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“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” by Anne Fadiman

“The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures,” is a 1997 book by Anne Fadiman that chronicles the struggles of a Hmong refugee family from Sainyabuli Province, Laos, the Lees, and their interactions with the health care system in Merced, California.

On the most basic level, the book tells the story of the family's second youngest and favored daughter, Lia Lee, who is diagnosed with severe epilepsy and the culture conflict that obstructs her treatment.

Through miscommunications about medical dosages and parental refusal to give certain medicines due to mistrust and misunderstandings (and, as Fadiman suggests, the inability of the doctors to have more empathy toward the traditional Hmong lifestyle or try to learn more about the Hmong culture), Lia's condition worsens. There is constantly the dichotomy explored of Lia's illness in relation to the Hmong's perceived spiritual factors versus the Americans' perceived scientific factors.

The book is written in a unique style, with about every other chapter returning to Lia's story and the chapters in-between discussing broader themes of Hmong culture, customs and history: American involvement in and responsibility for the war in Laos; and the many problems of immigration, especially assimilation and discrimination. While particularly sympathetic to the Hmong, Fadiman presents the situation from the perspectives of both the doctors and the family.

All new students are asked to read “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down” and be prepared to participate in a small group discussion of the book with your resident assistant (RA) and student academic adviser (SA) during the fall new student orientation program.


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