How the Story of a Hmong Child Will Change Your View of Diversity

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. Not light summer reading but a good book just the same.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. Not light summer reading but a good book just the same.

I admit, I wasn’t excited by the prospect of reading The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman when #thereallivesbookclub selected it for group discussion. I dreaded the sadness I was sure I would feel reading the heart-wrenching story of a young Hmong child dealing with epilepsy and her family struggling to help her. However, several members of our group insisted it was a wonderful book, and since learning about the real lives of others is the point of our discussions, I stoked up my courage and read it through.

Of course, the story Fadiman relates of the Lees and their daughter Lia is indeed a sad one. As I read, I was instantly pulled into the crisis through the dramatic emergency room visits, each revealing how precarious Lia’s health was from the beginning. Beyond the family’s struggle, however, was a bigger revelation told about humanity.

We seem at odds with those we see as “other,” unable to recognize our connection to the whole. Diversity, it turns out, doesn’t require the borders of countries or tribes to exist—each of us is a lone island struggling to find our place, our people and our way.  


Fadiman painstakingly details the backstory of the Lees and their journey to the United states, escaping by way of a harrowing march out of Laos. They suffered danger and loss along the route only to be detained in poor circumstances in a refugee camp until they were cleared to deport to the U.S.

The history explained is that the Hmong served as aides to the U.S. military during the Vietnam War and were promised sanctuary in exchange for their support. However, when the U.S. pulled out, they abandoned the Hmong people, who remained in dire circumstances causing them to flee.

It’s the distinction of exodus due to duress, made clear in this story, versus immigrants (who more often willingly immigrate to a new land) that is key. Immigrants are reaching toward a new homeland and are prepared to assimilate, while refugees are forced to abandon home in exchange for safety.

And when refugees escape, they often do so in mass, which escalates the difficulties of melding easily into the new cultures—and also taxes the resources of the countries where they move. Each time these large-scale movements of people occur, the patterns repeat.

Though, whether an immigrant or a refugee, the challenges of assimilation seem similar. The understanding between people of differing cultures is a constant challenge of the human condition. It’s our desire to create and belong to tribes, which blinds us to the bigger tribe to which we belong. This plays out for the Hmongs and the Merced community in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, escalating friction as social programs are diminished and social customs are misunderstood on both sides.


In tandem with the chapters detailing the history of the Hmong are chapters relating the miscommunication between the Lees and the physicians who cared for Lia. Fadiman painstakingly works through the medical records and interviews with the primary physicians Neil Ernst and Peggy Philp to lay out the medical experience for Lia at Merced Hospital.

This story takes place during the 1990s when barriers due to language were more prevalent in the hospital setting, but at every turn it is evident that not only language but culture creates distrust between the Lees and the medical staff. Each side operates from their cultural bias, and the chasm of miscommunication prevails making the situation more difficult for everyone.  

I found this aspect of the story hit home especially. Even without the issue of language or opposing cultural belief, the gap between laymen and medical professional, and between spiritual and scientific language, can be wide. We don’t have to come from a faraway land to find ourselves lost in a medical situation navigating information outside of our usual realm.


As I expected, I did feel sadness as Lia’s story unfolded, but I also took away a sense of hope as well. Could the outcome for Lia have been any different? Our group determined that it was unlikely. Some involved in the experience of Lia’s story did realize growth, however, and there was more understanding as a result.

Today, the refugee experience continues to be a part of our story. All over the world, countries and communities struggle with displaced peoples escaping war and economic crises. Political systems and tribal thinking continue to try and resist the inevitable migration which will occur so long as we exist. But perhaps, if more stories like The Spirit Catches You are told, there is a chance we can each realize we are bound together in the human experience, and our saving grace may be our connection to each other.

Alexandra and Sherry, 2016

Alexandra and Sherry, 2016

Sherry is the founder of Storied Gifts a personal publishing service of family and company histories. She and her team help clients curate and craft their stories into books. When not writing or interviewing, Sherry spends loads of time with her grandchildren and lives in Des Moines, Iowa.


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