Fadiman relates a story told to her by a French professor who taught an intermediate class at Merced College. A young Hmong man gave a presentation about how to make fish soup. In the presentation, he spent forty-five minutes painstakingly detailing the entire process, from choosing the right kind of hook to go fishing to preparing herb broths. The French professor told Fadiman that this comprehensive approach is “the essence of the Hmong.” Fadiman compares this to the Hmong phrase, “to speak of all kinds of things,” which is used as a way of reminding listeners that “the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but really are; that no event occurs in isolation.”
It is arguable that Fadiman herself takes this sentiment of comprehensive storytelling to heart in the composition of The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, which is comprised of multiple examples, anecdotes, and asides that all work—sometimes in circuitous ways—to provide a thorough portrait of the Hmong. This approach is also in keeping with her assertion in the preface that she learned to stop thinking in a linear fashion. Just as the young man included seemingly unrelated instructions in his presentation about fish soup, Fadiman commits herself to bringing all sorts of considerations into her ethnographic account in order to better illuminate her subjects.
Taking this longwinded comprehensive approach to heart, Fadiman says that she will go back “a few hundred generations” in order to explain the origins of Hmong culture. She explains that the Hmong, as a people, have time and again “responded to persecution and to pressures to assimilate by either fighting or migrating.” This pattern has been repeated in many different scenarios, beginning with the first clashes between the Hmong and Chinese rulers who wanted them to submit to Chinese lifestyles, a tension that dates back to 2700 B.C. Later, in A.D. 400, the Hmong successfully established independence in China’s Honan, Hupeh, and Hunan provinces, ruling there for 500 years before their kingdom was defeated by China, at which point the majority of the population migrated once again. This pattern continued until the beginning of the 19th century, when the Hmong decided to quit China for Indochina, settling in the highlands of what the contemporary world now considers Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand.
Fadiman here reveals her propensity for using historical analysis to better understand current-day Hmong dispositions. This is a typical ethnographic technique of providing insight into the origins of a culture, though it raises an interesting question about the use of generalization in the context of cultural analysis; one the one hand, her recognition of the Hmong pattern of fighting or fleeing is both historically accurate and helpful in understanding various decisions that the Lees make later in the book. On the other hand, though, it runs the risk of oversimplifying an entire population’s capacity to make decisions. Even though Fadiman is certainly not wrong to make this observation (which is ultimately helpful, well-considered, and harmless), it’s worth bearing in mind that similar generalizations can lead to oversimplified and insensitive judgments of other cultures.
When France took control of Indochina in the late 19th century, the Hmong fought back. Finally, in 1920, the French granted them “special administrative status” and left them alone, marking the beginning of a peaceful stretch of several decades in which the Hmong lived contentedly, especially in the Laos highlands, where they rarely interacted with the French or lowland Laotians. Fadiman argues that this history serves as a valuable lesson that the Hmong “do not like to take orders; that they do not like to lose; that they are not intimidated by being outnumbered; that they are rarely persuaded that the customs of other cultures, even those more powerful than their own, are superior; that they are capable of getting very angry.” She also notes, however, that the Hmong can be very welcoming to anthropologists and other outsiders.
Fadiman’s comments about the Hmong’s unwillingness to submit to or take orders from others are helpful in understanding the relationship between the Lees and the doctors at Merced’s hospital. From Fadiman’s account of the Hmong’s early history, it becomes clear that resilience is woven throughout the overall Hmong ethnic identity.