The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Metaphors and Similes

Fish Soup

In Chapter 2, a young Hmong man's story of fish soup is used as a metaphor for the way the Hmong see the world. The man was supposed to give a five-minute oral report in French. Instead, he spoke for 45 minutes about Fish Soup, explaining how to make the soup you first have to go fishing, find the proper hook, and so on. He added anecdotes of his own fishing experience and descriptions of how to clean, cut up, and cook various kinds of fish. The French professor noted that the story reflected "the essence of the Hmong" (12), as they believe that "the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; [and] that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point" (13). For this reason, Fadiman begins the tragic story of Lia Lee by recounting the history of the Hmong people.

Similes from Folktales

Fadiman often refers to Hmong folktales when explaining the character of the Hmong. She draws on a folktale, too, to describe her feelings when first encountering the Hmong in Merced: "It probably did not help that, mortally afraid of committing a faux pas, I was as jumpy as the legendary Hmong princess who, hiding inside a large funeral drum after an eagle as big as eleven houses had eaten everyone else in her village, mistook her handsome young rescuer for the eagle and told him, 'If you have come to eat me, do it quickly, please!'" (94.) By comparing herself to a Hmong princess, Fadiman suggests that despite her western upbringing, she also sympathizes and even identifies with the Hmong. 

Animal References

The Hmong frequently use animal references in their language. For example, Foua compared soul loss to a butterfly: "Sometimes [your soul] just wanders off like a butterfly and that's when you get sick, and if it comes back to you, that is when you are happy and you are well again" (100). Similarly, a Hmong who tries to be accepted by a kin group that is not his own is called a puav, or bat, as "he is rejected by the birds because he has fur and by the mice because he has wings" (196). These references likely reflect the traditional closeness of the Hmong to the natural world. 

Metaphors in the Media

In the late seventies and eighties, the media typically employed metaphors to describe the Hmong such as "Stone Age," "emerging from the mists of time," or "like Alice falling down a rabbit hole" (188). This language may say more about the media and its racial biases than it does about the Hmong people. 

Reactions to Lia Lee

Several medical staff used figurative language to describe their feelings about working with Lia and her family. Neil Ernst, her primary physician, stated: "I felt like there was this giant snowball that was coming down the mountain and we were trying to hold it up there and it just kept pushing us. I remember talking to the parents and telling them that Lia's seizures were getting worse and more frequent and that someday she might have one we couldn't stop" (118). Martin Kilgore, the public health nurse who made house calls to check up on Lia after she lost brain function, compared the relationship between the Lees and their doctors to the myth of Sisyphus, who had been condemned to roll a boulder up a hill again and again, only to have it roll down again just before reaching the summit. No matter how hard they tried, they couldn't seem to master the communication necessary for an effective partnership. 

Individualism vs. Interdependence

Dwight Conquergood, the ethnographer who developed the successful public health campaigns at the Ban Vinai refugee camp in Thailand, noticed the symbolism so prevalent in our culture that reflects our individualistic ethic, such as "individual place settings at meals, the importance of "a room of one's own" even for children, advertising appeals and jingles such as "Have it your way" and "We do it all for you" (197). In contrast, he compared Hmong culture to a symphony, with "every part play[ing] the themes of returning, recalling, restoring, reincorporating, binding together, and reuniting separated parts into a collective identity" (197). This difference in relating to others is reflected in the conflicts between western doctors and Hmong patients. For instance, doctors expect their patients to make decisions independently, while the Hmong tend to consult with many members of the family and clan before approving a medical procedure.