“The Spirit Catches you and you fall Down” by Anne Fadiman

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In the book The Spirit Catches you and you fall Down, the author Anne Fadiman introduces the drama that causes a clash of epistemologies. Interpreters may consider the story as an exposition on cultural relativism.  The author encapsulates the Hmong culture in the United States of America. The hopes and fears of the refugees of Hmong in Merced are shown in a compelling narrative where Lia is treated for epilepsy at the Merced Community Medical Center by Western doctors.

The Hmong history yields many lessons that any person dealing with them might well remember. Amongst the most prominent of, their behaviors are that the Hmong would rather fight than surrender. They also do not like taking orders or losing, they are not frightened when outnumbered, they are seldom persuaded that the cultures of other people are superior, and they easily get angry. Whether one finds these traits admirable or infuriating depends on whether one wants to make a Hmong perform something he/she would not do. People who tried to deceive, defeat, govern, constrain, regulate, assimilate, or intimidate the Hmong dislike them very much (Fadiman 17).

Fadiman’s book records the story of two cultures-Hmong animism and Western rationalism-crashing into one another to the harm of a girl, Lia, who was reliant on the harmonious relationship of the two realities for her happiness. The two realities failed to assist her because of their misunderstanding, prejudice, and suspicion of the other culture. In different ways, it is not a biological pathology that affected Lia; it is a cultural pathology (Fadiman 262). To show how cultural dissonance led to Lia’s medical condition, the book has three examples of this dissonance. They are cultural prejudice, divergent language, and conflicting religion.

Issues of animal rights and female issues come up through the entire book but are not plainly identified or analyzed. In chapter 8, Nao Kao explains the story of Mr. Xiong. He has a son affected by an evil spirit called a dab (Fadiman 101). Nao informs Fadiman that the only way to heal that sickness is to sacrifice a dog; the laws of America do not permit one to kill dogs (Fadiman 101). The cultural clash goes beyond the author’s preface. The example is not a battle between the Hmong culture and medical culture, but American culture and Hmong customs. Fadiman, who is an American, stays neutral while describing the cultures. Even though all kinds of animals are killed and eaten across the West, the issue of killing a pet can be disturbing to some readers who do not identify with the culture. It is difficult to accuse the author of his/her Western bias when the author does not accuse people who practice female inferiority and animal abuse. The work of this book invites the reader’s own emotions and biases to manifest.

An issue that makes this book a heartbreaking story is that every person involved in Lia’s life had the best purposes. Despite their purposes, their take on the causes of the illness and treatments were very different. The Hmong view all illnesses as spiritual in nature. The Lees believed that the girl’s epilepsy started when her sister slammed the door when Lia was very young, an act that led to her soul fleeing from her body. While the doctors wanted to expose Lia to a complicated regime of medications, Lia’s family arranged animal sacrifices to cajole the spirit of Lia to come back. There was an increased conflict between the two sides when it became apparent that the girl’s parents were not giving Lia the prescribed medications. The author of this book presents the culture clash in a manner that the reader can easily understand and identify with the two sides. It may appear as if the things that went wrong were predictable, but there truly lacked a solution or option of understanding on Lees’ or doctors’ parts and the other agencies that participated in Lia’s case. The beliefs and customs on all sides were deeply entrenched. My frustration with the stubbornness and wrong-thinking of the Lees compels me to condemn their actions. The Lees did not view the girl’s illness as a burden, but took enough care of her.

One of the issues that may be hard for an American reader to recognize and sympathize with, Fadiman depicts the Hmong as different from the conventional immigrants thankful to have landed in the land of America. As a community, they have an account of sternly resisting assimilation. The United States’ Hmong refugees are not in America because they wanted to be there, but because they lacked anywhere else to go. The “quiet war” led by CIA in Laos destroyed their houses and made life there unsustainable. Their life experience in the United States was very different from what they were expecting. In the view of the author, the culture shock caused many Hmong to cling more attentively to their old ways. It may explain why after being in the U.S for some years, the Lees speak practically no English.

The entire book gives a balanced view of the opposite perspectives of Lia’s American doctors and the Lees. The only place where Fadiman shows a prejudice is in her anticipation that the Americans could have done enough to understand the view of Hmong, that there were some issues that needed to be done to reduce the cultures’ clash. The author may have a fair point, but she appears to have no similar expectations of the Hmong. One may wonder if the perspective did not have racism in it. According to the author, the “civilized” Americans were projected to learn from their mingling with the Hmong, but not so to the Hmong. To play devil’s advocate, I believe that an argument can be advanced that the Americans were more familiar with other people’s cultures, not smarter, but more sophisticated, and thus have a greater responsibility to comprehend the point of view of the Lees. Fadiman fails to make that argument, and may easily leave readers feeling that she expected not much of the Lees for some unknown reason.

Fadiman’s book offers an exceptional writing and advice on how to tackle cultural dissonance. In the story, the life of a young girl was sadly compromised. While the narrative is heartbreaking, it is a wake-up call for the need for cultural competence in all fields and contexts. The optimism is that as individuals become more culturally knowledgeable, there will be mutual respect, collaborative achievements, and shared wisdom. The book needs to be read everywhere. It can save lives.

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  1. Fadiman, Anne. The spirit catches you and you fall down: a Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2012. Print.
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