Penn State

Patricia Hinchey - professor of education, Penn State Worthington Scranton

Book Title: The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures

Author: Anne Fadiman

Book Description:

I often recommend this book to my students as one that changes the way the reader sees the world—forever. Certainly that was the effect it had on me when I read it some time after I became a professor. Few Americans have heard of the Hmong people, although there are over 150,000 Hmong refugees living in the United States. Fewer still know that thousands of Hmong had to flee Laos after Saigon fell because the U.S. had enlisted their aid during the Vietnam war. This book is not, however, a dry historical account of that war. Instead, it is a compelling account of one immigrant family’s devastating experiences in a bewildering environment antithetical to their native culture. Central to the cultural conflict are encounters between the family and American medical and social service workers. One child has what doctors term “epilepsy”—which the Hmong consider not an illness but an indication of holiness, a blessing known as “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.” Doctors insist on drawing blood, a practice the parents believe life threatening to their child. When the devoted parents don’t follow instructions for administering medicine because they don’t understand verbal instructions and cannot read labels, doctors judge them guilty of willful neglect, of child abuse. The narrative demonstrates how easily unconscious cultural arrogance can wreak emotional and practical havoc, despite the best of intentions. This book humbles readers, making them realize that no matter how many years of education they may have had, they cannot be considered “educated” if they are unwilling or unable to view the world through more than one cultural lens.


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