Anyone who has ever visited another country and found the food unidentifiable, the language incomprehensible and the rules of behaviour bizarre has experienced some degree of culture shock. Sometimes it’s exciting, often it’s disconcerting, and if you get ill or lost or inadvertently cause offence it can be frightening. Anne Fadiman’s book The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is about culture shock of a different order altogether. It is the story of what can happen when, even with the best of intentions on both sides, two cultures collide.
The focus of the book is Lia Lee, the daughter of a Hmong refugee couple who settled in California in the 1980s. Originally from central China, the Hmong are a proud, tough, self-reliant people who, according to Fadiman, have only ever wanted to be left alone, ‘perhaps the most difficult request any minority can make of a majority culture’. Over several centuries relentless persecution forced the Hmong to retreat from the Yellow and Yangtze river valleys into the highlands of southern China from where, in the nineteenth century, about half a million fled over the border into French Indo-China. Some settled in Thailand and Vietnam; most ended up in the mountains of what is now Laos.
Here, for two or three generations, the Hmong found sanctuary. They built timber houses in the forests; they ate only what they could grow, produce or catch; they treated themselves with herbs when they got sick and performed elaborate rituals to placate the spirits which had caused the illness. They had no formal education and little or no contact with the outside world – until the Vietnam War.
Many of their remote mountain villages lay on what came to be known as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, along which the Communists moved arms and supplies from the north to the south of Vietnam via Laos. Since the Americans had promised to respect the neutrality of Laos, they could not deploy their own ground troops in the area. An
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