refugee camps in Thailand and eventually emigrate.  My favorite parts were probably about the Lee family’s experiences becoming refugees – their flight from Laos is harrowing and fascinating. It’s often easy to forget that refugees in America have gone through a lot to get here. 
  • “You go from the north of Laos and then you go across the Mekong, and when the Pathet Lao soldiers fire, you do not think about your family, just yourself only. When you are on the other side, you will not be like what you were before ou get through the Mekong. On the other side you cannot say to your wife, I love you more than my life. She saw! You cannot say that anymore! And when you try to restick this thing together is is like putting glue on a broken glass.” 
The author’s “literary journalism” is impressive, interesting, and a great read. Faidman definitely did her research – she talked to all of Lia’s doctors, as well as many members of the Lee family, Merced Hmong community, and Hmong scholars in general. She attempts (and I think succeeds) at giving a relatively unbiased narrative, recognizing when and where each “side” was in the wrong, but overall drawing the conclusion that there really is no black-and-white right and wrong when it comes to how a family chooses to take care of itself within the context of cultural differences. 

Read it - I highly recommend this book!