Hmong Memoir and Diversity Training

In yesterday’s post about an art show I went to on Geary I mentioned that after the show I came across a bunch of free books on the street and decided to pick up a Hmong memoir that I ended up really liking. I think it was an interesting story but I also think I liked it because the timing I came across it resonated with me since I’m about to begin studies that require me to do consider issues of diversity in institutional settings.

The Memoir

hmong child

Actually, the book isn’t really a memoir. It’s a biography written from an outside perspective but I keep forgetting that because it reads almost like a memoir, which I really love. The difference (besides that it’s actually not written from the person it’s about) is that it incorporates a lot of researched history into it.

The book is called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. That tells you a lot about the book’s story. The name of the book relates to the fact that the child had epilepsy and this is described in the Hmong culture as “the spirit catches you and you fall down”. The family was a refugee family living in Merced, California, and the epileptic child was treated there in Merced.

california street art

The story is a virtual horror story of what can happen when there isn’t cultural sensitivity in an institutional setting like a hospital. In fairness, the experience happened in the 1980s and there have been a lot of things put into place in institutions since that time (although they are still very limited) but some of the things that we see happen in this true story include:

  • There was absolutely no one there to translate for the Hmong family members. Occasionally a Hmong janitor was asked to translate. This meant that not only did the family not understand what was going on but the medical staff missed out on getting very important information.
  • There was very little attempt on anyone’s part to understand the Hmong culture and the family’s beliefs about medicine. They believed strongly in alternative medicine and wanted to use folk treatments either instead of or in addition to prescribed medications.
  • A failure to understand the parents’ point of view resulted in the hospital labeling the family non-compliant. For example, they wouldn’t give the medications to prevent epilepsy but they had many reasons for this that weren’t adequately explored (including not actually understanding the dosages since they didn’t speak or read English and were illiterate in their own language as well).


The child was actually removed from the home by Child Protective Services for a period of time even though her parents loved her and did all they could to care for her. It wasn’t an easy decision of course but basically the medical community felt like the parents wouldn’t give the child her meds so she would keep having seizures and would eventually die so they removed the child and she was out of the home for about a year.

I think this part of the story really hit a chord with me because of my work with the foster care system and Child Protective Services. I didn’t see anything like that but I did see many situations where in my opinion the child would’ve been better off left in the original home than put into the system. And I also did see many instances where culture/ language barriers were a serious issue. For example, there was a period of time when I was doing supervised visits for Spanish-speaking families because I was the only person who would do them … note that my Spanish is really weak and I was an untrained intern. And this was Tucson so it shouldn’t have been hard to find a Spanish-speaking translator … but for whatever reason (lack of funding, lack of time, etc.) CPS wasn’t providing those translators so parents who were legally supposed to be getting visits with their kids weren’t getting them. I mention this for a few reasons:

  • My experience with that made me appreciate the Hmong story.
  • It shows how this happens to people of all different types of non-dominant cultures dealing with the system.
  • It happened less than ten years ago so we’re not talking about something that happened in the 1980s before cultural diversity was better explored in these systems.

The Hmong story reached me for that reason, I think, and also just because the story is so compelling. The writer does a good job of explaining the varied viewpoints of the different people who were players in this tragic drama. More than that, the book provides a lot of researched information about the Hmong history as well as the Hmong experience in the United States.

I didn’t know much at all about the Hmong culture. I realized as I read the story that I am actually shamefully ignorant about the variety of Asian immigrant experiences, which is terrible considering the large percentage of Asian Americans in the Bay Area.

Diversity Training


Let me digress for a minute. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m starting grad school studies in a counseling program soon. A couple of months into the program I’m going to have to do a weekend of diversity training. I have to admit that when I first saw that I kind of quietly rolled my eyes as I read information about the training that says things like, “It’s easy to unconsciously hurt people through “microaggressions” and we want to reduce these woundings”. The training is eighteen hours of intensive training across two days and is designed to do things like “familiarize participants with basic concepts of racism, classism, sexism, heterosexism, privilege, and ally building” and help us “gain a basic understanding of how these concepts show up in both individual, classroom, and larger institutional settings”.

Now don’t get me wrong … I think those are important things. But I tend to think that I’m already pretty well-versed in diversity. Although I’m from a white middle class background I have a background of diversity issues in my extended family and of course I’m female so I understand sexism from that perspective. I grew up in a minority-rich town and went to schools where there were a lot of minorities. I got my undergrad degree in studies related to social work so I have taken tons of courses designed to increase my understanding of diversity issues (including courses on mental health issues for the elderly, for example). And I worked in social work so I did a lot of certificates in training related to being sensitive to people from different backgrounds. I even worked for a time at a refugee agency whose sole purpose was to help people who had just arrived, typically from African refugee camps. Plus I live in San Francisco, which isn’t the most diverse city in the country but definitely has diversity as well as a very liberal attitude towards issues for people from different social cultures.

So basically I guess if I’m honest I’d have to say that while I thought diversity training made sense and I wasn’t opposed to doing it I also kind of had an idea that the trianing didn’t apply to me so much and would be kind of boring.

But Actually …

mock jury 2

I think if you have that attitude then it’s a good sign that perhaps you need a refresher course in diversity training or at least to take the time to take a good long look at yourself. And I was actually reminded about that when I read this Hmong story.

The truth is that I don’t like to admit it but I fall prey to racist thoughts sometimes. For example, when I walk through the crowded throngs in Chinatown and someone clears their throat and then spits it up really close to me I get disgusted and annoyed and think things that I probably shouldn’t say out loud. There were certain things that the Hmong book mentioned that made me realize that I don’t have a clue about why someone would do something like that and that my judgments are inappropriate. For example, the book talks about how the Hmong people come here and don’t know the language and don’t know the basic customs and are totally overwhelmed by even the most basic things to the point where they would sometimes receive informational pamphlets with tips like, “don’t stand on the toilet, this will break it” and “don’t throw water on the stove to turn it off”. When you’re dropped into such a radically different culture, after being uprooted from a home you didn’t necessarily want to leave in the first place, you may do things like spit close to others in public places. Who am I really to judge that?

Obviously this is just one example. And obviously the situation is more complex than that. But reading the book and being so touched by the plight of the people in the book made me realize that there’s no harm in revisiting some of my own assumptions and looking closely now and then about my automatic thoughts and reactions to the people around me.

The diversity training is still a couple of months away. And it’s not the main focus of my educuational courses that are coming up so it’s not as though I’m really thinking all that much about it. But the memoir combined with the knowledge that it was coming up provided me with a really good opportunity to re-examine my own biases and my own limitations and my own need to constantly review how I see people of different backgrounds.

The funny thing is that I really have no idea what compelled me to pick up this book. I was walking home from the art show and came across dozens of boxes of free books that someone had left out on the street. There were art books and all kinds of others books that are typically what I would be drawn to. And I don’t even actually usually get books to own (I’m a library girl) but for some reason I glanced through the boxes and that memoir popped out at me. Interesting.

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I am sadden to hear the book was marked "free" seems like an interesting topic and book.  Too bad it was in the throw away bin!


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