Fadiman rounds out the Lees’ family story by detailing their escape from Laos. They first tried to flee in 1976, but were captured by Vietnamese soldiers and marched back to their village at gunpoint. During this time, one of their eight children became ill and died. For the next three years, the Lees lived under the oppression of the communist Vietnamese, who viewed the Hmong as traitors for having sided with the United States. In 1979, they lost another child to starvation—not long afterward, they joined four hundred other Hmong in another attempt to leave Laos. This time they were successful, arriving in Thailand, like 150,000 other Hmong did after the war.
By providing insight into the Lees’ difficult past, Fadiman makes it more likely that readers will find themselves capable of empathizing with the family. She also uses the Lees’ escape story as a catalyst for explaining the greater Hmong population’s post-war experience.
Fadiman describes Blia Yao Moua, the Hmong leader in Merced who arranged her initial meeting with the Lees. When she asked him about the influence of the war on Hmong culture, he emphasized the Hmong’s classic resilience when faced with coercion and oppression; “The Hmong cannot be assimilated,” he told her. “The Chinese cannot assimilate the Hmong. The Pathet Lao cannot assimilate the Hmong. After two thousand years we can still say we are Hmong.” Still, the Pathet Lao certainly tried, ultimately establishing “seminar camps” devoted to forced labor and the indoctrination of non-subservient individuals. While this took place, hordes of Hmong fled, traveling in groups, carrying children, the elderly, and the sick until—forced by necessity—they left them behind to die.
It’s worth examining Blia’s pride in the fact that “the Hmong cannot be assimilated.” Although it is, of course, admirable that the Hmong time and time again have managed to retain their cultural identity, this celebration of an isolated community is the same kind of mentality that, in other contexts, breeds bigotry and discrimination. It’s not hard to see, either, that such unequivocal rejection of foreign customs certainly complicated Lia Lee’s neurological crisis.
Once in the refugee camps, Hmong were educated about how to live in America, a process Fadiman refers to as “either a catastrophic deracination or a useful dress rehearsal for life in the American inner cities.” The vast majority of these refugees eventually emigrated to the United States. When Ban Vinai—one such camp—closed in 1992, 11,500 residents were forced to either return to Laos or apply for resettlement in another country. Unfortunately, the United States was just beginning to lean toward anti-immigration policies, so many Hmong refugees were denied access to the country. 10,000 of them ultimately chose a third option: to flee to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand.
By calling the cultural instruction administered at Ban Vinai “either a catastrophic deracination or a useful dress rehearsal for life in the American inner cities,” Fadiman manages to condemn the impulse to change an entire culture while simultaneously recognizing the benefits to be gained by learning how to assimilate. As such, she assumes her typical stance as a neutral and unbiased presence in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.