The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down / By Anne Fadiman

“Fadiman describes with extraordinary skill the colliding worlds of Western medicine and Hmong culture.” —The New Yorker

Before Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino, there was Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down–a journalistic rendition of Hmong American lives in the United States.

The Spirit Catches You details the medical mis-journey of epileptic Lia Lee, born in Merced, CA, on July 19, 1982, at 7:09PM to parents Nao Kao Lee and Foua Yang. Through her retelling of the tragic events, Fadiman weaves for an unfamiliar audience the trials and tribulations existent in the resultant “crashes” of conflicting cultures in America’s backyard (viii) and the importance of cultural fluency particularly in the medical realm.

Response Questions


  • What are Fadiman’s suggestions for preventing crashes and tragedies as depicted in The Spirit Catches You?
  • Is it inevitable that such crashes occur? Reflect on the messaging of the 2005 film Crash. How are these two portrayals similar? How are they different? Are they related?


  • Authenticity is defined as: “The quality or condition of being authentic, trustworthy, or genuine.” How authentic do you think Fadiman is in her representation of her positionality in The Spirit Catches You? How might/does her status as an unmarried, white woman who does not speak the language affect the information she received?
  • The Spirit Catches You lauds the text as an anthropological gem. Anthropologists since postmodernism (1986, at the latest) have realized the conflicting realities of their representations of “foreign cultures.” Many, in their concluding notes or forewords, now qualify the authority that is normally conveyed to them upon publication. Fadiman is still considered an authority on Hmong people and culture in the United States today. Her comments are quoted on the covers of two more recent Hmong American cultural productions (Bamboo Among the Oaks edited by Mai Neng Moua and The Latehomecomer by Kao Kalia Yang). How do you feel about this?
  • The Lee family is understood to be the archetype of all (if not most) Hmong American families in the United States. Is this a correct interpretation? If so, why? If not, how should a non-familiar audience understand the typical Hmong American family? How does Fadiman create the “average” Hmong family in The Spirit Catches You? What is the actual experience of being Hmong American like?

18 Comments to “Discussion”

  1. Back to “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down”

    Many are saying that “Spirit” is outdated, but I don’t believe this is entirely true for at least two reasons. First, there are still many Hmong families who distrust American (not just white) doctors. They fear that the doctors are second-rate (especially those serving in low-income communities), see patients as guinea pigs, and or simply do not want to help cure their health issues. With this last point I’m reminded of a Chris Rock joke where he says something along the lines of, “Doctors don’t make money curing people, they make money giving people drugs! If patients got cured they would never go back to the hospital and doctors would be out of business!” Used as a joke, the statement is still the reality for many Hmong families who have little and no understanding of complex medical jargon and procedures. Needless to say they are often at the mercy of the doctors who may feel they have the right to do whatever they wish. More hospitals are hiring professional translators so that making trips to the hospital may become easier for these Hmong families. But this merely affirms that misunderstandings continue to occur at the hospital and that not everyone is as “assimilated” as you think they are even in 2010.

    Unless we all just accept western medical practice as the truth (which many of us have), we will never be assimilated into believing westerners and their ways 100%. Case in point: some Hmong women still prefer to have their babies sitting upright on their knees, by themselves, rather than in the recumbent (lying on your back) style we’re familiar with at least through television with hella nurses and doctors running around. By the way, many westerners consider this method “new” when in fact Hmong people have been practicing it for ages.

    The second reason I think “Spirit” has been so popular is its ability to transcend the Hmong vs western cultural clash. There is a chapter where the principal male doctor, Neil Ernst, recounts his hardline approach to treating Lia, forcing medication on her despite her parents’ objections. At the time and as a doctor, he felt that he knew everything so that anything he said should have been final. However, he admits in the chapter that his approach might not have been right. Perhaps if he could go back he would do things differently, but it seems to have been a learning experience for him in terms of working with any new immigrant population. As new waves of immigrants come over, Lia’s situation can be replicated over and over with new doctors facing new Lias and new immigrant parents. Hmong can be substituted for x, y, z populations with their own superstitions and predispositions of western medicinal practices. For the medical students reading this book, it merely serves as a warning of the kinds of decisions and situations they’ll have to face during the course of their medical careers. “Spirit” also encourages students toward more creative and humane ways of practicing medicine rather than shoving medicine down people’s throats.

    I would find it very surprising if Fadiman comes to Stanford next week and says that all Hmong are as she described in “Spirit” to this day. I would ask her the following three questions:

    1) What do you think has changed since the publishing of “Spirit” (over 10 years ago) in the Hmong community?
    2) What do you think has changed since the publishing of “Spirit” in western medicinal practice?
    3) What purpose does “Spirit” have in the future? Does its focus on Hmong cultural practice become less significant given all the claims of outdated-ness or does it remain the definitive (unfortunately) work on Hmong culture?

  2. In response to Vince’s invitation,
    First of all, I would like to express my admiration for the creation of this blog, in which so many of the Hmong students at Stanford are participants. Seeing Hmong students so collaborative and passionately engaged in something is what I have searched for—and I say this because of my experience with the Hmong college students in Minnesota, who have been, unfortunately, not always so energetic. Making this site visible and public showcases every facet of views that Hmong Stanford students have, proving how wrong Gran Torino’s socio-economic statement about Hmong youth is: “Hmong girls over here fit in better. The girls go to school and the boys go to jail.”
    So, thank you for inviting me to participate in this discussion and keeping me updated on future endeavors, which I hope will include Fadiman dialoguing with a Hmong expert. I will try my best to provide you guys other points of view to include in your interchange with each other.
    To contribute a different perspective, I would like to first consider cultural accuracy and inaccuracy. This topic has been argued over by many Hmong, and their views have often reflected a catharsis that many writers on this blog are expressing as well. Whether or not it is an argument worth debating over, I believe the bigger issue is how cultural portrayal overshadows problems of class and race in the eyes of so many Hmong. Instead, we should be discerning and maintain some sense of ethnonationalism, though controlled, towards our treatment in Gran Torino. There should be considerations about the white monopolization of wealth in Hollywood, the collateral aggressive exclusions of people of color and the marketing rationale that results in the propagation of sensationalizing racialized cultures in media. Overall, mainstream media industries are fundamentally capitalistic—everything is about profit. Artistic decisions are driven by the consumer market—and what sells is not cultural accuracy or well-crafted stories, regarding social problems of race and class, but the exoticization of it for dramatic and spectacular effect— no amount of ours or other people of color’s demands for authenticity will override that. But a solution can be found through motivated people of color who will challenge hegemony through their artistic productions.
    One of my most shared stories from working on Gran Torino was when we as actors tried to have our inputs heard about the hu plig ceremony scene to welcome the baby. That scene, we all know, was a failed attempt to depict our practices. I tried describing to director Eastwood how the ceremony took place since I had first-hand experience, especially with my dad being a shaman. But what I discovered was that it was pointless to voice anything because what I described would have made for an unappealing, aesthetically poor mise-en-scene. This doesn’t mean that I think filmic ethnocide or portraying cultures incorrectly was right, but it made me wonder if there could ever be a film faithful to cultural specificity. Can we aim for it? Personally, I don’t think so because this instance taught me even though nominal cultural advisors were on set, cultural accuracy waned in the face of gratifying aesthetic choices and arousing interest in audiences. And we are not talking about ethnographic film or documentary here. There are other priorities operating in narrative entertainment films. Entertainment differs from the standards of scientific accuracy, and the values, which emerge from the differences, should not be sacrificed.
    In regards to the goal of 100% authenticity, we are very ethnocentric and egotistical to strive for that amount of correctness. For what is “authenticity” any way? Many people of color have fought for their faithful representation in films for decades, and may have never seen it happen in their generation. Likewise, we must regard this fight as a gradual process and stop thinking only of ourselves. What I have stressed most during my own process of politicization is that we focus on coalition and work together to improve for everyone’s representation. If people of color unite to tell stories of racialized minorities it will do more work to expose problems of race and class overall and avoid the distractions of cultural explanations, which can end up blaming the oppressed for being different.
    During the panel forum at the University of Minnesota we, cast members of Gran Torino, said that Gran Torino was about “change” and “moving on,” and still, many continued to share their differences with our outlooks. We stood our grounds on the conviction of our praxis, which was to explain that while GT might have distorted our stories, it gave us a forum to speak out in its aftermath. Some of the actors have gone on to speak at similar forums about change and representation, asserting that in telling our stories, we could better define who we are. Even though a comment was made that “we can never define who we are because Gran Torino’s portrayal of Hmong youth is too powerful,” and that “we as youth will never be able to look past how Hmong people are on screen,” there are many Hmong students enrolled at Stanford, Brown, and dozens of other universities. This already counters the negative stereotyping! So how can we not try as hard as we can to speak out and define who we are?
    We cannot completely dismiss Gran Torino as well as Spirit because of the visibility they provide. Should we seek visibility or not?… Let’s take a look at films that have portrayed many other cultures in different ethnicities…although there is no balance, and few desirable individuals are portrayed, there are many of us who have been able to make a name for ourselves: (Harold and Kumar, Better Luck Tomorrow, among others). And what about former State Senator Mee Moua? She is a nationally known public figure. How can Gran Torino be the only thing defining who we are when Mee Moua is a successful Hmong politician and has been around since long before Gran Torino came out? The assertion that “we cannot define who we are because Gran Torino has influenced too many individuals about our culture” implies that we can never define who we are and own no agency whatsoever! Three years ago, if a person asked who you were, and you said Hmong they wouldn’t haven’t known who you were! But with Gran Torino, it now provided us a forum to speak on to educate people about who we really are, whether it is through creating and writing our own stories. Regardless of how injurious filmic visual perception is, as a genesis countering what perceptions have been created already with new perspectives through our own films is strategic in maintaining balance. Why not use the medium to fight against itself as a start? Use the master’s tools against him.
    To seek visibility is a goal I think we should aim for, then, while recognizing the potential negative effects. Of course, there will always be negative responses no matter what form the media appears as. In Gran Torino, the excessive uses of the concept of “perpetual warrior” (Hmong are forever being defined by violence in war and conflicts), xenophobia (Walt’s fear of the yellow peril), gender (demeaned masculinity) and race issues reinforces law authorities’ empowerment to racially profile youths (Fong Lee). With Spirit, people of color, not just Hmong, may be excluded from receiving effective healthcare and those exclusions are legitimized when reading “literary” works like the Spirit, which could encourage medical practitioners to administer unequal treatment based on cultural differences. The response should be to educate and remind audiences and consumers, not to take these products at face-value. They are neither ethnographic nor culturally legitimate. The response is to make contributions in any form and make a name for ourselves, countering films, books and perception.
    The first step is to acknowledge why these problems are persisting and how it would be a step backwards to act as isolated individuals. To move forward is to work together, to close the gap between those who can and cannot access the resources to produce media. If we are indeed empowered to move forward in America, we must see the day in which equality draws near. Nothing that is worth having in this world comes easy.

  3. My Gran Torino Review… aka Criticisms lol

    “So tenderly your story is
    nothing more than what you see
    or what you’ve done or will become
    standing strong do you belong
    in your skin;”

    This stanza from Clint Eastwood’s Gran Torino seems to echo the theme of the movie: the theme of redemption, of atonement, of spiritually maturing, of loving yourself. However, are these interweaving themes the only aspects of the movie that should be praised or recognized? No. As with any movie depicting a People, viewers and critics should also analyze the portrayal of the movie’s characters. In this I mean the portrayal of Hmong characters in Eastwood’s Gran Torino. After re-watching the movie (which I have to say was a little bit of a drag) I have come to a realization of how unseeingly degrading it is. The movie in all its glory centers on Walt (sorry I really did think his name was Clyde) and his story. It has little to do with the Hmong. They (the Hmong) seem to be used as some sort of proxy for the real repentance that Eastwood’s character feels obligated to wallow in. Due to this, Thao’s (Bee Vang) story is actually just fodder for Eastwood’s movie. Just used as a stepping-stone to the dramatic “White Savior” ending. However, because the movie does showcase Hmong people in it, I believe that (in this day and age) the director (Clint Eastwood) and his cultural consultant should have painted an image appropriate to the Hmong. I don’t really blame the actors and actresses because it was their job to do what they were told. However, I do blame them for the propagation of incorrect views (of the Hmong). I guess because this movie was “not” supposed to be about the Hmong, Eastwood felt it was okay to depict negative and demeaning aspects of Hmong culture and people.

    This movie was very similar to Fadiman’s book in that it inspires the proliferation of incorrectness and inaccuracies of the Hmong in America. Just like Fadiman’s book, the movie’s cultural presentation of the Hmong was by far the most aggravating part of the 1hr and 50mins I had to endure. To me, I found that the biggest issues I had were the ever-splurging amounts of inaccuracies. I mean I was literally laughing at sooo many scenes because they made no sense to me. For example the scene where all those Hmong people are bringing gifts to Walt’s house because he “helped” Thao. I was seriously like… “What the hell, Sawatdee Khrab for reals! Since when did we turn Thai? lol” Because there were so many erroneous depictions, the Hmong (at least to me) seemed to have gotten teleported into a convoluted suspension of being Hmong and “Hmong American.” (What is the time setting for this movie anyways? I was really confused cause the characters spoke fluent English (albeit the several lines that needed to be annunciated better) yet it seemed so backwards because of the gangs… Anyone know?) Anyways, it just seemed like Bee and Ahney’s charcters, Thao and Sue were brought from the weird future of “There Are Only Hmong Gansters” into the even weirder past of “There Are Only Interactions Between Hmong People and Their White Saviors Who Used To Be Racist But Learned The Ways Of The Melting-Pot.”

    While watching the film I also saw a lot of wrong and aggregated stereotypes that I felt should have been edited out because of the fact that it leads our youth to feel as if they are (I’ve complained a lot about this) a part of the “ever so” present group called “ASIAN.” The racial stereotyping in this film made it seem like the Hmong were just a branch off of the Chinese family tree. What with Sue being a “Dragon Lady” and Thao being “good at math” who wouldn’t automatically lump Hmong into China. Oh wait, never mind I mean Hmong people with Chinese people cause we all know that Hmong “is a people not place.” However, unlike other “Asian” groups, the Hmong are unique in that they love to chew tobacco when they get old, they leave rice liquor anywhere so that their teens could offer it to anyone and they all feel that the United States of America has a duty of raising them. Yup I guess those are the main differences.

    Then there are those scenes where Sue tries giving a substantive explanation of the Hmong by stating lines that sound as if she memorized them from Wikipedia. “No no no. Hills people. Hmong people were Hills people who blah blah blah.. Oh! Another thing you should know about the Hmong is that they usually smile when being yelled at.” Like… SERIOUSLY???? Most of the time I see Hmong people freakin yelling back or looking as dejected as if they had just been rejected citizenship lol. Oh wait my favorite, “Don’t look a Hmong in the eyes because they see that as disrespectful and rude” I wonder whose book this was taken out of?… Hmmmm I think I’ve heard it somewhere before. I don’t know the movie as a whole just got me FUSTRATED to the MAX!

    Moving on, I will be talking about the views of some of Gran Torino’s Actors and Actresses. (Interview at the University of Minnesota)
    Here’s the link: http://www.ias.umn.edu/media/GranTorino.php

    [Spider’s actor] Doua Moua says in the interview that he feels this movie is about change, about moving on. Why is it then that the movie portrays Hmong people as so backwards in terms of their living situations, cultural respects, etc? Is their perfect English the only thing that adds to this “future movement” or are their more clues in the movie? Maybe the ghettoed-out spoilers on their never ending supplies of Hondas? I just don’t understand how he was able to justify the misrepresentation of Hmong with the bland line about “moving forward.” Adding to this (in my view) was Ahney saying that being called “Dragon Lady” did not bother her much… How so is it then that this film represents the ability to move forward? Are we going to move forward with Chinese stereotypes flowing over our heads? Are we to move on and just let our future leaders live with the stereotyping developed from one movie? This idea of moving forward is nothing more than a justification for the obviously flawed and unauthentic portrayals of Hmong in the movie.

    Another actor Elvis Thao (one of Spider’s subordinates) talks about the film exuding the idea of “self-empowerment” about how it shows its viewers that one needs not cling onto the little (numerous and blatant) incorrectness of the movie and instead should focus on their self-empowerment in order to move on in life. However, how are we, how are future Hmong children supposed to give themselves self-empowerment when their images and their “selves” are already dictated to them by films that do not portray Hmong people as how they are? How are we, college students, supposed to better our “self-empowerment” when students across campus know and only know of Hmong people from Gran Torino and its inaccurate depictions of “us?” Must we move on with only lingering ideas about who and what we really are? He also states that working on this film has been more rewarding than receiving an award such as the Academy award. How so when you only back-up the idea of “moving on” and the idea of “self-empowerment” both of which are only indiscreetly portrayed (in terms of Hmong people) in the movie?

    This same actor also said that he was happy the film was humorous because “we” could just laugh it off and say that the inaccurate scenes are ridiculous. Is this the right mind-set of just “moving on?” Should we just forget about the stereotypes, the incorrectness, and the negative portrayal of our youth in this movie? Is this not just promoting the negative images presented in the movie? Is this not empowering the propagation of a backwards and false view of Hmong people?

    Sue sits on the porch with Walt, thanking him for becoming a paternal figure for Thao: “I wish our father had been more like you….He was really hard on us, really traditional, and really old school.” “I’m old school,” is Walt’s retort. “Yeah, but you’re an American.”
    Is this the kind of “Moving forward” that Spider’s actor was talking about? Acculturating to America and forgetting about our past about our tradition?

    Bee offers this view about the movie: “This movie isn’t about all that political correctness and Hmong culture correctness. It’s just a film that resonates with the times, with President Obama being elected.” (Where’d Obama come from?…)
    Then goes on to say, “[Gran Torino] is not about the Hmong community… We will only let this film define us if we are weak and we let it define us. We define who we are.”

    Is it really this simple? Are we able to “define” who we are when there is so much negative commentary and showcasing of our people? Is it then still feasible for us to define “our” people, “our” culture, “our” religion? Is the American society not already brainwashed into believing the media portrayal of minorities? Has American society not shown us that media is a main if not THE main bringer of a stereotyping genesis? Bee also said that at the end of the day it was “just” a film “just” a script. Have we not seen the affects of “just films” in the atrocity of the Holocaust? It was “just” a film that promoted horrid ideals about the Jews. It had no influence what so ever on the future of the Jews… nope none at all. To say that this film is “just” a script “just” a film is like trying to justify its incorrectness, justifying its racial degradation of us.
    Bee also stated that people who have “complained” about the movie have been looking TOO much into it. Who is to say that trying to correct something disastrously wrong constitutes being a complaint? Those who want to change or bring into light inaccuracies of the movie are only trying to make viewers aware of the incorrect presentation of the Hmong in the movie. If we just gloss over these wrongs, then who will correct the general public when they start asking questions such as: “Oh the Hmong this, Oh do you guys really do this, Oh yeah! Hmong like in Gran Torino! Do you guys really…etc” Must we live with these obnoxious questions that could have been eradicated with swift explanations of the wrongs?

    Doua Moua (Spider) then goes on to say that “Nowhere in America is this happening” If this is so then why was it that Clint Eastwood decided to make a film like this? (I’m not saying they do but instead am questioning the motives behind this movie.) Why did he choose to use Hmong people in situations that “never” happen? And if it “never” happens, why is this movie promoting the idea that it did and does? Why is this film portraying a people who little is know about in a manner that defames and degrades their people, their being? Even if events such as the ones in the movie “do not” happen in “real” America, wouldn’t the promotion of the movie and its messages make American (and people all across the world) believe in its self-fashioned image of the Hmong?

    Overall I just did not like the film because although, as the actors and actresses claim “The film is not about correctly portraying the Hmong” I believe that it leads to the incorrect portrayal and cultural degradation of our people. Of what it means to be Hmong. Of what it means to be a people who came to this country expecting nothing and getting to where we are today. We must remember that although this film and other media create a pseudo-image of us, we must never forget who and what we are. We are Hmong, a minority within the “Asian” race, a minority who needs to correct the wrong made upon us. Due to this, we cannot simply brush this rubbish under the carpet; we cannot just accept and let others accept this image of us.

    *Again sorry for the rant >.<


    • After washing the dishes I remembered an (in my mind) awesome ending that I wrote for PWR (which I edited for this) lol

      *hemp hemp*

      Even if we must accept that this movie was about “moving on,” about “change,” we as Hmong students need to realize our differences and the effects of stereotyping and work to abolish the discrepancies that leads to the outrageous dramatization of the Hmong in America. Although the green mountains of lush jungles and patty fields of rice have now become the rolling hills made amber with their waves of grain and the fruited plains so abundantly scattered across America, we must not falsely assimilate to “American” ideals. We, on the other hand, because of our unique backgrounds, must strive to show America our old jungles and rice patties and not be lost into America’s all too dominant idea of our supposed Confucian homes and Imperial palaces. By doing this and only this will we be able to call ourselves “Hmong.”

      A little too corney? lol


    • Vince,

      As always, your passion is inspiring.

      You bring up many important and worthwhile points of discussion. In particular, your statement that the media is the main bringer of stereotype genesis is right-on. There is no denying that what we see on the television screen effects our conscious and unconscious psyche. As proud as I am to have seen the Hmong depicted in Hollywood for the first time ever, I don’t forget that it is Hollywood doing the depicting. For that reason, it would be extremely irresponsible of our Hmong actors AND our Hmong community if we did not recognize the negative, albeit unintended consequences of this film. This is not to say there is nothing positive about the Hmong in the film–the Hmong family is friendly, hospitable, and empathetic–but people’s tendency to remember the bad over the good cannot be underestimated.

      In reference to Bee Vang’s statement, perhaps Gran Torino can be a small opportunity to the Hmong community as the historic election of Obama is to the United States. No serious minded progressive activist is going to relax just because Obama is President. They should and will be even more vocal now that he is in Office. Likewise, we Hmong cannot be content with the small accomplishment that is GT but must use this opportunity to tell our own stories.

      I can already hear the voices saying we’re thinking too much or being too critical of GT, but in fact we all have a stake in this film, namely, the image of our Hmong identity, which for many of us, is the essence of our lives.

  4. Question:

    After a decade of research and another decade after the book was published, has your view on the Hmong people changed in terms of culture and _____? (whatever else is on your mind–I couldn’t grasp what else I wanted to say into words)

    I’ll post up more when I’m done reading it 🙂

  5. So we definitely have a problem with cultural presentation and the fact that some “facts” are over-generalized. If we were able to bring Anne Fadiman into our event what would you guys like to discuss? Is there any specific questions that you would like to ask (like Sandy when she said she would like to know what Fadiman thinks of Hmong culture now). There seems to be a general negative response to the book aside from Vang’s comment saying that we probably just distrust outsiders.

    Are there any other topics that you guys would like to explore with Fadiman?

    -Pa Nhia

  6. Within the first ten pages of reading the book, I wanted to ask Anne Fadiman what she thought of the Hmong culture now. I agree that her research is out-dated, that her generalizations of the Hmong culture are not exactly true/accurate. The book makes me want to talk to my parents about their views and knowlege of the Hmong culture (in fact I plan to do that very soon, lol). I agree that her account of Hmong culture and first experiences as an immigrant is fairly accurate for an non-Hmong person. I am hopeful (truthfully, a little surprised and frustrated that is has not happened).

    For Vince, I didn’t have that much of a problem with her quotations from Nao Kao and Foua. One possibility could be that since they had first told their stories in fluent Hmong, Fadiman wanted to portray their original voices in fluent English. On the other hand, I did have a little problem with Fadiman portraying (like you said, inadvertently or not) as “illiterate, English-impaired, grammatically
    awkward IMMIGRANTS”. – That I did catch. I REALLY enjoyed reading your comments!

    Overall, I enjoyed the book. I thought it accurately expressed the frustrations of cultural barriers within the medical field. It almost made me want to become a doctor, despite my avid hate of the sciences. I also found it quite beautiful when she talked about the Hmong people being the “free people” and that despite others trying to make them assimilate, they have resisted and been able to abide by their name in remaining who they are. Sometimes I even thought her descpriptions made our culture too beautiful (lol). Also, she did hint toward a gap between the old and new generation of Hmong (i.e. gangs, too busy to take parents to places), but I found that most of her descriptions of this generation of Hmong is negative. This is why by the end of the book, since Fadiman did decide to bring in the new generation of Hmong, I found her despription lacking. I, and many other Hmong students, didn’t work their butt off to still be viewed by the standard she writes about in Spirit.

    On another note though, I was recently talking to my sister who currently lives in Minneapolis. She says that the Hmong stereotype up there is that they now hold the wildest parties with the most amount of beer involved. I was quite surprised… Vince, although you are sure that you are Hmong, I myself am finding it difficult in choosing between defining myself “Hmong-American” or “Hmong.” What I practice and believe in is quite different than our fellow people who live in Laos/Thailand or those who have just arrived in America. And then – we get into the whole definition of what and who “Hmong” are.

    Well, I have rambled on enough for now…

    • I agree with Sandy and I believe that a lot of the negatives have to do with the times because we’re talking late 80’s and early 90’s, I remember my family acting like the Lees during those times, but then they have changed in the past decade too

  7. I know that there is this one instance where Anne Fadiman says that Hmong men back in Laos treasured two things most among Hmong women and that was whether they were good at 1. sewing paj ntaub and 2. singing kwv txhiaj but I’m nearly positive that this is not the case (my dad has never heard this statement and comments in saying that only beauty is sought). Like most if not all cultures, aesthetics is what matters. I’m wondering whether this is a purposeful misrepresentation of the Hmong to make us look better, whether this is a certain belief held by a Hmong (or an expert?) who Anne Fadiman has only asked or whether this statement is just held in one region back in Laos. I do agree with PaNhia in saying that I learned more about our culture but this one error I seemed to have found irritates me severely, especially considering that I do not know our culture very well and may have missed other flaws that may well turn the tide in Fadiman’s overall claim and argument.

    Another thing I have noticed in my life, though this could easily be argued, is that there are technically three types of Hmong people in America. 1. The first one is the progressive Christian who assimilates into American culture. Little to no knowledge of the language, but especially the religion and folklore, is usually retained with these Hmong but what they hold to be true and most important is what Americans believe. In doing this, they are usually successful in American society (unless they are subjugated to discrimination and prejudice which is sometimes the case) but leave behind what their parents, grandparents and ancestors hold most dear.
    2. The second type of Hmong in America are those who aren’t any particular religions perse, or may be involved with rituals but do not really feel like they are a part of it, or that such things do not have specific spiritual merit or do not involve themselves in any way. Again, these Hmong people echo what the first are in that they are able to enter American society but do not cling to their ancestor’s roots. In being like this, these Hmong have a harder time choosing sides but it ultimately comes down to it, though they are stuck in two worlds and may become a misfit altogether as well.
    3. The last kind are those who still stay strong to the Hmong culture, embracing animism and all of the rituals involved with that, speaking Hmong as fluently as those back in Laos and even keeping to the orders of our culture in family and clan structure, wedding traditions, the social addressing and greeting of others, etc. But doing this in America is backwards in that these people will not progress, or at least progress wealth-wise and status-wise in American culture. The sad thing too is that these people are dying out in America and with them, all that makes our culture what it is.

    In denying to represent all of the types of Hmong people in America either through ignorance or lack of sufficient information/time/interest, Anne Fadiman has put forth a Hmong stereotype, along with Clint Eastwood’s “Gran Torino,” that has only scarred the Hmong reputation in America. I, for one, am quite angry in seeing that they seem to generalize all of what the Hmong are in their visions and that these two things, above all, are the only two pop media that Americans fall back on when it comes to knowledge of the Hmong.

    • I totally agree with the “three types of Hmong in America” and I see it, and it’s variations, everywhere. But I think we have to remember that this was not first or second generation Hmong, these Hmong were the first Hmong to come to the U.S.

    • Okay so I read this post a long time ago but wasn’t sure if I should post anything lol But I feel that (sorry Scott) the “Three Types” of Hmong people are too narrowly envisioned. I just feel that even inside of Hmong 2 and Hmong 3 there are a pleather of people who succeed in mainstream American society. My family, for instance, is really like totally gun-hoe traditional Hmong but everyone has also learned that they must assimilate to live a meaningful life. So to say that people in 2 and 3 do not succeed in life is kinda too general of an assumption (in my view).

      However, I could see that there are “Three Types” of Hmong and within those three specifications are numerous variations. That part I will agree to ^.^

    • Scott,

      I find your “3 types of Hmong” extremely skewed and downright wrong You’ve conjured up in your mind 3 images of the “progressive Christian”, “misfit”, and “backwards people.” There are plenty of Hmong Christians who are very conservative, both socially and politically, who are also struggling to make ends meet, whose kids are failing school, etc. There are also plenty of non-Christians, who have strong secular beliefs and who nonetheless are living productive healthy lives. As a student of higher education, I implore you to use reason and refrain from such parochial statements.

  8. After rereading this book, I’ve found that the biggest problem that I have with it is Fadiman’s over-generalized and at times uniquely biased (due to the Lees and Fadiman’s research) ideas about the Hmong of America (Hmong-American, Hmong of the past, Hmong Thaij Teb, just Hmong, whatever you want to call them/us). I feel that as an author, who did not publish her book until 1998, Fadiman should have, like PaNhia said, used “The Hmong MAY or SOME Hmong MAY” instead of blankly distributing statements which are not always correct and definitely not homogenous. Yes, some Hmong did do and I guess still do what Fadiman’s book leads its readers to believe (raising rats, not looking at an elder in the eye, not peeing on a rock that looks like a tiger *where the hell do you find one of those in the freakin forest anyways lol* etc) but those few accounts are not valid enough for one author to thrust those instances’ full weights and significances onto a whole population. Fadiman’s data was also based on the Hmong of Merced from 1985ish to whenever she left which leaves out the time span between her departure and publication of her book, which I am sure, definitely led to a change in the Hmong communities of Merced. Therefore, her information was outdated even before she published her book. How convenient for unfamiliar readers ^.^

    I was especially shocked when she stated that she had probably met the most educated and regal Hmong woman _____ (I forgot her name lol). I mean WHAT A JOKE. I just don’t understand where Fadiman was able to blankly state that this girl, whose education was little mentioned, WAS the most intelligent Hmong woman that she met while in Merced. I guess Fadiman could have or probably meant it as a compliment but it came off as an inconsiderate domineering view of an Anglo, white, ignorant overseer. If I were an outside reader I would have thought “Oh damn! Then the others must have been dumber than an average bear!”

    On the topic of “authenticity,” I believe that the cultural and religious depictions in this story are not legitimate and “fully” authentic as Fadiman received her information for beneficiary means. In this I mean that Fadiman (at least to me) did not learn about Hmong religion and culture to genuinely and completely submerge herself in it but instead she did it for the future of her book and or article (as she was a journalist during this time). If one, even one who is Hmong, wants to learn about Hmong religion and culture for its whole, they must first be willing to fully invest their life’s work to protect the essence and “authenticity” of that specification. I believe that if Fadiman’s exposure of the Hmong religion and culture were to be “authentic,” she would have never translated the Hu Plig chant at the end of her book. Yes, it made for an ignorant “Oh my gosh, I totally understand the significance of Hmong spiritual beliefs! You have to call the spirit once it is caught by another spirit and falls! Ahhhh!!!! I see I SEE!” But in reality, I think that translation was the most tarnishing agent of her book. For one to be authentic, he or she would never divulge the words of one of the most valued ceremonies of Hmong religion. (As my Native American *Pocahontas’ sister* friend told us in PWR and of course I believe this too ^.^) These words are meant to be repeated only by those who are practiced in the arts of Neeb not by someone who wants, “for the better of the medical world,” to figuratively end their book with a spiritual sha-bang. I mean I believe that even we, Hmong students of Stanford, are not fully authentic in our religious and cultural knowledge of our people. We cannot say that we have learned what it means to be apart of a “shamanistic/ animistic” religion more or less write about its cultural significance without having to do weeks maybe even years of research and study. So where does Fadiman stand when I, a full-blooded Hmong whose father is a leading elder involved as the head of a multitude of religious ceremonies, don’t consider myself authentic enough to produce a spiritually invigorating adaptation as an embodiment my own religion and culture?

    I actually think that Fadiman’ gender, in consideration with her race, helped her enormously in retaining her information. It would have been an indisputably different story if the author had been a young 6’2” white man who just happened to want to befriend little 5’5” Southeast stone-aged Asians because he wanted to. I believe that he would have not been as easily been accepted into the Lee’s household plus I would have thought he was a child molester too. Unless he did something miraculous like what’s his name?… Clyde? I know it started with a “C”… IDK, Clint Eastwood’s character in Grand Torino. Because Fadiman was a woman who was not married, she was seen as less of a threat or maybe just seen as having less ability to take Lia away and therefore was allowed to ask questions about Lia. I don’t think that her information was diluted or sullied in anyway because she was a woman but I do think that the information given was not as informed and elaborated because she was an outsider. As Hmong society shows us (even today) outsiders are never really welcomed to be a part of “Hmoob” families. I mean you don’t normally see a Hmong family inviting a Mexican reporter to their house on a regular basis and calling him or her “mi tub or mi ntxhais.” (except for Lilian ^.^) On the other hand, language is always a challenge in terms of the standard of information that is collected regardless of who you are. There are just things that are not conveyed correctly or in the same manner after translation. A classic example is “Tsov tom” (which Fadiman also used… lame huh lol) when literally translated its simply “tiger bite” but as you and I know, this seemingly innocuous two worded phrase is actually a curse that has the equivalent weight of calling someone a down right “BITCH.” For Fadiman it was just more difficult and inconvenient to receive substantial information because no one other than Hmong people spoke Hmong so she had to rely on Hmong translators who were not always capable of effectively translating the situation(s).

    On the topic of Fadiman being an expert on the Medical misunderstandings and cultural barriers of the Hmong and Modern Western Medicine, I do not believe that she should be given the title of “expert” because an “expert” implies that one knows everything that is currently know about their respective fields. If this is so then Fadiman should have been a M.D. holder specialized in traumatic medicine and pediatrics as well as having a Ph.D. in Psychology as well as having a firm and substantial understanding of Hmong religious, cultural, and historical backgrounds. Based on the data presented in the book she had none of these. Although Fadiman did have an extensive amount of historical background and personal interaction with Lia’s family and doctors, which would have led her to become familiar with the clash between cultures, there is a precarious line between being an expert in something and having just done a lot of research. I just don’t think that Fadiman has the qualities of an “expert.” Sorry Anne Fadiman ☹

    The idea that the Lee family is understood to be the archetype of all (if not most) Hmong American families is a laughable lack of knowledge and gullibility. Maybe the Lee family represented the generalized image of Hmong families in their time era but they are definitely not the modern standard or representation. However, my ability to put words on the understanding of a “modern” Hmong family is like trying to put words to the paintings of Picasso or Da Vinchi. There is just such a complexity that I, at least, cannot fully explain the image of modern Hmong families except to say that they are like any other immigrated populations in that there are families who are adamantly traditional, families who have converted to Christianity and or any other secular beliefs, families who are neither, families who are confused about both etc. I think the main idea is to accept the fact that there are many types of “modern” Hmong families but uniting factor is that they all have one goal in life and that is to be a respectable family for their extended clan and the society that they have become a part of. AND due to this you can be assured that there will most likely always be an educated enough person who can be a moderator for any type of issue brought up by misunderstandings etc.

    In my view, Fadiman creates the “average” Hmong family by insisting that the values of the Lees were also the values that made up the foundation of all other Hmong families; that the information the Lees told her constituted the whole Hmong community in America (at the time) and not just the Lees. The generalization that all Hmong parents would kill for their children to the long lasting hatred towards another child all makes for a very interesting but singular and exclusive view of one Hmong family. However, because Fadiman has never before encountered a Hmong family and would later only do so mostly by research, she herself creates an overlaying image of the Hmong people being a unpretentious group of new “high-land immigrants.” I guess you can’t really blame her except until you realize that she should have interviewed other Hmong families outside of Merced (seeing as she had do much second-hand data on them).

    Personally I don’t call myself “Hmong-American” and I don’t think anyone else really does at all. I feel that we all see ourselves as “Hmong” and that constitutes being a Hmong person who happens to be a citizen of the United States of America. When you put the two together, Hmong and American, you are implying that the country as a whole needs to separate you from those who you feel are less than and or different from you. This would entail the recognition of many if not most of America to the Hmong communities because we are the only ones (as of right now) that can distinguish ourselves as being “Hmong-American” or “Hmong” or in my case “Hmong-Brazilian” ^.^ Anyways back on topic, being Hmong and living in America has made me understand the disadvantages that we as a “minority within a minority” have upon our backs. We are expected to be like the “other” Asians but at the same time are shunned from their circles. It has also shown me that we as the future of Hmong communities have forgotten our roots and unintentionally want to keep our roots dried as to not be lumped into an image that we do not see ourselves in. Instead we instinctively acculturate to American mainstream society and see our roots as a residue of old times past. Something that needs to be chopped away but at the same time is essential to the existence of us. *For lub txiv av paum yeej poob tsis nreb ntawm tsob txiv ntoo av paum* I guess we, as first generation/ second generation citizens, who live in a new and ever accepting society have never had to experience the extreme oddities of prejudice that our parents and grandparents endured when they first came over. I mean being a first generation/ second generation Hmong has definitely given us the abilities and advantages of making people know who we are and what we represent without the fears of repercussion. So although we may have experienced prejudice from society, regardless of it being from Whites, Blacks, Asians, Latinos etc I believe that we all have been blessed in not having been under the pressure of the already permeating and overlaying ideal of the Model Minority (from, I think before the 1970s) as well as the communistic image forced onto all Southeast Asians from the Vietnam War.
    So to sum it all up, being Hmong in America has caused (me at least) to question our beliefs and practices because of the ever present influence from Mainstream America which has also led me to realize the lack of “returning to our roots” which in turn has opened my eyes to realize that we as future leaders of the Hmong communities all across the world should come to a realization that we must save our religion, culture, and language to help our forefathers who gave so much for us to be here being able to write blogs and responses about topics like this, to be proud in saying they are Hmong (not to mention future generations).

    However, just on a tangent, I was wondering if anyone had confusions over Fadiman’s choice of writing a lot of Nao Kao and Foua’s statements in perfect English. I just found it kind of a paradox-like contradiction to the image that she was trying (inadvertently or not) to portray the Hmong as: illiterate, English-impaired, grammatically awkward IMMIGRANTS. I mean, I understand that she’s getting these stories through a second source but as she has shown readers (through her quotes of her various interpreters) her interpreters never exude the ability to communicate without some sort of grammatical anomaly. Why is it then that she gives Nao Kao and specifically Foua the ability of communicating with her readers in a manner that she herself never experienced?

    *Sorry that it was so lengthy. I hope it was an enjoyable read though ^.^*


    • About your last tangent, I believe that Nao Kao and Foua’s perfect english can be explained in the Note on Hmong Othogh…*I forget how to spell it, but I think they were pages 291-292*

  9. Some critics complain that Fadiman misrepresents the Hmong as a primitive, superstitious, and uneducated people. However, a reading of the book that reflects a genuine distortion by Fadiman is incorrect. Re-reading the book (my third time now) I find myself wincing at an occasional stereotypical statement, but as a second generation Hmong American, who grew up in a poverty-stricken and racially segregated town, I believe Fadiman did as good a job as any “outsider” could have done in presenting the Hmong immigrant story. In fact, I believe Fadiman is subject to a lot of criticism precisely because she is an outsider and more importantly, a mainstream author. In various texts Hmong authors have tried to tell their stories and in many cases, we Hmong readers have not necessarily agreed that their stories represent our own, yet there is no such commotion. I believe the criticism directed at Fadiman is reflective of a lingering distrust between Hmong and non-Hmong persons.

    I believe it is important to tell our stories from our own perspectives, whether as Hmong Americans or whatever label to which you subscribe. But make no mistake about it, anytime we claim our experiences as part of a larger narrative, in this case, the Hmong American experience, our stories will be scrutinized and subject to debate by all.

  10. After reading Anne Fadiman’s Spirit Catches You book, I thought that too much about the Hmong was generalized. I thought it was an enriching read because I learned a lot about Hmong culture that I had not known existed and learned the reason behind a lot of the things we do, but I think the book is outdated and presents a view of the Hmong that is no longer valid. Some of the things that Fadiman says about the Hmong are very generalized, like instead of saying “many Hmong are like this” Fadiman makes a blanket statement and says “the Hmong are like this” and does not allow for the reader to see and understand that it is only a certain portion of the Hmong population that is actually like that. That is what irked me the most as I read the book. I think that Fadiman being considered somewhat of an expert on Hmong culture is not necessarily wrong though, because she definitely did enough research and presents it as if she knows what she’s talking about.

    -Pa Nhia

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