Sunday, January 11, 2009


Is there a book you've been meaning to read for, oh, forever? Read it. Seriously. Last year I did this with "To Kill a Mockingbird" (how I managed to make it through a very lit-heavy high school program and a college English major without this book is anybody's guess) and it was one of my favorite books ever.

This past week I finally got to "The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down" by Anne Fadiman, about Hmong refugees in my adopted hometown of the last five and half years. My mom in Salt Lake actually read it first, for a class at the University of Utah, then sent me her copy.

I thought I knew the story of these people - I had interviewed a couple of Hmong students for my job - but I truly had no idea. I say hi to the Hmong families at K's Head Start program now with a whole different feeling in my heart.

The history of the Hmong is stunning in every respect - thousands of years of persecution and attempted assimilation by other cultures brought them, uncowed in the end, to Laos, where they fought the Communist Pathet Lao on behalf of the United States. (I previously thought they were involved in the Vietnam War, but Laos was actually a whole different theater where our country essentially used Hmong soldiers - ages 13 and up - as cheap, expendable fighters in a losing conflict.) When we pulled out, we left all but the officers behind. The rest of the families went on foot to Thailand, through landmines and under fire, to refugee camps where they endured disease, overcrowding and food insecurity, not to mention cultural prejudice from administrators who persisted in seeing them as dirty and ignorant. When they arrived here they had already been through the pits of hell.

I also thought previously that there must have been some government program settling Hmong immigrants in pockets. I've become somewhat familiar with a few of them - the Twin Cities in Minnesota, the Milwaukee area, and now the Central Valley of California. I thought somebody must have decided those would be good areas for the Hmong and put them there/here on purpose. Not so. Originally they were settled one family to a city - isolated from their clan-based culture - in hopes that they would blend in quickly. After reading their history I have to say that seems pretty ironic. Of their own volition they came together, and when this book was written my town had the highest percentage of Hmong residents in the nation. A major leader had visited here in April, found it a paradise, and spread the word. (Must've been a dry year - in my experience April can also be very cold and soggy!)

I am taking a long time to come to the main point of the book. The story on which all this history is hung is the story of a little girl with epilepsy and how her immigrant parents struggled to work with the American medical system, and how the system struggled to work with them, ultimately failing despite best attempts to interface properly to preserve her quality of life. It's a tragedy, though with some bright spots as people do their very best. It crossed my interests as the foster care system became very problematically involved; as a hyperactive child tore a medical setting apart; as the author's translator - or "cultural broker" as she described her - asserted her Mormonism in seemingly problem-free conjunction with her family's plans to sacrifice a cow in a Hmong ritual.

Can you start to see what was so fascinating about it? I read only a few non-fiction books a year, but this one was one I would not skip if I were you. Even if you don't live near refugees, even if you don't have a child with medical issues, even if you're not a doctor or nurse or social worker, it's a gripping story with a lot to learn. But if any of those things apply to you, this book will change your view immensely and for the better.


Molly Jae said...

I loved this book, I read it when we first moved to Merced. At that time the Hmong branch was part of our ward (primary and youth) and I saw such interesting dilemmas in dealing with a new country and culture.

Tamara said...

Growing up I had a friend originally from Cambodia. She was only a little girl when she and some of her family escaped and found their way to my tiny town in the middle of Ohio, but she still remembers seeing friends and family shot and killed, the long nighttime treks, finding dead bodies along the way, the smell, etc. And then the kids in school teased her for not speaking English very well. That's an awful lot for one so little to deal with.