In the CCR project, we talk most about “cross-cultural” or “intercultural” but the term “cultural collision” is on my mind a lot this week as I read through Anne Fadiman’s The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.
This book is one of the three books assigned to all Stanford incoming freshmen to read this year. It’s not an uplifting book; Fadiman’s detailed description of Lia Lee’s deteriorating medical condition provides a lens that brings into focus the larger, often stark, picture of both Hmong culture and the Hmong immigrant experience in the U.S.
As philosophy professor Debra Satz (who chose this year’s Three Books) stated in the Stanford Report, The Spirit Catches…, like the other two books, questions “the assumptions we make about people, the way we categorize and stereotype on the basis of class and ethnicity …. We are often wrong.”
So many scenes in the book are about cultural misunderstandings, miscommunications, or blind spots — the most immediate casualty is one child’s health, though clearly Fadiman is also pointing to the broader social implications. Even many of the most well-meaning of the actors in this narrative seem ineffectual; the profoundness of the divide between Hmong and U.S. culture at points seems insurmountable.
Reading a story like this on the one hand reaffirms my conviction that projects like ours — about studying cross-cultural rhetoric and engaging in practical acts of intercultural communication — are essential for laying the foundation for today’s global society. However, on the other hand I must admit, that there were also moments when I was reading this book that the prospect of crossing boundaries between cultures seems even more daunting than before.
Of course, that’s probably one of the reasons that Satz chose this book — and one of the reasons that Stanford has a Three Books program to begin with. It is books like this one that start conversations, which are the first step toward understanding, appreciating, and learning to productively negotiate differences between people and cultures.