The Universal Tongue

This is an essay I wrote for an English class in college (around 2001).  It pertains to the book, “The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down,” which is a gripping true story about an American Hmong family and their epileptic daughter, Lia, and their struggles to define what “good care” is, and the cultural clash that ensued with non-Hmong Americans who wanted to help.  Per my then-professor’s requirement, the thesis or “claim” of the essay is highlighted in yellow.  (Please forgive the bad formatting; copy/paste doesn’t work very well from LibreOffice to WordPress, and I may or may not get around to cleaning it up.)


The Universal Tongue

By Dane Mutters

(The claim is highlighted on page three.)

‘“…And what absolutely blew me away was I, well, I was afraid they were going to blame me for what happened, but the mother showed me compassion. She understood—somehow she got the—she, well”—Neil was scrabbling uncomfortably for words, but he was determined to forge ahead—“well, I think part of it was that I was crying. What she did was, she thanked me. She hugged me. And I hugged her.”’

—Excerpt from The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down (Fadiman 213)

In a heroic breach of cultural barriers, Neil Ernst and Foua Lee, longtime adversaries concerning Lia’s medical treatment, suddenly connected emotionally to such an extent that the Lee family exempted Neil and Peggy from the category of “bad American doctors,” and began to see them for what they always were—(unsuccessful) proponents of Lia’s well-being. Why not before now, or even the first time that Lia was successfully treated for acute status epilepticus? The prolonged agony of dissent among the doctors and family of the patient seems, in retrospect, unnecessary. Although the Lees did not understand the methods of treatment, they should have at least realized that the doctors meant to help Lia, and would thus not lie to them, or knowingly overmedicate her. Likewise, why had it taken the doctors at the Merced Community Medical Clinic so long to start seeing their troubled Hmong patient as more than a severe annoyance, but rather as a sick child?

The ever-present struggle between the doctors and the Hmong family was a manifestation of the power differential between the Hmong and the American doctors. In the minds of the Hmong, to learn the basic principles of American medicine, and to do explicitly anything the doctors told them to do, was a way of yielding to a higher power, and thus partially assimilating into the American status quo—something, the essence of which, the Hmong have resisted for hundreds, even thousands of years, under much more invasive governments and cultures than our own. In this society, however, the Hmong were irreparably immersed. Any animosities that may have existed solely on the basis of having somebody else tell them what to do were heightened due to their inability to escape American law and customs for fear of having to deal with a justice system that they didn’t understand, and thus infused into their relationship with the doctors at MCMC a feeling of having been conquered, and with that, a feeling of deep resentment.

Therefore, how could one expect the Hmong to sympathize with the doctors’ efforts to cure Lia’s illness, even at great expense and personal sacrifice? Under such a pretense of hatred, one would be rather inclined towards a disposition of obstinance. This disposition proved rather difficult to deal with from the doctors’ perspectives, even to the extent of warranting the apprehension of Lia so that she could be placed with a more “compliant” family. From the perspective of the Hmong, who value their children above all else, this appeared to be an act of hostility and a demonstration of power, and thus perpetuated feelings of animosity. With such a powerful cycle in place, how did the Lees eventually come to feel compassion for Neil and Peggy Ernst—the very doctors who had their child taken from them?

When Neil’s nearly statuesque composure dissolved under streams of tears, he demonstrated that he did not possess the heartless objectivism of other American authority figures. By bearing his feelings to Foua Lee, he was able to communicate in the universal human language of love, allowing her to understand that he too felt compassion for Lia in a way similar to that of her own parents. In this manner, when feelings of love are put into plain view, one can cross even the densest cultural barriers and allow each participant to ascend into understanding.

Rooted in every human being from the time of birth is the innate notion of giving and receiving love. Babies love their mothers as their mothers love them. Even Lia Lee, in a near-comatose state, was able to recognize her mother’s touch (Fadiman 211). Love is the means by which we are able to accomplish great things as a civilization; it encompasses the desire to help one’s fellow human beings by being the best one can be; it allows people to reach past first impressions in order to achieve a common goal. Furthermore, love is the platform on which equality stands.

In her essay, “Love as a Practice of Freedom,” Bell Hooks states, “A culture of domination is a culture of anti-love” (Hooks 246). She goes on to focus on the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King Jr., saying that he “decided to love.” In that manner, King expressed that in order to live as equals, people must love one another. Otherwise, the sense of animosity which stems from not loving and not being loved will manifest itself in the form of social hierarchies, in which those with wealth and influence do not feel obligated to share their good fortune with those who are less fortunate. Also contained in King’s statement is the premise that love has a way of being reciprocated; otherwise, loving one’s oppressor would serve no purpose.

Indeed, this principle, as demonstrated to be successful during the non-violent movements of both King and Gandhi, is a corner stone of the Christian faith:

“…every man should love his neighbor as himself, that there should be no contention among them.” (Mosiah 23: 15)

However, since in Hmong folk lore (and in their religion) most of the great antagonists are evil spirits, bent on eating people and drinking their blood, many Hmong heroes, such as Shee Yee gained their fame through thinking up cunning ways of killing or otherwise defeating their adversaries, thus perpetuating the characteristically Hmong ethic of resisting coersion from powerful people or beings (Johnson 26). That adds to the above stated predisposition for obstinance that serves to separate the Hmong-Americans from other Americans. These premonitions served to practically vaccinate the first-generation Hmong-Americans from full cultural integration. Additionally, because part of cultural integration involves learning the language, the Hmong tended to be rather “difficult” during negotiations with the MCMC medical staff.

Even though the Hmong were fairly strictly against being colonized, they were able to befriend Lia’s American foster-parents, Dee and Tom Korda, on the grounds that they were taking good care of Lia. Why then, did they not initially feel moved to befriend the doctors at MCMC?

Primarily, this was because they didn’t believe that what the doctors were doing was helping Lia. Hmong parents hold fast to the belief that if a child is sickly, it is because they were not given proper care in their previous life. Therefore, in order to remedy the child’s spiritual afflictions (quag dab peg, literally, “the spirit catches you and you fall down,” is believed to be a matter of losing one’s soul), it was necessary to treat the child with special care, even to the extent of partialism over the other children in the family (Fadiman 20). The doctors at MCMC, however saw Lia’s afflictions as purely a physical matter, and thus did everything in their power to keep her physical body from damaging itself further. This included tying her to her bed, sticking foreign objects down her throat and prodding her with needles in order to systematically extract her bodily fluids. The Lees recognized these actions as things which are likely to scare away her soul by making her unhappy. The Lees responded in the only way they knew how—to cease all things which made Lia unhappy (Fadiman 180).

Such is the purest form of love, the desire to make someone happy. Regardless of whether a person refers to it as “treating the patient,” “calling her soul” or simply “good parenting,” it is that desire which expresses a person’s need to love and be loved. Although the Lees did not understand Lia’s course of medical treatment, they eventually came to realize that the doctors had much the same intentions as them. Such realization came quicker in the case of the Kordas, because the Kordas’ method of giving love was much more similar to their own.

A second form of love is service. Of the countless visits to MCMC that the Lees made over the period of Lia’s childhood, not once were they required to pay for treatment or negotiate with insurance companies to that effect. Neil Ernst once calculated Lia’s cost of medical care at a staggering sum of $250,000, not including the salaries of the medical staff (Fadiman 254). Additionally, both Neil and Peggy could recall countless nights when they had to stumble out of bed and rush over to the clinic in order to insert an IV into one of Lia’s impenetrable veins and negotiate a course of treatment with her obstinate parents. Yet for all of this, they expected nothing. Their primary goal in these valiant efforts was not money or thanks, but rather a sense of satisfaction gained from helping a troubled Hmong girl. In serving the Lees at great cost and personal sacrifice, the doctors at MCMC showed that without knowing the Lees, or even being able to talk to them, they were willing to display unconditional love. Yet that love was not immediately returned.

At the time of service, the Lees did not understand the doctors’ pure intentions, but instead assumed that their willingness to “help” stemmed from their desire to continue medical research, using Lia as a test subject. In that context, it’s no wonder that the Lees felt apprehensive about the treatment, even to the extent of discontinuing it on multiple occasions. They could not, under the circumstances, fathom the idea that in such a money- and power-driven society ruled by the white upper class, somebody would want to help a family of poor Hmong refugees who neither knew the language nor wanted to take part in mainstream American culture. Therefore, it was not until Neil put his love into a language they could understand that they recognized the doctors’ goodwill towards Lia.

Throughout Hmong history, they have been persecuted for their differences and individualism to the extent that those which would have them integrate into their own culture have only caused them to seclude themselves further, out of fear and resentment; thus, in no way could the oppressors have won the confidence of the Hmong. In fact, the greater the power differential and the oppressors’ desire to use it, the more obstinate the Hmong have become in their policies towards that group. At MCMC, however, the pressure to integrate was accompanied by good intentions and selfless service, allowing for the chance that the Hmong patients would see the doctors’ perspective and thereby develop at least a small degree of trust and confidence in that group. However the desire to do good was not enough. The doctors had to put it into a form that the Hmong could understand—the almost parental love that Neil and Peggy felt toward Lia. Once these feelings of love were out in the open, each side was free to cross the cultural barrier and embrace one another as mentors and benefactors of Lia Lee.

Could the same have been accomplished without love? Possibly. A good translator who was affluent enough with Hmong culture may have been able to explain the doctors’ wishes to Foua and Nao Kao, but without Neil’s display of pure emotions, this understanding would have been purely objective, even to the extent that the Lees may have continued to suspect that the doctors were testing new methods of medicine on Lia. In light of this alternative, I stay my claim that only when feelings of love are put into plain view, can people step across cultural barriers and gain a complete understanding of each other’s motives and intentions. One can thus only hope that people are able to step outside of their comfort zones and communicate in a language that everybody can understand, thus breaking down the barriers of hatred, prejudice and cultural misunderstanding, and thereby finding common ground between them on the basic platform that is humanity.

Works Cited

Fadiman, Anne. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. New York: Noonday, 1997.

Hooks, Bell. Outlaw Culture. New York: Routledge, 1994.

The Book of Mormon. Salt Lake City: Corporation of the President of The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, 1981.

Johnson, Charles. Dab Neeg Hmoob. St. Paul: Linguistics Dept., Macalester College, 1985.