Fadiman details the difficulty she encountered upon trying to meet Merced’s Hmong population. Her first attempts to interview Hmong people all failed because her Hmong interpreters were relatively unhelpful, often translating several minute-long answers using only one or two words. Luckily, her friend Bill Selvidge introduced her to Sukey Waller, a psychologist who worked with many Hmong patients. Sukey explained that her job depended upon her ability to understand and accommodate Hmong culture, since the Hmong don’t believe in purely psychological problems to begin with; rather, they see no distinction between physical and mental illnesses. As such, Sukey had to learn about Hmong spiritual beliefs in order to understand how to help them with their mental health issues.
Sukey suggested that Fadiman find a good interpreter, or what she called a “cultural broker,” somebody who could integrate Fadiman into the Hmong community. A local Hmong leader named Blia Yao Moua, a friend of Sukey’s, introduced Fadiman to May Ying Xiong, a twenty-year-old clerk-typist and runner-up in a national Miss Hmong pageant. Because Blia Yao Moua (who had no relationship with MCMC) set up the first meeting between Fadiman and the Lees—and because May Ying’s husband belongs to the same family clan as Foua and Nao Kao—the Lees readily accepted her into their apartment, politely answering her many ignorant questions.
It’s worth noting that Fadiman entered the Lees’ lives on their own terms. The careful attention she paid to important cultural hierarchies and social relations ultimately rendered her capable of connecting with Foua and Nao Kao in ways her doctors would never have thought possible (due to their own failure to attempt to interact with the Lees outside the context of what they saw as the proper doctor-patient relationships).
As the Lees and Fadiman became closer, Nao Kao and Foua hoped to provide her with knowledge about Hmong culture so that she could share their various beliefs with the doctors at MCMC. At one point, Nao Kao bemoaned the fact that American doctors didn’t believe the Hmong when they told them that somebody was suffering from soul loss, instead trying to treat them using only medicine. He maintained that medicine can be helpful, but not on its own; in Lia’s case, he said, it was best to use a little bit of medication in conjunction with a little bit of neeb, or shamanistic healing rituals.
Nao Kao’s desire for Fadiman to report what the family believed to MCMC’s doctors indicates that he perhaps understood that the misunderstandings afoot in Lia’s treatment hinged on a lack of communication. Although it’s true that he faced a difficult language barrier and that the doctors may have seemed too powerful and threatening to confront on his own, it’s strange that he appeared so aware of the underlying problem without trying to open the lines of communication. As such, the lack of collaboration was as much his fault as it was the doctors’.
When Fadiman’s boyfriend visited her in Merced, Foua decided that she would help get her married. Dressing Fadiman up in traditional Hmong clothing, Foua presented her to her boyfriend, who thought she looked ridiculous. Nonetheless, he asked her to marry him. When Fadiman told Foua that she’d gotten engaged, Foua was not surprised at all.
By providing this anecdote, Fadiman effectively achieves two things: first, she shows how close she and Foua eventually became; second, she backhandedly suggests that Hmong rituals are actually effective in some cases, despite how non-Hmong Americans might scoff at such a claim.
In a conversation about Laos, Foua expressed to Fadiman the differences between living in her homeland and living in the United States. In America, she said, she felt stupid and naïve, unable to navigate even the simplest of tasks. In Laos, though, she felt independent and capable, as she worked all day in the fields and the house. “Here it is a great country,” she said. “You are comfortable. You have something eat. But you don’t speak the language. You depend on other people for welfare. […] I miss having something that really belongs to me.”
This sad conversation demonstrates the existential strife refugees and immigrants often deal with while living in a foreign country that doesn’t value the skills they cultivated in their homeland. Cut off from the context that shaped her identity, Foua felt estranged from everything that meant anything to her, a fact that left her feeling useless and incompetent. Unfortunately, what she correctly picked up on in this conversation was that Americans didn’t understand who she really was and thus thought of her as stupid, just as Peggy did upon first discovering that the Lees weren’t giving Lia her medicine.