Assimilation and Collision:
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Essay
By Valerie Gribben
Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down details the tragic consequences of cultural miscommunication between Western-educated physicians and a newly immigrated Hmong family. Fadiman expands upon one family in one city to retrace the entire Hmong journey—from the culture’s mythological beginnings to the flood of Hmong into the United States after the Vietcong seized control of Laos.
On a long weekend in Montgomery, I read The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down in its entirety, keeping up a continuous narrative with my mother whenever she passed my armchair. “Can you believe that in America the Hmong planted gardens in their parking lots to grow herbs?” I asked.
My mother brushed her straight black hair from her eyes. “Did you know that when your own grandparents came to the United States, the prize possession they brought from China was a two-foot-tall jar with stewed herbs inside?” She gave a sideways smile. “And they used it to treat pains and bruises for fiftyyears.”
I dove back into the book, reading about how at every step through Lia Lee’s treatment of epilepsy—which the doctors saw in purely medical terms, whereas her parents saw as quag dab peg, Lia’s soul fleeing her body and getting lost—the doctors and the parents could not understand each other. On one level, this was because a capable interpreter was rarely present to explain either side, but on a deeper level, the case spoke to characteristic Hmong reliance on spiritual explanations. With both sides only looking for symptoms that validated their own opinions, the round-faced toddler with the lively laugh suffered in an anguished middle ground of cultural misunderstanding, not receiving the correct medicine dosages and as result, being removed from her caring family.
"Oh, Mom,” I said, catching her arm as she walked by. “The Hmong think that illnesses are caused by evil spirits called dabs.”
“If I got a cold from being outside on a blustery day, my parents would say I caught an ill wind,” replied my mom. “And sore throats were cured by blowing a powder called lew moong ding down the throat with a straw.”
The words came easily off my mother’s tongue but sounded so foreign to me, a biracial child reared outside the Chinese culture. I stared at my mother. She spoke English without an accent and had learned all about baseball, movie stars, and Shakespeare. “It’s hard to imagine you ever speaking Chinese at all,” I said impulsively.
As I finished the final chapters of the book, I felt that Fadiman had drawn back a veil revealing a secret world of intriguing folktales and foreign words. With pointed prose and a storyteller’s touch, Fadiman lets readers believe that they at least had a starting point to bridge American and Hmong cultures. But her book started me wondering about my own family history.
At my request, my mother hauled out her family scrapbook. On the first page was my grandparent’s wedding photograph. Their marriage had been arranged by their families. Gazing at my nineteen-year-old grandmother, stoic in her plain country dress, I cannot help but marvel that I am only one generation removed from a life of arranged marriages, village life, and water buffaloes in rice paddies. My grandmother attended American citizenship classes for six years, learning to read and write in English.
When my grandfather came alone from China in 1938, he had heard about the American streets paved with gold. He was quite surprised to be handed an apron instead. He peeled potatoes, washed dishes, and scrubbed floors to earn his keep at the Dragon Café.
Sixty years later, their foreignness still clings to them, vestiges of another life. They remain more comfortable laughing with Chinese friends over mahjong than walking through a mall.
Here I find difference between my grandparents’ immigration experience and the Hmong. My grandfather put away his dialect and customs not because he thought that Coca-Cola and Cadillacs were superior, but because if he wanted to be rise above the tasks of a busboy and be able to support a family, he would have to adapt.
In contrast, the Hmong have not assimilated for the simple reason that they do not have to. Fadiman says they are what sociologists termed “involuntary immigrants,” who came to the United States seeking to resist assimilation. By clustering in groups of 10,000 residents like in Merced, California, the Hmong are able to keep relatively intact a culture traditionally defined by defiance. America may be a melting pot, but it is on low heat for the Hmong. New immigrants nowadays tend to construct defined cities-within-cities, creating a cultural salad instead.
In her speech at UAB, Fadiman said that Lia at twenty-two is shriveled and unresponsive from a permanent brain injury, the result of a grand mal seizure and an infection. The child in hand-sewn garments on the book’s cover has been lost forever to conflicting cultures.
Fadiman said she spent eight years of her life completing The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. And then I realize that it is not only the place of an author to delve into erasing the walls separating two belief systems. Instead, every person should feel it his or her responsibility to be a cultural broker, to locate doors in the walls each ethnicity builds around itself. Being able to see a conflict from both sides is the first step to resolving it.
Reading Fadiman’s book has changed my perspective on my own genealogy and perception of assimilation. The grandparents in our photographs I now saw with new eyes. They had to struggle to relinquish the old ways. Like the Hmong, they must have felt the Pacific Ocean was a divide that could never be re-crossed.
The novel closes with Fadiman present at a soul-calling ceremony, where txiv neeb, a Hmong shaman, enters a trance in which he flies across the ocean to barter with the spirits for Lia’s lost soul. In their new land, the soul-calling ceremony is performed in an apartment, with the sacrificial animals loitering in a parking lot and the txiv neeb watching “Winnie the Pooh” on the television set before beginning the ceremony.
“Where have you gone?” the soul-caller asks to the missing soul. “Are you in the sky? Have you gone to the moon? Come home to your house…Come home to your family…Come home…Come home.”
I examine another photograph. Prosperous at last, my Goong-Goong and Poh-Poh pose in 1961 with an aluminum Christmas tree ringed with crisply wrapped presents. My grandfather wears stylish horn-rimmed glasses; my grandmother, high heels and a corsage. The caption underneath explains that they have just returned from midnight Mass at St. Genevieve’s Church. Two perfectly assimilated Americans, ready to delight their children with music boxes and Cracker Jacks the next morning, so you would think. Until in the corner of the room you spy a table of dried tangerines, strung-together apricot pits, and tin cans with incense sticks—a Chinese altar, cobbled together from Campbell’s soup cans and red tissue paper.