The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down Symbols, Allegory and Motifs

Lia Lee

Lia can be considered a symbol of medical failure. Even when doctors do their best and make no recognizable "errors," there is failure that accompanies medical practice. Lia represents both the limits confronted by an individual doctor and the failure of the medical system to effectively treat patients from different cultures.

Seen a different way, Lia is a symbol of culture in which individuals have little agency to change history. A comatose child is extremely helpless, passive, and devoid of agency; so, too, is a view of the Hmong as having certain inborn traits that govern their behaviors. This view is reductive and determinist and contrasts with the many ways the Hmong have creatively adapted to their new environments.  

The Orphan

The Orphan is one of the recurring characters in Hmong folktales. In one story, he offers his home to two sisters, one good and one snotty. The snotty sister insults him, calling him dirty and ridiculing his poverty. Despite living alone on the margins of society, however, the Orphan is actually clever, courageous, resilient, and a virtuoso of the qeej, a highly esteemed musical instrument. The Orphan is considered to be a symbol of the Hmong people, who also live on the outskirts of society and are often looked down upon, yet in fact are intelligent and consider themselves to be superior to those who ridicule them. The Orphan ends up marrying the good sister while the snotty sister ends up with an evil dab, perhaps reflecting a belief that the Hmong will ultimately persevere over their oppressors.  

Shee Yee

In the greatest Hmong folktale, nine evil dab brothers ambushed Shee Yee, a healer and magician. The dabs pursued him by transforming themselves into many different animals; each time, Shee Yee escaped by shapeshifting as well. Ultimately, he turned himself into a tiny red ant and bit a dab in the form of a cat on the testicle. Shee Yee is another symbol of the Hmong, representing their courageous and tenacious spirit. They prefer to fight or flee rather than surrender; for instance, 10,000 Hmong fled to a Buddhist monastery in Thailand when pressured to either return to Laos or immigrate to the United States. Like Shee Yee, they found a solution that nobody anticipated, thereby preserving both their autonomy and their safety.  

The Melting Pot

The melting pot is a symbol adopted from American history. In the early 1900s, immigrant workers at the Ford automotive plant in Michigan were given compulsory "Americanization" classes. At their graduation ceremony, teachers stirred a giant wooden pot with ten-foot ladles. Students walked into the pot wearing their traditional garb and singing folk songs from their home country, to emerge in suits, ties, and dresses singing the U.S. National Anthem. Fadiman employs this symbol to contrast these early immigrants with the Hmong, noting that when the latter engaged in secondary migration to join clan members in other parts of the U.S., "the government's attempt to stir the Hmong evenly into the melting pot was definitively sabotaged" (193). The Hmong did not wish to assimilate, but rather to maintain their distinct culture.

Spiritual Symbols

The Hmong utilize spiritual symbols in their artwork. For instance, nyias, or cloth baby carriers, are often embroidered with soul-retaining motifs, such as a pigpen, which symbolizes enclosure. Similarly, babies may wear silver necklaces with locks that symbolize the attachment of one's soul.

Flotation Devices

Many Hmong who escaped the communists by crossing the Mekong River continue to hold onto their flotation devices, which symbolize freedom and survival. A doctor working in a Thai refugee camp wrote in 1978: "It is not unusual to find these survivors clinging to their makeshift 'life-savers' even long after they have been in the detention centers. They carry them up to the hospital wards where they finally get proper treatment" (164).