Wednesday, October 19, 2011
I did not want to read "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman, but it came up for book club at our local library. Well, I could not put it down, and it blew my mind. It's a non-fiction account of not only a single Hmong family, but also of how the Hmong came to America. Along the way, we learn about the rich Hmong culture, which is partially based in ancient legends, bad spirits, and unfortunate animal sacrifice. Once this culture hits the United States, that's where things begin to break down. For example, when a Hmong is born, their placenta is buried in a special place under their ancestral home. When they die, this placenta is their garment in the next world. Their spirit must retrace all their steps back to this garment, and then run a dangerous gauntlet to a peaceful place of rebirth. If their soul cannot find this garment, it's condemned to wander eternity naked and alone. But for a moment, let's go back to how the Hmong came to America. In Laos, there are different cultures as you move into higher elevations, including the Lao, the Karen, the Khmu and Mien peoples. "At the highest altitudes, between 1,000 and 2,000 meters, if it is possible, live the Hmong." These remote locations helped keep their ethnic identity very pure, despite their lack of a unifying literacy. They rarely visited the plains, which they called the Land of Leeches. At the end of the 18th century, the British East India Company introduced opium to China, and since then, the Hmong have been master opium growers, "drawn into this international trade they neither created nor controlled." Fast forward to the Vietnam War. For geographical reasons, the U.S. provided covert army training in Laos since 1955, and President Eisenhower considered the situation in Laos to be the most important problem facing the U.S. Then, in 1961, at the Geneva Conference, the U.S. and ten other nations signed an Accord agreeing to the neutrality of Laos. So what did the U.S. do to control this area without sending in U.S. troops that would violate this accord? We got the Hmong to fight for us by proxy, and we promised them a safe place to live if they would do it. And so, this charming and "non-violent" (by normal standards) people fought. At first, they would fire over the enemies' heads or throw away their weapons. They were murdered and napalmed for eight years, and had to uproot 90% of their villages and run, and run, and run. And we-the-people didn't know about it because the CIA forbid journalists from going into this geographical area. And then the U.S. airlifted thousands of Hmong out to the U.S. Oh, and then the U.S. also left thousands of Hmong on the tarmac to die, waiting for other planes that never came. Flash forward to the 1980's. Here is a people who are totally shell-shocked, clinging to the fragments of their culture, and pooling their welfare checks to buy animals to sacrifice, in an effort to fix things. Due to PTSD and lack of English Language skills, if they have a simple car accident (for example) and are arrested, they are expecting to be executed. And all they know how to do is fight guerrilla style, and grow opium. In 1982, a Hmong girl by the name of Lia Lee is born in Merced, California, and they immediately incinerate her placenta, her garment for the afterlife. And here is where our story really begins. A story of the collision of two cultures, and misunderstandings, and heroism and compassion, and sacrifice. And, it's fascinating. What if you believed that each person has a finite amount of blood in their body, and then the doctors keep coming in and taking blood from your child? What if you try to grow crops in the living room of your apartment in urban California? Or, on the other side of the coin, what if you are two dedicated and caring doctors who spend years trying to save the life of a child that is being raised in a culture you cannot really fathom or communicate effectively with? As I read this book, I just kept saying, "What!" This book is very well written and is now on my "must read" list. Anne Fadiman started out just writing an article about this little girl, but when the article got rejected, she then spent the next eight years writing this amazing book because she could not get this story out her mind and her heart. Fadiman manages to show the many characters in an objective light, and reveals the incredible compassion and heroism on both sides of this story. I've heard it said that there are now shamans at the Merced County Hospital, but after reading this book, I know stranger things have happened. Highly recommended.