The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman

Yes it did.

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. In all my life I had never consolidated the word Hmong in my head. It was a ridiculous realization and eradicated any 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.

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My copy of the novel/ me planing out this blog post

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 the conflicts that come after make you 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 that America would be the one 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)

The author 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 get use 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 the 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 in Medicine 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 this book is well-written, and I recommend it to anyone who is interested in cultures or loves learning in general. To borrow the title and to expand on what I meant by “Yes it did”, 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!

-MS-

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A New Pattern, I Just Need to Find It

I’m currently taking an Introductory English Literature course and a project is part of the coursework. This is the first blogpost.

I remember the first week of this semester. September. I hadn’t even settled down yet and life kinda slapped me in the face when I realize I wasn’t graduating on time (considering my financial situation). Fabulous. Running around trying to get my courses only added to the strain I felt. And so when I went to my first English 205 class  (I missed the first one because I wasn’t registered for it yet), the announcement of having to do a project didn’t seem as daunting until my professor delivered the gist. You see the comfort of mixing my Nutrition courses with humanities is exercising my analytical and writing skills and maximum doing a presentation and so i didn’t expect a digital humanity project for an introductory English literature class. Overwhelmed, frustrated,and emotions not in check, it felt the project had been dumped on me.

Sentiments aside, what is digital humanities?

It is essentially an intersection between computer sciences and the humanities in the field of public humanities.Which is interesting because both fields seemed so distant to me before knowing this. Specific to the project, students were instructed to collect data from random people about the books they had read in high school, the condition being that they graduated from a Lebanese high school. The purpose and with the help of visualizing tools is to observe and derive a topic related to canonicity within the Lebanese context. We had the freedom of constructing our own interview questions as long as it followed the criteria specified on the excel sheet (i.e. genre, book title).

This seems like a project I would prefer doing on my own but it’s group-work and I’m always hesitant in participating in group work because of the risk of working with a group of people who would leave most of the work for me to do. I can’t be the only one who feels this way and I know I’m not the only one.With that hanging at the back of my head, the act of picking a group was nerve-wracking. Not to mention, I’m a socially awkward jellybean – but it worked out. I ended up with 3 girls who were on the same page as me – confused and curious. I knew Mariam way before taking this class and so I was already comfortable with her and with the fact that we would be working together. I’d never met Maria or Dana before but they turned out to be friendly and supportive. Presently, I’m comfortable with working with my group. We’ve even help each other out on matters outside the project, which is comforting.

Data collecting doesn’t sound exciting but I find interviewing fun but my limitation of only being fluent in English makes me nervous but so far, so good. Considering all the answers I’ve gotten, I believe the most interesting answer I got was that one of the interviewees didn’t actually finish reading any books while in high school. She was interested in math and biology more, which is cool, but her school didn’t have a strong English literature program either. Also, she essentially didn’t read during her free time as well. She joked that she didn’t finish a book during her high school years but it unfortunately links back to the stigmatizing perception that the arts are still considered inferior to the sciences. Sigh.

It’s normal to wonder how a project like this could be relevant to the course. I was too until the following occurred to me: This class is an introductory course to British literature, where we cover works that are still considered important despite their age. And so this hunt for literary works within the Lebanese context may show which literary works are important in Lebanon, widening the scope of canon literature that isn’t British.

Working with this group reminds of another project I did. In my gender and sexuality course, Women in African Literature, my group and I had to pick a book and update its Wikipedia page. We each divided the work and then updated the old content on a Google doc and then submitted it. In comparison, the project from my gender and sexuality class was relatively simpler and shorter unlike this project that started since week 1 of the semester and requires me to be way more analytical and observant.

Reflecting on the work done so far, I do believe each of us in the group has the knowledge and the skills to contribute to this project but with each of our hectic schedules, progress has been slow but we are getting there. My group and I will most likely be focusing on generations and what books were reoccurring. At our next meeting, we will work on a further analysis of our data and the work will properly be divided.


It’s that time of the month where all the work I’ve procrastinated on is piling up. I’m gonna need something stronger than tea. French Press Maybe?

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After my occasional brew, taken by myself

-MS-

A Post for the “Time Being”

I’ve been fascinated with Japanese culture ever since I discovered the power of transformation anime at the fragile age of nine. Since then I’ve been an avid anime watcher/ manga reader and eventually an admirer of Japanese culture.

Don’t misunderstand, I celebrate by mixed blood and embrace both cultures I’ve been born into but my exploration and appreciation of Japanese culture is a personal interest. I want to understand where the creators of some of my favorite anime/manga/movies come from.

Not so recently, I’ve taken an interest in Japanese literature as well. Haruki Murakami’s 1Q84 trilogy was the first I read and immediately I was hooked. Based on that pleasant experience, I don’t hesitate to buy his books but he isn’t the only Japanese author out there.

I think I was at Virgin Megastore when the beautiful cover of the novel, A Tale for the Time Being by  Ruth Ozeki, caught my eye. The blurb claimed that the character that finds Nao’s diary could have a life-changing experience. The blurb also teased about how it might change my life and I thought why not?

Tale for the Time Being

The first thing you learn when reading this book is that everything and everyone is a time being. At first I thought it was a personal philosophy of the author but later on I found out it’s from Zen Master Dōgen Zenji’s book, Shōbōgenzō.

“A time being is someone who lives in time, and that means you, and me, and every one of us who is, or was, or ever will be.”- Nao, A Tale for the Time Being

I believe that explaining what a time being is helped change my expectations for the novel. I had understood time being as the English compound word used to show the present. That this is a story for now. And such a meaning works for how the story is built and transcends into reality because I was reading the story in those previous moments that were once the now.

Speaking of the now, the protagonist, the owner of the diary, tries to understand the meaning of the word now.

“But in the time it takes to say now, now is already over. It’s already then.”-Nao, A Tale for the Time Being

Do you think she figured it out?

That’s one of the many details she discussed in her diary. Nao wrote about her family, home life, school life, her great-grandmother Jiko and her summer at the temple, and all the other pieces that fabricated her life up until the last page. In fact, Nao is never physically present in the story. It’s through her diary you learn that she is a little eccentric, caring, perverted, and insightful. Overall, her life is sad and hard, and I think she was only truly happy when she was at Jiko’s temple. She suffers… but she overcomes it and learns from it.

Ruth, the woman who finds the diary, had pages dedicated to her reactions to the diary, figuring out the mystery behind the diary (is Nao real?), and introducing us to life and the people on the small island she and her husband ,Oliver, live in. Honestly I was far more interested in the Nao chapters which affected my concentration whenever I turned to the Ruth chapters. Now I’m left with the question

Did the diary change Ruth in anyway? Did I change in anyway?

All I can say for now is that both Ruth and I ended up caring for Nao even though neither of us have met her (Ruth might but I never will). That’s one change.

The novel covers aspects of Japanese culture, both positive and negative. From the practice of staring at jellyfish to reduce stress (page 49 ) to the Japanese perspective of suicide expressed in Yatsutani Haruki’s letter. Additionally, all the Japanese words are translated so I found that useful since the past two months I had been trying to learn new Japanese words. Perfect timing.

T.B.B.