Final Paper: “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” By: Anne Fadiman Meghan Maloney
26 April 2013
To understand the struggles that the Hmong people face living in America it is important to understand where they come from and what they have gone through. The majority of the Hmong people originate from the mountainous country of Laos. The mountains created isolation from the neighboring cultures and cultivated a clan identity. They were part of a society where everyone worked together and lived off the land. They also practiced oral tradition since they could not read or write any language. Unfortunately, in the 1960’s Laos became the battlefield for the Vietnam War. The land was destroyed and the Hmong were forced to move or fight. Many evacuated while many were trained and armed by the U.S. as a secret guerrilla army. During this time of war, the Hmong lost all self-sufficiency, and became dependent on the U.S. for food as well as survival. An exodus of Hmong from Laos to Thailand was the death of many. The Hmong were hunted and forced to leave everything behind. The clan identity was left behind as well for it was everyman for himself. Those that were lucky enough to make it to Thailand were faced with assimilation. The Hmong saw assimilation as an insult and a threat to their culture. In order to resist oppression, the Hmong took the United State’s promise of land and government support, and moved to America. Still resisting assimilation in the U.S., the Hmong were faced with culture shock. One of the biggest differences between Hmong culture and American culture is the practice of medicine. Anne Fadiman in “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” tells this clash as the story of Lia Lee and her American doctors. Lia Lee is a Hmong child that was born in the U.S. on July 19, 1982, after her parents, Foua and Nao Kao Lee, moved to America. She was delivered at a hospital in Merced, California they way Americans think is normal-on a metal table, scissors to snip the placenta, washing the baby with soap, and putting the baby in a heated box. Normal childbirth for the Hmong would be the mother pulling the baby out herself in silence on the dirt floor of their hut and then burying the placenta under the house. The Hmong believe that when you die your soul will come back to get your placenta. When Lia was three months old, her sister, Yer, slammed the front door in her face. Moments later Lia’s eyes rolled up, her arms flailed over her head, and she fainted. Lia’s parents believe that the noise of the door had been so frightening that her soul fled her body and became lost. The resulting symptoms are recognized as Quag Dab Peg, “The spirit catches you and you fall down”. Having Quag Dab Peg gives the person the power to perceive things others cannot see, and is a prerequisite for the journey into the realm of the unseen. Quag Dab Peg is considered an honor and blessing in Hmong culture. It allows the person the opportunity of becoming a txiv neeb, or spirit healer. It also confers an enormous amount of social status in the community because the txiv neeb is seen as a person of high moral character since the spirit chose them. In Hmong culture, saving face is of high importance. Foua and Nao Kao Lee brought Lia to Merced Community Medical Center (MCMC) after she had 20 of what Americans call seizures. At times, the Lees believed that Lia’s epilepsy wasn’t as much of a medical problem as a gift. The Hmong believed in shamanistic animism, which asserts that malevolent spirits are constantly seeking human souls, especially those of vulnerable or unloved children. Their hope was that if the spirits decided to keep hold of Lia, that long-term she would become a tvix neeb, and if she did not become a tvix neeb, then their hope was that the sickness would be short-term. The American doctors in MCMC view the Hmong as problematic patients and were not empathetic with the traditional Hmong...
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