the spirit catches you and you fall down

title: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

author: Anne Fadiman

genre: Non-fiction, Hmong and American cultures, refugees, epilepsy

dates read: May 17th – May 28th

review: 5 out of 5 stars

summary: Lia Lee, born to Hmong refugee parents Nao Kao and Foua Yang, started having seizures at three months old.  Born in the States, her American doctors attempted to treat her with their western tools and medicine, while her parents wanted to use their Hmong traditions and techniques.  With no knowledge of the English language, and illiterate in both languages, Lia’s parents were unable to follow the strict and confusing regimen of prescribed medicines.  Fadiman gives detailed cultural context for the Lee family and Hmong culture, and meticulously explains the medical procedures that Lia’s doctors follow.  What is best for Lia and could the cultural misunderstandings been better handled?

personal thoughts: I had a difficult time with this.  It was difficult to see how each side didn’t really communicate with the other, not for lack of trying.  I can’t imagine the frustration of living in a foreign country and all that entails, or of trying to do the best thing for a sick child and feel that the parents are being non-compliant and endangering her life.  Fadiman does an excellent job honoring both cultures and shows compassion for all involved.  This highlights the importance of cultural sensitivity and trying to find a compromise when there are conflicting beliefs.   Of course, this is easier said than done, but as someone who works with people with very different perspectives and cultural contexts, this is something that I need to keep in mind too.

favorite quotes:
“I have always felt that the action most worth watching is not at the center of things but where edges meet.  I like shorelines, weather fronts, international borders.  There are interesting frictions and incongruities in these places, and often, if you stand at the point of tangency, you can see both sides better than if you were in the middle of either one.” x

“Because the Hmong have historically been so resistant to authority, they are especially confused and enraged when they are stripped of their power in a country to which they have fled because of its reputation for freedom.” p. 84

“For the Hmong in America – where not only the social mores but also the sound of every birdsong, the shape of every tree and flower, the smell of the air, and the very texture of the earth are unfamiliar – the ache of homesickness can be incapacitating.” p. 204

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