Happy New Year to you all! May your survival game be stronger this year!
Anne Fadiman’s novel, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, was the last book I read in 2016. I found it at a thrift store near my university for less than a dollar fifty, still in great condition. At first reading it seemed like giving myself extra course work because it wasn’t hard to imagine this book being assigned to students. But I’m genuinely interested in learning about different cultures, reading sociological and anthropological narratives,and the book had such an appealing price…
What actually won me over was “A Hmong Child” printed on the book’s cover. All my life I had never processed the word Hmong. It was a ridiculous realization, eradicating my hesitation to read this book. The other fascinating thing is that it combined Medicine and Cultural Studies and so I was extra certain this book was going to be a learning experience.
Essentially, the book narrates the struggles the Lee family faces when they migrate to Merced, America, where their beloved child Lia falls sick. The struggles and conflicts that follow will make you feel sympathetic and frustrated. Additionally, the author smoothly integrates Hmong historical and cultural context (reading this novel was way more efficient than scrambling on the internet) that provides further understanding of their rituals, beliefs, migratory pushes, just to name a few.
I recall feeling a wide range of emotions with this novel. For one, frustration, especially at instances when the doctors would talk to Lia’s parents without a translator, when the Hmong Parenting style explained in the book was deemed abusive by the dominant culture, and the general sense of how the Americans reacted to the Hmong immigrants (what I read didn’t surprise me). Honestly, I feel America is that kid who has a fit every time a new person sits at the lunch table, especially after reading the list of foreign settlers in the Central Valley and how each had difficulties settling down.
To be honest, the rumors The Hmong and Americans spread about each other were amusing, I rolled my eyes when reading the “Dumb Hmong Stories” (page 226), and was mortified when reading the acts of violence against the Hmong instigated by welfare. Only to be surprised with this:
Although on the battlefield the Hmong were known more for their fierceness than for their *long livers, in the United States many were too proud to lower themselves to the level of the petty criminals they encountered, or even to admit they had been victims – page 193
(Long Livers referring to the Hmong saying “Ua siab ntev” that describes one being patient and enduring suffering and wrong doings)
Fadiman acknowledges the pressure on the receiving side but how does being hostile help? Do you just dub it human nature? How do you expect them to find jobs when the skills they have and value doesn’t align with paid jobs? However, the Hmong do settle down (I say this loosely) and try to adjust to the system with help of clan members and brilliantly thought out loop holes.
Another point this book pushes forward is the lack of cross-cultural understanding within Western medicine. The conflict and the tension between the doctors and Hmong patients exemplify this: The cases Anne Fadiman provides in chapter 18 and ,an unforgettable moment for me, the chapter “Code X”, when Lia responds to the traditional medicine despite prior events. I found myself relieved, whispering that it was a miracle.
But now, I feel uneasy calling it a miracle.
Around this point in time, Lia’s health deteriorated so much that any mistake could cost her life and then her father, Nao Kao, springs into action, and I’m just there confused whether to root for him or not because of the fragile disposition of his daughter. Despite it all, Lia is alive by the end of the chapter.
On the surface, it seems miraculous but what holds me back is that labeling this miraculous seemingly strips away the legitimacy of traditional medicine. In other words, that the herbs the parents use seem to become this fantastical element rather than genuine medicine. Excuse me, I may be over-analyzing but think about it whenever you read about someone drinking a homemade remedy and they claim to feel better – doesn’t your mind automatically label it as a miracle rather than medicine?
Which brings me to my issue with the dominant nature of Western Medicine. I’m in no way criticizing it’s advances but the rhetoric it seems to carry is that there isn’t much space for legitimizing other forms of healing, i.e. the Hmong practices. This is a fairly recent secret opinion but I felt kind of reassured when I spoke to my professor when we were discussing the memoir Paper Sons and Daughters by Ufreida Ho, inspired by the author calling her grandmother’s remedies “hocus pocus”. The main idea of that conversation was the act of healing the body stems from centuries ago and from many cultures, but only Western Medicine seems to get the credit and everything else is labelled “hocus pocus”.
I feel I need to say this, I’m in no way saying you should drink green tea if your arm is cut off either. Because another thing The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down presents is the belief system that comes with their healing processes. Not a sliver of doubt is presented among The Hmong when they use their own medicine and I think that adds to my fascination with belief. Moreover, there is also compromise.Towards the end of the book, Anne Fadiman dedicates pages to initiatives that promote a more cross-cultural and compromising perspective for Medicine which is optimistic since this book was published in 1997.
However, the one thing I didn’t really grasp was why the author ended it with the “Sacrifice” chapter. It was a very ambiguous ending. I’d like to believe that the ceremony helped Lia. What confuses me is that the author had been indirectly building up on how legitimate the Hmong healing methods were but ends the novel on a note that gives a contradictory impression.
I think the book is well-written, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in cultural studies or enjoy learning new things. Not proud to admit, but it took me roughly six months to read this book. Blame my packed semester and my lack of time management. Despite that, I’m proud of myself for not giving up on it.
I’m currently reading Norwegian Wood by Haruki Murakami.
I hope this year will not leave me or you crawling out of it by December
Happy New Year!