Differences in cultural outlooks are a reality of modern living, especially about health approaches. While some cultures have embraced sophistication as a solution to health issues, others choose to turn to simple traditional remedies. This reality is a running theme in Anne Fadiman’s book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall. Through this literary work, it becomes clear that when cultures that view matters differently interact, intercultural conflicts abound.
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In Fadiman’s book, certain intercultural communication concepts prevail, making it easy for readers to identify the sources of conflict between various parties. Miscommunications in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down have their origins in small misunderstandings that degenerate into serious conflicts. As seen in the book, the interaction of distant cultures leads to obvious conflicts that require damage control before they degenerate into barriers of service delivery. In this case, the book pits the American culture against the Hmong culture. The author illustrates how the stubbornness of both cultures, as a result of clashing intercultural communications, leads to downright conflict and subsequent miscommunications.
These miscommunications lead to obvious oversights, such as wrong decoding of messages and instances where opposing parties fail to recognize that their goals are similar. The two opposing cultures in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down are both set in their ways, and this makes it hard for either faction to accommodate the beliefs of the other, given none of them is willing to compromise. This paper seeks to analyze the prevailing miscommunications in the story from an intercultural communications perspective.
Language becomes a significant factor in the pursuit of effective communication between various characters in Fadiman’s book. The main character in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall, Lia Lee, grows up in circumstances that make her susceptible to intercultural miscommunications. When Lee is three years old, she is diagnosed with epilepsy and this condition puts her parents on a collision path with doctors within her locality.
Although the conflict between the two factions degenerates into a pseudo-conflict, Lee remains at the center because both parties are working towards her wellness. The source of this conflict was because Lia’s parents and her doctors could not agree on a common approach when handling her. One of the factors that make this situation worse is the language barrier that makes Nao Kao and Foua feel sidelined. The two parents have relied on Hmong’s culture to get to where they are, and dealing with English-speaking doctors makes them feel like they are in unfamiliar territory. On more than one occasion, Lee’s parents felt that they were kept in the dark about treatment details that were of interest to them.
The language barrier becomes one of the intercultural factors that put the characters in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall in a path of miscommunication. However, the complexities that came with bridging this barrier were most likely the course of the prevailing misunderstandings. Throughout the episodes of the book, a major language divide exists between the Lee family and the hospital employees. The fact that the two groups have an imposing differentiating factor between them amplifies their other differences. For instance, without an interpreter, no communication can occur between the two groups, whatsoever.
The presence of an interpreter does not simplify matters but it only serves the purpose of illuminating the other existing cultural disparities between the two groups. This fact becomes evident when Lia is diagnosed with epilepsy but the interpreter has no Hmong word that can translate this condition. Therefore, the interpreter substitutes ‘epilepsy’ for ‘quag dab peg’, and when this term is loosely translated it means “the spirit catches you and you fall” (Fadiman 2012, 41).
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In the end, two words mean different things but somehow describe the same phenomenon. Therefore, epilepsy to Lia’s parents is jargon but their daughter’s condition is a reality. In this case, language barriers end up highlighting the cultural miscommunication between the American doctors and Hmong patients. For instance, from this interaction, it becomes clear that Lia’s condition is purely medical to the doctor, but it has spiritual connections in the Hmong context. Eventually, interpretation from one language to another ends up creating a bigger divide between two cultures than what was originally intended. Words, in this case, can be seen as labels, but not as a means of identifying Lia’s condition.
Another well-highlighted cause of intercultural disconnections in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall is the element of intercultural-transitions. The Lee family is a good representation of intercultural transition through their migration into the United States at the end of 1980. The family was particularly excited to gain residence in the United States, but things started changing fast for them. For instance, the family had not anticipated the herculean effort of being integrated into their new country’s culture.
This experience was only made easier by the fact that the Lees had relatives who were more accustomed to life in the United States. The author highlights some of the basic aspects of the American life that the Lees had to learn, including being accustomed to self-contained houses, harnessing the usage of electricity, and different cooking regimens. Soon after settling into their new home, Lia’s family was confronted with the issue of intercultural transition. Therefore, instead of struggling to adopt the American culture, the Lees’ main concern was maintaining their cultural integrity.
Fadiman underlines this fact when she reckons that “what the Hmong wanted here was to be left alone to be Hmong” (Fadiman 2012, 183). Consequently, the intercultural transition that applies to the Lees works in reverse because instead of wishing to fit in, this family was contented with standing out. This transition regimen is responsible for the exploding situation that ensues when the Lees are convinced that their traditional remedies can heal Lia’s epilepsy.
For example, if the family had been more open to intercultural transition it would have been easier for them to open up to American medicine. Interestingly, Lia’s family had taken up this approach as a method of reducing cultural conflict but their tactic ended up backfiring. The path of conflict that ensues from the Lees’ rejection of American culture seems to have no saving grace because it is parallel to the doctor’s approach to Lia’s health problem.
The situation is made worse by the fact that the doctors who attend to Lia expect a family that has lived in America for close to two decades to be at least culturally integrated. In the book, it is noted that the members of the Lee family “still speak only Hmong, celebrate only Hmong holidays, practice only the Hmong religion, cook only Hmong dishes…and know far more about current political events in Laos and Thailand than about those in the United States” (Fadiman 2012, 183).
The ‘us versus them’ paradigm
The book reveals another cause of intercultural disconnection that manifests itself in the ‘us versus them’ paradigm. This paradigm is responsible for how one cultural group sees another in the form of their similarities and differences. This notion is particularly true in cases where different cultural groups share a common ground. In The Spirit Catches You and You Fall, the Hmong and the American caregivers are at the center of this cultural paradigm. The two cultural groups have different beliefs but their goals are similar. Nevertheless, it becomes eerily difficult for Lia’s family and the doctors to consider their similarities.
For example, the doctors favor treating the sick child using medical prescriptions, but the family is suspicious about the number of pills that their daughter is being given. The situation becomes more complicated when traditional remedies are suggested, leading the doctors to be on the other end of the ‘us versus them’ spectrum. The only manner through which the Lees soften their stand is by accepting traditional solutions that are available in the United States. Nonetheless, the two parties try to use the similarities of their goals to their advantage. This solution makes the intercultural disconnections between the two parties less severe.
In Fadiman’s book, intercultural miscommunications are a reality of life. However, three key factors exacerbate the situation including language barriers, intercultural transitions, and the ‘us versus them’ paradigm. These three factors are an adequate method of analyzing the intercultural miscommunications that are part of this book. It is important to note that these obstacles can be found in any multicultural society throughout the world.
List of References
Fadiman, Anne. 2012. The Spirit Catches you and you Fall Down: A Hmong Child, her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. New York, NY: Macmillan.