Anne Fadiman's The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down remains one of my favorite books; as I noted last week, I decided to read it again after 11 years. Yesterday--after many moments of "I just can't put this book down!"--I finished it again.
The first read was as a senior in college, as an independent study project. Yesterday I pulled the resulting paper from the archives. The book concerns the struggle between Hmong parents and her American doctors about how best to care for their daugher Lia, who had a severe form of epilepsy. The parents didn't give her all medicines as prescribed, both because they couldn't fully understand the directions and because they thought the medicine was making her more sick; her doctors raged against their "non-compliance" while never stopping to understand the very sophisticated (and profoundly different) Hmong understanding of the spiritual components of illness.
In my college paper, I'm harder on the doctors than the Hmong parents Foua Yang and Nao Kao Lee. Neil Ernst and Peggy Philp, Lia's pediatricians, are extremely dedicated and humble. Yet, I still think it is true that (as I wrote then), "Neil and Peggy accepted one aspect of the colonial viewpoint: we are right and they are wrong."
In contrast, I argued that the Hmong were more reasonable--they wanted Western medicine mixed with neeb (Hmong healing spirit.) How ecumenical and open! Yes, to some extent--but the only reason Lia's parents wanted Western medicine is because they were now living in the US and they had no choice. (They were here as part of a forced migration to America, where many Hmong expected a hero's welcome after fighting for us during the Vietnam War.) In Laos, Foua and Nao Kao would not have consulted Western doctors at all.
So, this time around I had to conclude that the Hmong were just as attached to their culture as the doctors were to the mystique of biomedicine. Indeed, Fadiman goes to great length to explain how the Hmong have always fiercely resisted assimilation to any larger culture. In college it was easy to be pro-Hmong, anti-West...but, really, that's just another simplistic binary distinction.
In 1999, apparently, I was familiar with the semiotic concept of syntagmatic analysis. My paper argues that syntagmatic analysis can save us all--this theory focuses on the word-by-word connections that make up good sentences. These words relationships become syntagms. Taking the idealistic plunge that is the glory of youth, I write, "The value of every word in a sentence is a wonderful metaphor for the value of every culture in the world. The fact that a good sentence suffers once a single word is removed is analogous to the harm caused whenever a viewpoint is silenced." (This earned an "interesting observation" note from my instructor, in the margin.) I conclude, far too optimistically perhaps, "Although it is easier to fix these words than it is to cease cultural competition, Fadiman's account remains us that this is always possible." Hmm....I don't know anymore. I guess it's still possible to "cease cultural competition," but this time around I have to say that Fadiman's point is that this is not very likely.