Study Guide

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Themes

By Anne Fadiman

  • Exile

    The Spirit Catches You is all about exodus, in the immortal words of Bob Marley—you know, the movement of jah people. Sadly, the Hmong aren't quite so up-to-date on the Reggae movement, and they could use a little dose of don't worry, be happy.

    So, the book. We follow the trials and tribulations of the Lees, a family of Hmong refugees who have fled war-torn Laos for the United States. This isn't the first time this has happened, either: the Hmong have been violently driven from their homes more times than they can count.

    As they struggle to adapt to a country vastly different from their own, the Lees—and the Hmong community as a whole—reveal the deep psychological and emotional pain of having your home taken from you and getting used to life in exile.

    Questions About Exile

    1. How has being in forced exile shaped Hmong culture?
    2. Why do the Hmong have so much trouble adapting to America?
    3. How does age play into the Hmong community's feelings about America?
    4. Did the U.S. mess up in their handling of Hmong refugees? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    The insular nature of Hmong society is a direct response to being forced out of every country they've inhabited.

    The Hmong community's migration to America is particularly difficult because American culture is so different from their own.

  • Language and Communication

    Think it's tough to talk to that cutie in your English class? Just be glad you speak the same language. In The Spirit Catches You, we witness a bona fide communication breakdown after Nao Kao and Foua Lee—two Hmong refugees who can't speak English—bring their daughter Lia to a hospital to treat her epilepsy. Nothing like medical problems and totally opposite cultures to show you how messed up things can get when everyone's not on the same page. Which goes to show that there are no heroes or villains in this book—just a bunch of good-hearted people whose misunderstandings have devastating consequences.

    Questions About Language and Communication

    1. What are the benefits for the younger Hmong who can speak English? What are the downsides?
    2. How does the language gap affect Americans' views of the Hmong?
    3. Would Lia's medical care have gone better if Nao Kao and Foua spoke English? In what way?
    4. Which is wider—the cultural gap or the language gap between the Lees and their doctors?

    Chew on This

    The cultural differences between the Lees and Lia's doctors are a bigger problem than the language barrier, especially because Neil and Peggy know nothing of Hmong culture.

    Although the cultural barrier is a big one, being able to speak English might've helped Nao Kao and Foua better discuss their concerns with Lia's doctors.

  • Science

    Are you a fantasy fan or does science-fiction strike your fancy? Although we can all agree that sci-fi is way better (come on, space battles vs. jousting? duh), Nao Kao and Foua Lee might land on the mysticism side of the fence. If sci-fi stems from Western science, then the fact that the Lees are anti-that in general—instead preferring the spiritual (and decidedly unscientific) traditions of their Hmong culture—has quite the impact on their views.

    This isn't a problem until their daughter Lia has several major seizures that require hospitalization. And as it turns out, you encounter a lot of science in the halls of a hospital. The resulting conflict illustrates a larger cultural difference between the Lees and their doctors—or, in other words, the difference between Game of Thrones and Star Trek.

    Questions About Science

    1. Would Lia have gotten better if Nao Kao and Foua followed the doctors' orders?
    2. What does Blia Yao mean when he says that Hmong culture is "non-Cartesian"?
    3. How is Dwight Conquergood able to reach a middle ground between Hmong mysticism and Western science?
    4. Has living in America change the Lees' view of science?
    5. Is Star Trek actually better than Game of Thrones?

    Chew on This

    The biggest barrier between the Lees and Lia's doctors is that the doctors view the world through the lens of science, while the Lees view it through a lens of mysticism.

    Dwight Conquergood manages to convey scientific ideas to the Hmong only because he uses their own culture and ideals as a framework for teaching them.

  • Foreignness and the Other

    These people have battled communists, trekked by foot across countries, and risked their lives to protect their family. You'd think that'd be enough, but now Nao Kao and Foua Lee are facing their biggest challenge yet: overcoming prejudice. After the Hmong receive refugee status in the United States, you'd think it should be all sunshine and roses from here on out, right? Wrong. They're faced with all sorts of nasty biases as soon as they arrive in the so-called "land of the free," getting their culture mocked and their intelligence insulted. In a word, it's gross. Though The Spirit Catches You features plenty of moments that will make your blood boil, it ultimately shows the uselessness—and downright stupidity—of xenophobia and racism.

    Questions About Foreignness and the Other

    1. How does the Hmongs' economic instability increase American distrust toward them?
    2. Do Neil and Peggy have a better understanding of the Lees by the end of the book? How do we see their views change?
    3. In your opinion, why do characters like Dee and Jeanine become so close to the Lees?
    4. How did anti-foreigner bias contribute to Lia's disastrous medical care?

    Chew on This

    Although they hold plenty of biases at the onset, Neil and Peggy manage to gain respect for the Hmong—and more importantly, they gain the ability to see Nao Kao and Foua as individuals.

    Ultimately, the problems caused by the rough Merced economy get blamed on the Hmong, solely based on racism and xenophobia.

  • Spirituality

    In Hmong culture, there's no problem that can't be solved with a little bit of magic. This shamanic society has some unique views about spirituality in general, adhering to their ancient spiritual traditions over anything the modern world has to offer. In The Spirit Catches You, this mystical perspective butts up against the cold empiricism of American medicine again and again, illustrating the strengths—and failures—of both sides. In the end, the book serves as a stirring reminder of the power of spirituality, whether or not those beliefs turn out to be literally true or not.

    Questions About Spirituality

    1. How do the Lees' spiritual beliefs affect their view of Lia's illness?
    2. Why do the Lees' traditional treatments of Lia work better than medicine after her catastrophic seizure?
    3. Why are Lia's doctors so upset by Hmong spiritual treatments?
    4. What is the symbolism of the neeb ceremony that closes the book?

    Chew on This

    Like many shamanistic cultures, Hmong take a mystical, decidedly non-rational view of the world—and that just doesn't fly in an American hospital.

    Even if Hmong rituals are hogwash, they hold a great deal of value to the community, even if just for the placebo effect.

  • Tradition and Customs

    When the going gets tough, the tough get traditional—or that's what we learned by reading The Spirit Catches You, at least. In retelling the story of the Hmong people and their long history of persecution, the book shows how the Hmong, instead of losing hope and wallowing in despair, cling even tighter to their traditions and use their strong culture to unite the community during tough times. Even when fate brings them to America—a place with little respect for the Hmong's unique cultural practices—the community never loses its grip on those traditions. And trust us—they're going to need them.

    Questions About Tradition and Customs

    1. Why is tradition so important in Hmong culture?
    2. Do you think it's right of the older Hmong to oppose cultural assimilation?
    3. How does traditional Hmong society make American doctors' lives harder?
    4. How will living in America affect the younger generations' view of Hmong tradition?

    Chew on This

    The disciplined adherence to Hmong tradition is a survival mechanism developed after many, many years of persecution and exile.

    Although the older Hmong refugees stick to Hmong culture, many of the younger generation have taken on Western values at the expense of their heritage.

  • Suffering

    If the Hmong know anything, it's that suffering is simply a part of life. Just look at their history if you don't believe us: after being driven from their homes in both China and Laos, fighting several multi-century wars, and being abandoned by the U.S. government, you can best believe that these dudes know what suffering feels like. And even those who make it to America don't get off scot-free, as we find out over the course of poor Lia Lee's ordeal.

    Though emotional pain hangs over their lives like storm clouds, the Hmong manage to lessen their suffering by emphasizing community, family, and spirituality. You're never going to be able to erase suffering from the world, but you just might be able to change its shape. Inspiring, right?

    Questions About Suffering

    1. What was the mental toll of the trek from Laos to Thailand for the Hmong refugees?
    2. Did the Americans contribute to the Hmongs' suffering during the "Quiet War"? In what ways?
    3. How does Lia's suffering affect the entire Lee family?
    4. In your opinion, is Lia still suffering by the end of the book? Why or why not?

    Chew on This

    Although they have their disagreements, Peggy and Neil earn the Lees' respect because they truly care for Lia's suffering.

    Although physical suffering might be difficult, it's nothing compared to the psychological pain experienced by many Hmong refugees every day.

  • Family

    At its core, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is all about the importance of family. Even as Lia's condition worsens, the family grows even tighter as a result, with her parents struggling to make sense of her seizures and her sibs doing their best to make their baby sister's life as comfortable as possible. Sure, there are times when Nao Kao and Foua are barely keeping it together. But in the end, they realize that keeping their family together is the most important thing they can do—no matter the cost.

    Questions About Family

    1. Compare and contrast Hmong and American views on family.
    2. Was Neil right to have Lia taken away from her home?
    3. Are Nao Kao and Foua good parents? Why or why not?
    4. How are Lia's siblings affected by their sister's illness?

    Chew on This

    No matter what happens, Nao Kao and Foua reveal themselves to be truly exceptional parents, even by already-high Hmong standards.

    Although Neil had the best of intentions, taking Lia away from her home and her family is the worst possible thing he could have done to her.