The Spirit Catches You – Notes Part 2
I’m posting some of my thoughts about The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman in case anyone finds them interesting or stimulating. It’s a wonderful, enlightening, but sad book.
As I write up my notes, I’ll post them in future blogs. But READ THE BOOK! Your big sister has spoken. 🙂
Everything is connected:The Hmong seem to see everything as connected to everything else, just like both religion and philosophy tell us that everything is ultimately “one:”
The Hmong have a phrase, hias cuaj txub kaum txub, which means “to speak of all kinds of things. It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point; and that the storyteller is likely to be rather long-winded.
The Hmong might understand the Jewish prayer Adonai echad, “God is one,” or the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity (God is three persons united in a mystical oneness that transcends human understanding). Though I admit that the business about religious ideas being mysteries used to drive me crazy in confirmation class. It seemed like every time I asked a really good question, the priest would say that the answer was a “mystery” and we couldn’t understand it. I prefer mysteries that have solutions, though I’m now a little more at peace with the idea that we will never understand some things. The male sense of humor comes to mind. 🙂
Oy vey, but the Hmong sound Jewish: Anne’s history of the Hmong reinforces how much all human ethnic, national, and religious groups have in common. Sometimes, it sounded like she was talking about the Jewish people; at other times, she could have been describing the Scots (as seen by the English) or the Germanic tribes as seen by the ancient Romans. At still other times, she could have been describing the English or the American colonists.
Here, the Hmong sound like the Jewish people:
For as long as it has been recorded, the history of the Hmong has been a marathon series of bloody scrimmages, punctuated by occasional periods of peace, though hardly any of plenty. Over and over again, the Hmong have responded to persecution and to pressures to assimilate by either fighting or migrating …
Leave out the part about fighting, which Jewish people try to avoid (with limited success), and it sounds like my grandmother describing the history of the Jews: persecution, pressure to assimilate, followed by migration and occasionally by war.
Here, the Hmong sound like the Scots (as seen by the British) or the Germanic tribes (as seen by the Romans):
The Chinese viewed the Hmong as fearless, uncouth, and recalcitrant.
Here, the Hmong sound very, very parliamentary, like the English:
… the power of their kings was limited by a complex system of village and district assemblies. Though the crown was hereditary, each new king was chosen from among the former king’s sons by an electorate of all the arms-bearing men in the kingdom.
And only men can vote: that’s also very English (and American, etc.).
Mythical, or crazy? Some of Chapter 2, I just don’t believe. I’m sorry, but I can’t believe that
In 1730 or thereabouts, hundreds of Hmong warriors killed their wives and children, believing they would fight more fiercely if they had nothing to lose.
Maybe one crazy warrior would do that, or even two, but hundreds? It’s … I can’t even come up with the words to say how horrifying it is. I don’t believe that any large number of people could do that to their own families. To get people to kill strangers in warfare requires a lot of training and let’s call it what it is, “brainwashing.” I’ve read that even after that kind of training, many soldiers in war still shoot to miss their “enemies” in the opposing army. And we’re supposed to believe that from some perverted kind of patriotism, a large number of Hmong men would kill their families, who they love? I don’t care if they’re from a different culture. They’re still people. I would more easily believe that Hmong soldiers grew wings and flew over their adversaries to drop water balloons on them.
Folk hero – the Orphan: Anne says that a common character in Hmong folklore is “the orphan,” who is persecuted because of his poverty but ultimately triumphs because of his courage and goodness:
The Orphan … is clever, energetic, brave, persistent, and a virtuoso player of the qeej, a musical instrument highly esteemed by the Hmong … Though he lives by himself on the margins of society, reviled by almost everyone, he knows in his heart that he is actually superior to all his detractors … The Orphan is, of course, a symbol of the Hmong people.
Folk characters and heroes provide us with a kind of shortcut for who we feel that we are and what kind of people we want to be. Instead of having to think through a lot of principles to decide how to act, we just picture our heroes and try to imagine what they would do: the Orphan, or Jesus, or (in my case) Rachel Maddow.
Those pictures probably influence our behavior and our thinking a lot more than the principles we’re taught. In fact, I’d bet that we choose our principles based on our hero-pictures, not the other way around. That’s all I’ve got to say about it. If you want to talk to someone who actually knows something, wander into Skinner Hall and look confused. Someone will help you right away. 🙂
Copyright 2009 by Rinth de Shadley.