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Cultural Relativity in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down

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The question of what is morally right and wrong in society is a common argument among people. The issue with solving this problem is that people have different beliefs and values as to what would be considered right and wrong due to where they come from and their culture. The term cultural relativism describes the acceptance and understanding of these differences. The term offers an equivocal answer to the question, but as humans, we are always searching for a definite answer. Cultural relativism provides the idea that no one culture is right or wrong and that a culture cannot be judged for their belief.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down is an excellent illustration of how two cultures clash because of their differences in beliefs, customs, and values and ultimately come to understand each other. The book follows the tribulations of a Southeast Asian family from Laos, the Lees, that relocates to Merced, California as refugees. The hardship lies within the health issues of the youngest daughter, Lia, and her care between the family and the American doctors. The primary source of indifference is the fact that the hospital and its employees are not familiar with the customs and culture of the Hmong people and instead of attempting to consider their beliefs, they expect the Lee family to assimilate to American ideals.

The first instance of misunderstanding is when Foua is in the hospital for the birth of her youngest daughter Lia. It is important to know that in Hmong culture, hospitals are not considered to be places where people are healed, and rumors cause the Hmong people do not to trust anything having to do with modern medicine. One rumor states that doctors eat the organs of their patients. This results in an automatic bias against doctors and hospitals for Hmong people. Ironically, the doctors at Merced Community Medical Center are oblivious to a Hmong custom in which the placenta of a child is buried and usually automatically dispose of placentas. The doctors at MCMC assume that when Hmong mothers ask for the placenta of their child, they wish to eat. Because of this, the hospital normally denies their request for the placenta and incinerates it, disregarding the significance of it to their Hmong patients. Foua never asked for Lia’s placenta, however, this ignorant action further foreshadows the quality of the relationship between the Hmong people and the hospital.

Three months after Lia’s birth, she begins to have seizures. Eventually, because of the help of a cousin that could translate for the Lee family, Dan Murphy diagnoses Lia with epilepsy. Another example of misunderstanding is the different attitude towards what Western medicine calls epilepsy. In America, epilepsy is seen as a disorder that needs to be treated. In Hmong culture, they call it “quag dab peg” and to Hmong people, it signifies the ability for one to become a spiritual healer, which is a highly respected position. Lia’s primary doctors, Neil Ernst and Peggy Philp prescribe numerous medications for Lia and ignore the presence of a language barrier and the fact that the family had hesitations toward treating this “illness” because of cultural ideals. Ernst and Philp automatically assumed that the Lee family would conform to the plan of action to better Lia’s health and because of this Lia’s health declined. Instead of attempting to understand why the plan was not being followed, Ernst and Philp arrived at the conclusion that the Lees were either unintelligent or deceiving them, which led to Lia being taken from the home by CPS.

These examples are just a few of the instances in which one culture was misunderstood by another. The conclusion of this book is that neither American culture nor Hmong culture was wrong in their beliefs of what should be done about Lia’s condition as both sides of the argument were doing what they believed to be correct. After reading, one could also draw the conclusion that Lia’s condition could have been different, had the doctors and the Lee family understood the decisions of each other. In chapter seventeen the author, Anne Fadiman, mentions a set of eight questions constructed by Arthur Kleinman, a psychiatrist and medical anthropologist at Harvard. Those questions resulted in the realization that all the conflicts that occurred throughout the book could have been resolved by asking simple questions about what the Lee’s thought was going on with their daughter and how they think it should be treated. This shows that cultural relativism is a very important concept that must be considered when dealing with people different from oneself.

The importance of cultural relativism within society as a whole is that it allows people to be equal whilst being different, promotes respect for one another, and creates an environment in which people are not judged. Cultural relativism is the opposite of ethnocentrism, which is the belief that one’s own culture is superior to another. It replaces the determination of right and wrong with an understanding as to how or why certain things are viewed and done. This allows for an environment in which people are free to practice their culture without the fear of being judged or reprimanded for doing so. Ultimately this creates a society in which growth and change are permitted because as one comes to understand ideas different from their own, they can become an idea that person accepts as well.

Cultural relativism is based on the hope that people will be ideal humans. Obviously, there are limitations to this in reality. One of these being that it is difficult for people to suppress their own personal biases which is required to reach the conclusion that no one is right or wrong. Another limitation is the fact that because there would be no rules determining what is right and what is wrong, one’s perception of another person could be acted upon. For example, someone does not agree with another person. That person could hurt the other solely for disagreeing if their morals or culture allows it. This example and others like it could create a very chaotic environment that cannot be controlled.

The solution to this issue is compromised. Neil Ernst, one of Lia’s doctors even said, “I wish I’d accepted that it would be easier for the family to comply with one medicine instead of three, even if three seemed medically optimal”. Also in chapter seventeen, Kleinman states that the Lee family’s noncompliance to Lia’s regimen “implies moral hegemony”, which means that the doctors believed that their culture and ideals were superior to Hmong cultures and ideals. In the world of cultural relativity, the doctors should have acknowledged that they too have biases that differ from the Hmong. This would have allowed the doctors and the family to come to an agreement that satisfied Lia’s needs as well as the morals and customs of both cultures.  

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Cultural Relativity in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. (2023, February 09). GradesFixer. Retrieved March 26, 2023, from
“Cultural Relativity in The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down.” GradesFixer, 09 Feb. 2023,
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