Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a book that explores a tragedy as a result of intersection of two diverse cultures: American and Hmong. It is a great example to show that culture truly matters in the current globalized world, with the USA being the one of the top multicultural countries with minorities comprising a third of the population. The book exemplifies that it is impossible to avoid cross-cultural disputes in American heterogeneous society, but it also suggests that it is possible to reduce the negative effects of the cultural misunderstanding observed in the story with the help of people’s awareness and professional culturally sensitive assistance.
Anne Fadiman’s book is an eye-opening source to teach people understand what multiculturalism in society really means, how it relates to social and medical services, and what consequences the clash of two different cultures may have if there is a lack of mutual understanding. This book does not provide easy answers, but there are lessons to be learned and aspirations to be found in order to make intercultural communication the fundament for dispute resolutions. Before the interaction with representatives from other cultures, it is easy to speak about the challenges of such an interaction, but Fadiman demonstrates on the real example of a Hmong family drama that intercultural conflicts are not simply a popular theme to talk about but a personal and professional issue to overcome.
The two worlds of Hmong traditions and rational American doctors clashed over the case with one seriously ill little girl. The Hmong family put the illness of their daughter into the specific cultural insight, referring to “quag dab peg” which translates to “the spirit catches you and you fall down.” The doctors from rational American culture simply named it in a well-known medical term – epilepsy. That is a bright example to comprehend one worldview operating with totally different concepts. Over the years, doctors tried to convince the Hmong family to follow the medical transcriptions, convicting them of killing their own child with a refusal to take medication. Those doctors did not know that Hmong families strongly connected with such rituals as burying placenta, or “jacket” for a soul, short after the birth of a child and believed that some diseases might appear because ants attacked the buried placenta. They did not know that foreigners had totally different medical traditions, believing that rubbing a coin over a child’s body can help stop diarrhea. All of these techniques are traditional for the Hmong to use for distinctive health problems. Probably, doctors would take a sacrifice of animals to please the harmful spirits, called “dabs,” as nonsense but not a curing method. However, this and other shaman treatments, called “txiv neebs”, are the main medical foundation of Hmong traditions. The doctors did not even try to comprehend that the Hmong family was raised in the society where epilepsy did not exist as the most common neurologic illness but as a divine disease connected to spirits.
On the contrary, closed in the cultural habitat of Hmong traditions, the Lees had no knowledge of English and were not adapted to the life trends of the American society. Being informed by an English-speaking relative as to how to cure their daughter, nobody instructed them about the medical essence of epilepsy and its outcomes that could be treated in the effective medical way. Therefore, the author gives an objective view of the poor immigrant experiences of Hmong people in the American society, stressing a huge cultural difference that these people have in comparison to common American cultural views.
Being imbued after the reading with the clear picture of the intercultural dispute as a whole, the professional understanding of the issue has appeared. The lack of language knowledge and cultural sensitivity on the part of medical specialists, improper negotiations, and intercultural misunderstanding in addition to simple human empathy brought the loss of a girl, Lia Lee, while the life of a human being is the most precious thing in every world culture. Whenever a dispute or conflict arises, it is necessary for all the parties involved to find the common point that will help all of them succeed. Saving a child’s life was this particular point; however, it was not supported by the constructive cooperation but rather hindered by a clash of the dissimilar views. During the clash, the doctors appeared on behalf of the complicated structure of Western medicine, harshly judging the patients whose customs did not conform to the American culture. Furthermore, the ideas of Western medicine in the eyes of Hmong families were too small and filled with mystification. With the suspicious questions as to why American doctors tried to open the heads and remove the brains of the deceased patients, Hmong people saw the American medicine not less nonsense than Americans did their shamanistic customs. Therefore, being put into different categories and concepts, it was impossible to cooperate even with the help of an interpreter who was trying to operate with the language items, while the problem was deeply cultural.
As a cross-cultural dispute resolution professional, I can distinguish the following key lessons on the basis of the case. Firstly, respecting and treating all cultures as essentially equal, avoiding prejudice, racism, and stereotyping are a must for any professional who works in the intercultural environment. My recommendation is before learning other cultures, we should also look critically at our own, identifying its strong and weak points. Keeping in mind the simple truth that we are all different and considering our own cultural identity will result in equal comprehension of cultures. Secondly, being properly educated and culturally aware is essential for becoming a competent intercultural professional. The multicultural life skills training must be put into process, starting from preschool through to graduate school so as to acknowledge differences at all levels of society, thus making it more harmonious. Furthermore, in daily life, the skills and tools of cultural competence mean interaction and partnership with cultural, religious, and ethnic groups in our communities. Thirdly, providing an interpreter is not enough for securing the understanding between parties as cultural concepts might be too different and only cultural translator can cope with the task. Lastly, it is crucial to provide negotiations while keeping in mind that there is difference in the communication styles; so, the point of the two parties must be clearly stated before the procedure will go further. When the communication is clear, it is the way for us as professionals in dispute resolution to see all sorts of lost opportunities for solving the problem, be constructive without missing important details in the stressful situations that are usually triggered by conflicts.
Anne Fadiman seems to be a perfect example of all the above mentioned points to be used by the professional mediator. Being truly compassionate and culturally sensitive, she managed to avoid dramatizing or romanticizing the narration even though the life story of the Lees is sad by its nature. Fadiman used the best cross-cultural dispute resolution techniques trying initially to understand both, listen to them, and fit the communication style as an objective cultural interpreter. Lawyers as well as social and medical service providers can learn a lot from this outstanding example of the balanced presentation and comprehension of the case where two cultures meet. It can be easily explained how the book’s topic refers to the lawyer practice as lawyers usually are negotiators engaged in conversations with their clients, counterparts, and third parties if needed. They deal with various pressure factors as they have to find the resolution and handle a particular case. In the heterogeneous society of America, it is almost impossible to avoid such situations, and in order to make the law or medical practice an effective service, similar lessons need to be learnt.
I will highly recommend the book for anyone who wants to read something thought-provoking, as well as for those striving to learn the mastery of non-judgment because if it was contained in an article or court case, it would be the best example of gathering information without making conclusions. Anne Fadiman gives neither personal judgment on the situation nor the analysis of why something went the way it did. She simply tries to fit the Hmong concepts of life and medical treatment into the American context. She presents views of both sides without distinguishing villains and heroes as we are all people, and we all make mistakes; but we are here to learn how to break the barriers of communication and avoid similar collisions in future.
As a conclusion, the book by Anne Fadiman is a precious source for understanding the central theme of the role of a culture in the American society. Society is a hub of conflicts by itself, but the author demonstrates that when cultures with different views about life issues such as healthcare meet, the conflicts are impossible to avoid. Without proper assistance from culturally competent and sensitive service providers, such conflicts can lead to the tragic results like the one presented in the book. I believe that acting as a human being and trying to be open-minded for other cultures comprise a background where education on how to be a good mediator, listener, and communicator should be conducted. Negotiation is a key treatment tool that has to be used by lawyers or social workers, which may help avoid disastrous outcomes in similar cases and assist them in becoming true problem solvers. Therefore, this book is not only the example guide on how to treat two culturally divergent parties but also a must-read for all the representatives of professions dealing with the interaction between people.