There has been much discussion and observation leading to a conclusion regarding the global nature of society today. The common consensus is that, as medical, financial, electronic and other advances are made, the world is closer to becoming a global village than it ever has been in history. Anne Fadiman’s novel, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, is an outcry to the contrary. The novel shows how more intercultural communication is sorely needed, particularly training within the professions such as medicine.
The novel is a cautionary tale of how things can go horribly wrong between two cultures, and a child’s best practices outcome is lost in the balance. The relationship between Lia’s Hmong parents and the American doctors was unarguably a failure; it did not exhibit the global cohesiveness that is so highly touted in literature today. The story draws attention away from the high-tech and high-finance successes that make headlines (and millions of dollars in profit), and shows a human interest perspective of a family in crisis. It highlights how cultural misunderstanding and failure to effectively communicate can affect human lives.
The story is heartbreaking for two reasons. The first reason is that the Lees loved their children and only wanted the best for Lia; they had only their cultural beliefs to rely on. The mere fact that Lia was born in Merced Community Medical Center in the first place, was the result of her father’s erroneous belief that the arena where Lia’s mother gave birth alone would qualify Lia as an American citizen. This bit of misinformation takes the Lee family outside of the insular world of their Hmong culture, and mixes them with the physicians of the medical center and their Western medicine and science. The second reason is that the doctors at Merced also want the best for Lia. They want the best for their patient (Lia), as indicated by the highest levels of their training and knowledge base. The divide between these two equally well-meaning factions is the sad specter of cultural ignorance on both sides. The shortcomings of both sides led to the unfavorable break in communication that culminated in the patient’s deterioration. More weight should be placed on the professionals (in this case the medical community), to strive harder to bridge this gap in understanding.
As the borders remain open, more and more immigrants enter the country with different medical challenges; the onus is on the American medical community to find and adapt ways to provide effective outreach efforts to whatever ethnic group is presented before them. Rather than wring their collective hands in exasperation, the Western healthcare providers should have been able to communicate more effectively with the Hmong refugees, even while considering their culture with its animalistic tendencies. The medical condition itself provides challenge enough to the physicians; any language or other barriers should be covered even if that means an individual interpreter. If modern society wants to rightfully wave the global community banner, more must be done by the dominant countries to avail themselves to the differences inherent in cultures and beliefs. “The Hmong have a phrase, ‘ais cuaj txub kaum txub, which means ‘to speak of all kinds of things'” Padiman-12. The Hmongs do not have the proper words to express the medical and technological advances that may affect the care of their loved ones; the Lees certainly could not articulate the crossroads they stood at when deciding between the Western doctors’ treatment plan and their own time-honored approaches dealing with nature and life-after-death.
In conclusion, Padiman’s story of Lia and her family gives society a roadmap on where it is negligent in applying the ‘global village’ format to today’s society. Although they do not generate large revenues, the human interest side of the story bears some relevant lessons in the twenty-first century as we stride towards a real and authentic globalism. Advanced societies, such as the United States, must do more to accommodate the rest of the world and its disparate beliefs. The story of Lia and the Lees brings the importance of cultural understanding home. It also opens the door for further research and observation. The hope is, that no one in need of innovative healthcare that conflicts with their cultural norms, should suffer in that process.