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Seeking Understanding at the Edge of Culture

Reading TUgether guest Anne Fadiman speaks on the need to look for common ground with others

By Russell Guerrero'83

Krista's note
Anne Fadiman, author The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, presented the Keynote Lecture of Trinity's Reading TUgether program in August.

August 2010 — For author Anne Fadiman, the action worth watching is not at the center of things, but where edges meet. This is especially true with the intersection of different cultures, where one can get a better point of view of both sides from a shared edge.

Fadiman is the author of award winning book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures.

She presented the Keynote Lecture of Trinity’s Reading TUgether program on Thursday, Aug. 26, in Laurie Auditorium to an audience of 500 people.  

The book recounts the story of the Lee family and their often traumatic experiences with the American medical system during the 1980s. Lia Lee, the second youngest daughter of the family, suffered from epilepsy, which the Hmong refer to as qaug dab peg, meaning the spirit catches you and you fall down.

Fadiman told the audience that the heart of the book was the cross-cultural miscommunications between the culture of the Hmong and the culture of medicine. The problems arose because the two sides had little understanding or appreciation of the other side’s point of view. 

Although Lia’s story does not end well, one of the most poignant scenes in the book comes between Lia’s mother and one of Lia’s doctors. Both share a moment as parents whose children are ill and, by finding common ground, are able to share their grief.

Krista's note
Fadiman met with students after her presentation during a book signing in Laurie Auditorium. Her book was selected for the 2010 Reading TUgether program.

Since the publication of the book, doctors and other health care professionals have become more sensitive to the cultural background of their patients and medical schools now teach courses on cross cultural communication.

A larger lesson to come from the book is the need to bridge the seeming disparity between distinct cultures.  Fadiman said that during times of stress, people tend to retreat to the center of their culture and withdraw from communicating with those who are perceived as being different and foreign.         

However, Fadiman urged her audience to go to the “edge of culture” where there is overlap with other cultures and to pursue common ground.  When we refuse to see others as individuals or to understand their point of view, we revoke “our global citizenship,” she said.

The goal of Trinity’s Reading TUgether program is to promote social responsibility and intercultural awareness. The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down was this year’s book selection for first-year students to read over the summer. The rest of the Trinity community was invited to read the book as well to help facilitate a deeper exploration of the book and to foster the essential understanding of what it means to be a global citizen.

© 2010 Trinity University

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