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Culture Is Our DNA

Wikimedia Commons, Laos 1973

This is Leslie VonHolten with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

A lifetime of reading books teaches you that words—English words, anyway—are expandable, malleable vessels of seemingly endless meaning. As I read Anne Fadiman’s incredible book, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down, I kept chewing on one word in particular: Culture. Such a small word, culture. Interesting how in the United States, we load that small word up with so much  complexity and contradictory simplicity—with such respect and dismissal.

For Americans, we expect it to carry our history and self-definitions, for it to teach our children, and for it to carry the torch of the divine. We also expect it to earn its own living, to have the car warming up when we are ready to go, and when we want to ignore it, for it to live on its own without our care and attention.

But in this book, the author shows us that culture is our DNA. It’s our blood cells, it affects our very approach to our very corporeal bodies. This book reveals the deep seats of culture—it’s in every way we move through the world, think about and understand and teach our children how to approach it. Culture is the framework upon which we interpret and express every single experience of our lives.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down refers to the Hmong interpretation of what happened to young Lia Lee. She was gripped by severe seizures starting when she was just a baby. Her Western doctors diagnosed her, eventually, with epilepsy: a rough affliction, but one that can be managed, if delicately. But to Lia’s immigrant parents, who had settled in a Hmong community in California after fleeing deprivation and refugee camps in Thailand, the seizures were the work of spirits who had entered her body. They knew Lia needed medical care, but they didn’t trust it, and didn’t understand it. The severe language barrier didn’t help. What followed was years of frustration and heartbreak as two cultures collided over the body of this small child.

Often in our society we use Culture like it’s an extra: holiday traditions and habits, the music we prefer, the art we look at on the weekends when our parents come to visit. We are blessed to have writers like Anne Fadiman and those who do the hard work of connecting us across our disparate cultures. Her research and outreach are a bridge to understanding one another while the torrents of culture run under our feet.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is a gentle, deep, and empathetic book of all sides trying for Lia. Even culture itself was trying. There just needed to be more bridges.

The HPPR Radio Readers Book Club is made possible in part by generous gifts from Lon Frahm of Colby and Lynne Hewes of Cimarron, Kansas. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.