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The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures
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September 2019: Cultural > The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down - Anne Fadiman - 5 stars

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Nikki | 661 comments "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."

I love well-researched non-fiction books like this that convey a lot of information and raise interesting questions through a gripping and relatable story, while also including fascinating digressions and tangents. (Fadiman compares this narrative style to a Hmong recipe for Fish Soup that starts with describing how to prepare for a fishing trip; Hmong storytellers, she says, expect their audience to remember "that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point.")

It’s not a comfortable read: the central story describes how cultural misunderstandings led to a seemingly-preventable tragedy involving the heartrending suffering of a child, and the background information given on Lia’s family and their Hmong culture includes harrowing details about refugee journeys out of Laos. I think it’s well worth it though. It is both eye-opening and insightful: I previously knew nothing about the war in Laos or the history of the Hmong, and was fascinated by the description of the clash between the Hmong expectation that Americans would honour a CIA promise to compensate them for their military service, and the American expectation that Hmong refugees would be grateful for welfare payments: "each resented the other for not acting beholden." Similarly, the perceived 'failure' of many older Hmong to assimilate is easier to understand after learning that the choice of many Hmong people to seek refuge in America rather than return to live in Laos was based on a refusal to return under terms that would have destroyed their cultural identity.

This book doesn’t present easy answers or lay blame on either side, although it can be read as a plea for cross-cultural understanding and co-operation. I was struck by a quote from Arthur Kleinman, a medical anthropologist, who speaks of the need for doctors to recognise the impact of the "culture of biomedicine":

"If you can’t see that your own culture has its own set of interests, emotions, and biases, how can you expect to deal successfully with someone else’s culture?"


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NancyJ (nancyjjj) | 5006 comments Wonderful review! I really like the quotes you chose. They relate to crucial skills that help us interact with people from different cultures. I think we discover more about our own cultural beliefs and biases when we see the contrasts with other cultures.

I love the quote about the edges. In organizations I saw that the most creative ideas are often found at the edges. The people who belong to two different groups can often see things that others cannot. When you combine people from other groups, they can find solutions that they couldn't find alone.


Nikki | 661 comments Thank you Nancy & I totally agree, I like the idea of bringing together people from different backgrounds to create fresh perspectives on things.


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NancyJ (nancyjjj) | 5006 comments Did you ever seen Gran Torino, directed by Clint Eastwood? His character lives next door to a Hmong family. The cultural sharing was really interesting, and the movie is quite wonderful.


Nikki | 661 comments No, I haven't - that sounds really interesting, thank you for the recommendation.


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