Tuesday, August 11, 2009

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

Anne Fadiman's excellent examination of the clash of two cultures - one the Hmong refugees, and the other, Western medicine - not only proves the importance of holistic child development and a family-centered approach, but also draws attention to the struggle many families in forced displacement must face. The following passage, describing how families with young children coped during their flight, is horrifying, yet still (unfortunately) within the boundaries of comprehension in the context of armed conflict.

"Many people carried children on their backs. The babies presented a potentially fatal problem: they made noise. Silence was so essential that one Hmong woman, now living in Wisconsin, recalled that her son, who was a month old when the family left their home village, didn't know a single word when they arrived in Thailand two years later, because no one had talked that entire period except in occasional whispers. Nearly every Hmong family I met in Merced had a story to tell about a baby - a relative's child, a neighbor's child, a member of the group they escaped with - who had been drugged with opium. 'When the babies would cry,' a young mother named Yia Thao Xiong told me, 'we would mix the opium in the water in a cup and give it to them so they would be quiet and the soldiers would not hear, because if they heard the babies, they would kill all of us. Usually the baby just went to sleep. But if you give too much by mistake, the baby dies. That happened many, many times.' When I heard these stories, I recalled something I had once read about an Israeli child, hiding from Palestinian terrorists, who, when she began to cry, was accidentally smothered to death by her mother. That death, in 1979, was said to have driven the entire Israeli nation into mourning. The horror of the opium overdoses was not only that such things happened to the Hmong, but that they happened so frequently that, far from driving a nation into mourning, they never made headlines, never caught the world's ear, never reached beyond a community of families that numbly accepted them as a fact of life" (p. 162).

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