December 11, 2012
Who is the one to delineate fault for a miscommunication and misunderstanding between two cultures? In Anne Fadiman’s novel, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, she begins the novel as an attempt to allocate responsibility for the mistreatment and exacerbation of Lia Lee’s epilepsy. The tension between the Hmong and United States medical culture exemplified the strain in America between a foreign culture dependent on rituals and society’s norm. As the novel progress, Fadiman realizes that neither culture is truly at fault. Lia’s situation stemmed from a clash of cultural beliefs and practices that could have been solved by a respect and empathy of the significance of cross-cultural communication. Throughout the narrative, there were characters that were able to be culturally empathetic while some were unable to appreciate the cultural differences between the two entities and realize the necessity for cooperation and understanding. The Hmong have a saying that they repeat at the beginning of every story, “Hais cuaj txub kaum txub,” which means, “speak of all kinds of things” (Fadiman 13). These words depict the belief in the Hmong culture that the world is full of things that might not appear related but actually are. This concept relates to the Hmong’s history. Their development as a culture is tainted with inconsiderate counter cultures that restricted their freedom to practice their cultural rituals. This greatly influenced their ability to trust cultures that are not their own. Their general distrust in any culture different from their own can be mainly traced back to the Chinese and Indochinese portion of their saga. Basically, the Hmong have been chased out of any home they have ever had due to their unwillingness to take orders, their affliction to losing and the imperative detail that they would rather flee, fight, or die than surrender. This all boils down to the fact that they are not easily swayed by other culture’s customs. This ethnocentric attitude has greatly attributed to the Hmong culture’s general distrust and distaste for any culture but their own. Lia’s parents, Nao Kao and Foua Lee, and much of the Hmong community were skeptical of trusting the “white people” in the medical profession and in the community. In fact, Lia’s case became the litmus test for Hmong community and turned out to be a deciding factor as to whether the Hmong community in Merced, California would trust the medical professionals when they found themselves at MCMC in a similar state as Lia. Despite this inherent distrust of any culture dissimilar to their own, the Lee’s were able to trust one CPA worker, Jeanine Hilt, who took the Lee’s case very personally. Jeanine made it her mission to fight the medical industry tyranny on behalf of the Hmong culture and became the only person to ask the Lees their opinion. Because of the language barrier, many medical professionals saw talking to the Lee’s as a lost cause to communicate with, which led the Lees to believe they were being taken advantage of. Jeanine was the only one who thought to ask how the Lees felt about how the doctors were treating Lia and their culture. Because of this openness to communication and genuine interest in their answers, she explained to the hospital how the Lees, and the Hmong culture, felt about Lia’s epilepsy and why they were running into to so many conflicts with the Hmong culture. Jeanine’s open approach allowed her to see what the barrier was between the Lees ad the medical profession. The Lee’s and the Hmong culture considered Lia an anointed one and her “illness” as a blessing rather than a weakness. In the Hmong culture, people born with epilepsy are believed to be the anointed ones and are destined to a life as a shaman. They call it “qaug dab peg,” or “the spirit catches you and you fall down.” People in the medical profession did not understand the concept of spirits and the importance of epilepsy for the Hmong....
Bibliography: 1. Fadiman, Anne. The spirit catches you and you fall down: a Hmong child, her American doctors, and the collision of two cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1997.
2. Hofstede, Gert Jan, Paul Pedersen, and Geert H. Hofstede. Exploring culture. Yarmouth, Me.: Intercultural Press, 2002
Throughout my life, I have always been a person who loved traveling. I will always love traveling and someday, I hope to have a job where traveling is a requirement. When I travel, I hoped to come as close to emersion as possible in the time span I’m there. I believe interacting with other cultures can seriously give you a whole new outlook on life and learning perspectives of different cultures and humans always fascinates me which is why, next year, I am planning to take a year off to work at a bed and breakfast in France. People from all over the globe come to bed and breakfasts, which will give me a lot of face time with a lot of different cultures and learn a little bit about everything. My housing and dining will be paid for while I meet people, make lifelong connections and put all the things I learned about in cross cultural communication to work.
Cross Cultural Communication opened up my eyes to some pretty basic things that you just never really put names to. The best lesson I learned was on cultural empathy. The idea that you don’t only tolerate another culture, but you understand it at its most basic level is incredibly important in how you connect with other people. A lot of my best friends are actually international and live in other countries. One of my best friends ever lives in Greece and looking back on our friendship, I realize how I subconsciously underwent the process of cultural empathy by asking her about the different practices she went through and the different ways she understood American culture and society. Unfortunately, I did not do the same with my German ex-boyfriend who lived in Germany which probably could have saved a lot of grief on my end.
Another lesson I found interesting in cross-cultural communication was reflexivity. Reflexivity is the ability and willingness of a researcher to acknowledge their bias. When I went to H Street, I realized my bias growing up in small town liberal suburbia. I realize my bias everyday when I meet people who grow up in different countries, parts of the country or even socio economic class. While interviewing Josh Parrish for my interview project, I saw how different our lives were and yet how similar we were. Reflexivity is not only important to acknowledge for reliable research, but for dependable relationships as well.
Talking about white privilege really interested me throughout the course. Growing up as white, I kind of always resented the doors that automatically opened for me in some sense of the word. I can’t pinpoint why, but I like the challenge of overcoming adversity. In the School of Public Affairs Leadership Program, we talked about the idea of Privilege and Power and we watched an interesting TED talks that introduced the idea of “The Power of a Single Story.” Acknowledging the different presets in society is important to society and to be able to communicate with each other.
If I could change one thing about this class, it would definitely be about the reading. The readings were incredibly numerous and sometimes, I couldn’t finish everything, which led to a serious cycle of me falling incredibly behind. I would’ve loved for a way to cut down the readings, perhaps only read important excerpts or something because the workload was either really hard or very laid back.
The lessons I learned in cross cultural communication feel less immense than other classes, but I already notice how I look around and see how these lessons are applicable in real life. I constantly look back at my history and realize how helpful these skills would have been months and even years ago. Being culturally empathetic is the most important lesson I could have learned and I feel was the overarching theme to the whole course. I found it helpful to learn how to properly acculturate into a foreign culture and while I may not become a foreign diplomat because of this class, I definitely learned some important imformation.
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