December 11, 2012
Who is the one to delineate fault for a miscommunication and misunderstanding between two cultures? In Anne Fadiman’s novel, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, she begins the novel as an attempt to allocate responsibility for the mistreatment and exacerbation of Lia Lee’s epilepsy. The tension between the Hmong and United States medical culture exemplified the strain in America between a foreign culture dependent on rituals and society’s norm. As the novel progress, Fadiman realizes that neither culture is truly at fault. Lia’s situation stemmed from a clash of cultural beliefs and practices that could have been solved by a respect and empathy of the significance of cross-cultural communication. Throughout the narrative, there were characters that were able to be culturally empathetic while some were unable to appreciate the cultural differences between the two entities and realize the necessity for cooperation and understanding. The Hmong have a saying that they repeat at the beginning of every story, “Hais cuaj txub kaum txub,” which means, “speak of all kinds of things” (Fadiman 13). These words depict the belief in the Hmong culture that the world is full of things that might not appear related but actually are. This concept relates to the Hmong’s history. Their development as a culture is tainted with inconsiderate counter cultures that restricted their freedom to practice their cultural rituals. This greatly influenced their ability to trust cultures that are not their own. Their general distrust in any culture different from their own can be mainly traced back to the Chinese and Indochinese portion of their saga. Basically, the Hmong have been chased out of any home they have ever had due to their unwillingness to take orders, their affliction to losing and the imperative detail that they would rather flee, fight, or die than surrender. This all boils down to the fact that they are not easily swayed by other culture’s customs. This ethnocentric attitude has greatly attributed to the Hmong culture’s general distrust and distaste for any culture but their own. Lia’s parents, Nao Kao and Foua Lee, and much of the Hmong community were skeptical of trusting the “white people” in the medical profession and in the community. In fact, Lia’s case became the litmus test for Hmong community and turned out to be a deciding factor as to whether the Hmong community in Merced, California would trust the medical professionals when they found themselves at MCMC in a similar state as Lia. Despite this inherent distrust of any culture dissimilar to their own, the Lee’s were able to trust one CPA worker, Jeanine Hilt, who took the Lee’s case very personally. Jeanine made it her mission to fight the medical industry tyranny on behalf of the Hmong culture and became the only person to ask the Lees their opinion. Because of the language barrier, many medical professionals saw talking to the Lee’s as a lost cause to communicate with, which led the Lees to believe they were being taken advantage of. Jeanine was the only one who thought to ask how the Lees felt about how the doctors were treating Lia and their culture. Because of this openness to communication and genuine interest in their answers, she explained to the hospital how the Lees, and the Hmong culture, felt about Lia’s epilepsy and why they were running into to so many conflicts with the Hmong culture. Jeanine’s open approach allowed her to see what the barrier was between the Lees ad the medical profession. The Lee’s and the Hmong culture considered Lia an anointed one and her “illness” as a blessing rather than a weakness. In the Hmong culture, people born with epilepsy are believed to be the anointed ones and are destined to a life as a shaman. They call it “qaug dab peg,” or “the spirit catches you and you fall down.” People in the medical profession did not understand the concept of spirits and the importance of epilepsy for the Hmong....
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