The title of the book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down comes from an expression in the Hmong language which originates in the country of Laos. The Lees, a large immigrant Hmong family in America observe their three month old baby Lia having what in the West would be called an epileptic seizure. …
The importance of cultural awareness and communication
The book’s title is a literal translation of the Hmong phrase qaug dab peg and it is explained by American author Anne Fadiman as follows: “The spirit referred to in this phrase is a soul-stealing dab; peg means to catch or hit; and qaug means to fall over with one’s roots still in the ground, as grain might be beaten down by wind or rain.” (p.20) This explanation refers to the largely rural culture from which the family came, and it mentions a type of spirit which is not familiar to American readers. This is the way that Hmong language captures the rather frightening event, and it is typical of all cultures in all ages that explanations are sought in all sorts of ways to explain sudden events for which there is no obvious material cause. This type of interpretation of a spirit temporarily taking hold of a person is not unique to the Hmong, since many medieval and ancient texts make similar mention of “spirit possession” or “demon possession” and describe fits and seizures that more than likely were due to epilepsy. One aspect of this belief in Hmong culture is that it singles the person out for a special role in society and they often are chosen to become initiated as a txiv neeb which is a special shaman who performs rituals and chants for different occasions, including situations when someone needs healing. A neeb is another kind of spirit, not like the dab, because it is said to be a healing spirit which enters the body of the shaman. The reaction of the parents was a mixture of concern and pride: “Even if an epileptic turns out not to be elected to host a neeb, his illness, with its thrilling aura of the supramundane, singles him out as a person of consequence.” (p. 21) Section 2. One of the best qualities of this anthropological account of the baby Lia’s illness and her family’s experiences in coming to terms both with the practical needs of their large family and at times very obtrusive interventions of the American health services. The book shows how loving and tender the Hmong parents are towards their children, and there is also a strong sense of community which helped them in the traumatic times of war when they assisted American troops in their home country against an oppressive communist regime. This strong attachment to their own culture and community is still important for those who leave their home and settle in America, but the community here struggles to maintain its values because it is now a minority. What is normal and ordinary at home, becomes strange and problematic in the eyes of their new neighbors. A key element in Hmong culture is the practice of making offerings of food, or money, or even animal slaughters, especially chickens, because there is a strong belief in animism. This is an approach to the world which is very widespread in Asian countries, and it is based on reverence for the life (or spirit) which is inherent in everything that exists in the world. The Hmong believe that bad and good spirits are out and about all the time, and they need to propitiate these spirits in order to keep the bad ones away, and enlist the help and protection of the good ones. This is a bit like Roman Catholicism’s practice of praying to the saints, or Hindu offerings ...
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