Lia Lee’s Story

There’s a riveting book I just read called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down that documents the story of a girl named Lia Lee.

Lia comes from a Hmong family that settled in California after immigrating to the US. At a young age she starts having seizures. Her parents take her into the emergency room, but because she is not having a seizure during the visit and her parents don’t have the English to explain what happened, it takes several visits before she is diagnosed with epilepsy. But even before she is diagnosed by the doctors, the Lees recognize the seizures as the condition where “a spirit catches you and makes you fall down.” In Hmong culture, it’s seen as a source of pride, and those who have epilepsy often grow up to be shamans.

The doctors who care for Lia aim for an agressive course of medicine, but there are issues that make it hard for Lia to get the doses the doctors prescribe. For one, the Lees don’t speak English, are illiterate, and there aren’t always Hmong-English translators on hand at the hospital. So the doctors have trouble communicating the complicated regimen of medicine that Lia needs to take. In addition, the Lees are wary of doctors and believe that the medicine they are prescribing might be making her sicker.

Despite everyone’s attempts to treat and care for Lia, she doesn’t fare well. Eventually Lia has a severe seizure that lasts for two hours. The doctors at her local hospital can’t stop it, and it she is transferred to another hospital with more advanced pediatric care. There, she goes into a coma and is unable to breath or eat on her own. Her doctors think that she will die and allow her parents to take her home. Amazingly, she lives, albeit with severe brain damage.  It turns out that this last seizure wasn’t caused by her epilepsy but by her body going into septic shock after contracting a serious infection. One of the doctors at the pediatric unit she is transferred to suggests that her immune system may have been weakened by the seizure medicine she was taking, which could have led to the infection. So in some ways, the Lee family may have been right, that the medicine was making Lia sicker.

As the story unfolds, the most glaring barriers that both the Lees and the doctors face are linguistic and cultural ones. One of the doctors, Neil, describes it like this,

It felt as if there were this layer of Saran Wrap or something between us, and they were on one side of it and we were on the other side of it. And we were reaching and reaching and we could kind of get into their area, but we couldn’t touch them (91)

Some of my Bhutanese Nepali friends from class

That image felt so real to me and reminded me of the refugee population that I know more about, the Bhutanese Refugees in Philadelphia. In college, I taught English as a Second Language in South Philadelphia and met many Nepali-speaking Bhutanese families who would come into class.

One of the most difficult things that accompanies moving to a new country is overcoming those cultural and linguistic barriers. With that comes trying to figure out the way that things work and learning how to navigate the bureaucratic systems. I remember one time an adult student came into class very upset. She was yelling and almost on the brink of tears. She was speaking in Nepali very quickly, so I had a lot of trouble understanding what she was saying, but I told her that I would help her out after class was over.

After class, I was beginning to get bits and pieces of her story, but I was still having trouble figuring out what was wrong. She invited me over to her apartment to talk to her husband who was able to speak some English. After talking with her husband, I finally understood they were talking about their water bill. They had recently moved to a new apartment but were being charged for both the water bill from the old apartment and for the water bill from the new one. This had been going on for several months.

It took me four separate calls to different departments in the water company to finally find a live person to talk to who was able to transfer me to somebody who could help with the problem. I told the representative what the issue was, and she promised to right the problem immediately. I felt so much for my friend and student who was overwhelmed by the bureaucratic mess. For heaven’s sake, bureaucracy is hard to deal with if you’re a native and speak the country’s language. Imagine trying to call up this organization without knowing how to navigate the system or having the needed language skills.

Although the story of Lia is a sad one, I smiled a lot while reading the book and loved all of the bits of information and anecdotes that Anne Fadiman collected. I learned so much about the Hmong that I never knew. Here’s one of my favorite tidbits from the book,

The Hmong have a phrase…which means ‘to speak of all kinds of things.’ It is often used at the beginning of an oral narrative as a way of reminding the listeners that the world is full of things that may not seem to be connected but actually are; that no event occurs in isolation; that you can miss a lot by sticking to the point (54)

It just loved this 🙂 There’s a lot about American culture that I like, but its obsession with “getting to the point” is not always one of them. In school we’re taught to stick to the point, write concisely, leave out unnecessary details. Which is important sometimes! But maybe there’s a place of balance that would allow for more exploration and wandering off the path.

I loved The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down. It’s a captivating read that I’d recommend to everyone, especially those who work or interact with people from cultural or linguistic backgrounds different from their own.

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An American Abroad

The book that my grandparents gave me

A few years ago, my maternal grandparents gave me a book called The House of Exile by Nora Waln. I flipped through it briefly, but with college papers and readings calling, I stuck it in my bookshelf and forgot about it. When I got back from Nepal, I was sorting through my room and found it again.

It’s an old book, written in the 1920’s by a woman who lived in China when she was a young adult. She moved there after receiving an invitation from a Chinese family and stayed for about 12 years.

As I started to read the book again, I remember why I had put it down in the first place. It’s a very slow read. She describes her life in China with extreme detail. To someone who knows a lot about China or to someone who is very interested in learning about China, I imagine the book could be captivating, but for me, it’s been a bit boring.

However, as I’ve been working my way through the book, I found some passages that caught my eye, made me laugh or reminded me of something from my own experiences abroad…

A Different World

After arriving in China, Nora Waln writes,

From the moment of my arrival…it was as though, like Alice, I had stepped through a looking-glass into another world. The world I left behind became a dim, fantastic dream. Only this in which I entered seemed real (30).

This really rang true. I remember being in Nepal and feeling like the U.S. was so far away, a different world, a different time. Sometimes I’d stop and think about where I was and just wonder in amazement at how different my life had become. This feeling became even more intense when I remembered that only a few years ago, I knew almost nothing about Nepal and didn’t speak a word of Nepali.

Dye Your Hair

As Nora settles into her new home in China, she begins to make relationships with the women in her household who end up teaching her a lot about China. She writes about one of the women in the house,

[She] wanted to dye [my] hair black, as it is the color of the yellow gentian of misfortune. But Shun-ko reminded her that yellow is also the color of the innermost petals of the sacred lotus (40).

This part made me laugh. I’ve had so many people tell me that I should dye my hair black, not because blond/yellow is considered the color of misfortune in Nepal, but just so that I would look more Nepali. I still haven’t dyed it black, although I did go through a period in high school and college where it was pink. Now-a-days, though, my dirty blond hair has grown on me, and it’s here to stay.

What was Missing

Something that was missing from this book was a sense of her reactions to and inner thoughts about her new life. I admit that I haven’t read the whole thing, so maybe she goes in that direction at some point in the book, but in the beginning, where she describes her first days, weeks, and months in China, she doesn’t. This makes the book read like a little like a list of events, rather than an intimate description of her life in China.

One thing that I wish she had elaborated more on was the process that she went through to learn Chinese. At one point, her hosts dress her up in fancy clothing and she goes to meet some of the important ladies in the extended family. After being unable to speak Chinese in front of them, one of them commands her to learn the language. Nora says, “I was not to be presented to audience again until I was sufficiently civilized to hear and to speak for myself” (51).

Later on Nora writes,

Eventually, however, my ear, my brain, and my tongue were sufficiently well versed for Shun-ko to present me…(51).

This is all she writes about her language learning. But I want to know how she learned it, how she felt about being immersed in a new language. Did she have low points and frustrations? Was she as impatient as I was?

All About the Women

Although I didn’t find her storytelling as rich as I hoped it would be, one thing I really loved about the book was the connection and intimacy that she has with the women of the household she lives in. They take her in, find her a place to stay in their already crowded home, teach her how to dress like a Chinese woman would, and take her to get her horoscope read. They tease and joke with her too. Nora’s strong connections with the women of the family is something I could really relate to.

Both while I was studying abroad and while I was living there this year, it was the women in Nepal who I had the closest relationships with. It was women who both loved and judged me, took me in like their own, told me secrets, cared for me, and scolded me when I did things wrong.

Final Thoughts

There are definitely interesting tidbits and quotes that pop out while reading The House of Exile, and there’s whole section towards the end of the book about the changing political climate in China at that time, which I’m interested in reading. However, I wanted Nora to go deeper and describe more of her reactions to China. Without being able to understand her feelings towards living abroad, it was hard for me to relate to more of her story.

Dealing with the Bureaucracy and Learning to Shop Again

Adjusting to life back in the US has been pretty problem free. Most things feel natural and easy to navigate, but I have hit a few roadblocks. First of all, I kind of forgot how complicated life is in the US. Tri and I are working on getting our health insurance set up again, buying car insurance, finding an apartment in Boston (where we’re moving in a few weeks!), getting our phones in working order and so many other little things.

I drove with my brother to the eye doctor yesterday morning and when we were about half way there, I realized I had forgotten my health insurance card. Neither of us could remember if you have to have it at the eye doctor, so we were ready to turn around, but a call to my mom let us know that I probably didn’t need it. In Nepal, things are more relaxed. You don’t need a health insurance card; in fact, we didn’t even have health insurance, and instead of having to make an appointment weeks in advance, we could call up and get one with only a few days wait. I realize that getting healthcare in Nepal is not so easy for everybody and only minimally available for many, but thankfully we didn’t have much trouble while we were there.

I was complaining to my brother, saying that life is so complicated here, but he reminded me that I used to call and talk about how difficult things were in Nepal. It’s true (at least it was for me). There are many things that are more difficult in Nepal, but the nice thing about life there is that there aren’t so many rules to be followed and not as much of a bureaucracy to deal with. It makes things a little simpler.

It may take a while, but I’ll eventually get used to dealing with all the little details that I have to deal with in the US. What I’m afraid I’ll never get used to is shopping.

Over the weekend we went to visit some friends and family in Washington DC. My aunt and cousin were driving up that way from further down South and wanted to meet us before they headed to another destination. We had lunch at a diner and then went to a nearby mall to check out the lego store. I was shocked. This place was a huge shopping complex with what must have been hundreds of stores. Stores for clothing, shoes, computers, stands to buy jewelry, get your eyebrows threaded, even a store selling only steinway pianos. It’s incredible. In some ways, it’s not all that different from big markets in Nepal like Ason where you can get most of the everyday things that you would be looking for. However, a place like Ason is overwhelming in a different kind of way. Its noises, smells, and intensity make it a lot to take in for a foreigner like me. But this mall was overwhelming because of its size and the huge range of items available. I mean, who ever thought that there would ever be a store dedicated just to plastic toy blocks?

When I was in high school I read a book called The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. It’s a story about a white American missionary family that moves to the Congo in the late 1950’s. It’s a really great, detailed story full of interesting symbolism, but I remember it as being very sad. The youngest of the four daughters dies, and the other three daughters and the mother eventually all all find paths that lead them in very different directions. There’s this one scene from that book that stuck pretty strongly in my mind.

Leah, one of the daughters, marries an African man and decides to settle with him in the Congo. At one point, they visit the US to see if they want to move here. I don’t have a copy of the book, and I can’t find the specific details of this scene on the internet, but I remember them walking into a grocery store and being overwhelmed by the items they find and shocked at the abundance of it all. As far as I can remember, when Leah and her husband were in the Congo, they were living in a rural area, growing much of their own food; the ease of just walking into a store to buy food was the shocking part. I’m not experiencing the degree of shock that they did, but I can relate to the feeling. There’s just so much here, so much stuff available and so much variety. It’s amazing and wonderful but makes me a little sick to my stomach.

A Fox’s Wedding

It’s been quite stormy around here. In Kathmandu, the month of Chaitra (what we’re in now) is known for it’s lightning, thunder, and rain. The monsoon doesn’t officially start until June, but if I didn’t know any better, I would probably assume this was it. Along with the storms, we’ve been getting some funny rain patterns. Sometimes it will start, stop, and then start again throughout the day, and yesterday it was pouring rain on one side of the house and brilliantly sunny on the other.

I told Buwa about it at dinner last night, and he told me that when he was a kid, they used to say that a sunshower meant that the shyaal (foxes) were getting married. But it wasn’t just foxes that were involved. There was a biraalo baaun (brahman cat) officiating and kukur (dogs) playing instruments during the janti, a procession during the wedding where the new bride is brought to the groom’s house. I then remembered that Tri had told me this story a few years ago while we were watching a Japanese film by Akira Kurosawa called Dreams.

It’s a fantasy movie composed of eight short stories. Although I didn’t watch the whole movie, the IMDb page says that the stories are mostly about “man’s relationship with his environment.” The first one, called “Sunshine Through the Rain” is about a little boy who slips out of his house during a rainstorm and goes to a forest where he witnesses a fox’s wedding. The foxes end up seeing him, which is very bad luck for the boy. He returns home and his mother tells him that a fox has left a knife for him with which he must commit suicide. She tells her son to go and beg forgiveness from the foxes so that he doesn’t have to go through with it. The image at the top of the page is the little boy walking into the forest in search of the foxes.

Now that I’m recalling what happened in the story and looking up the details I’ve forgotten, I’m remembering what a disturbing tale it is! Sometime I’d like to watch the whole movie. It’s a bit slow but its stories are intriguing. I think you can stream it on Netflix if you have it, and here is a good review of the whole film if you’re interested.

Because the Nepali story and the Japanese one are so similar, I’ve been trying to find out if they could be related. The first thing I thought is that the tale might have spread to East Asia along with Buddhism. I found a page from Wikpedia about fox folklore in Japan, and the page does suggest that some of the stories about foxes could have a connection to Buddhism. It also notes that many of the stories about foxes were recorded in a book called Konjaku Monagatarishu, translated as Anthology of Tales from the Past. This book was written in about 794-1185 AD and includes tales from India and China in it.

What I love about blogging is that it gives me a good reason to go searching around the internet for interesting stuff. I especially love Wikipedia, and as I’ve been exploring information about sunshowers, I found out that a lot of different cultures say that something special happens when the rain and sun are battling it out. This page gives some examples. For one, some people in the US claim that “the Devil is beating his wife” when the sun and rain are both present, but more interesting than that, most of the cultures mentioned on this page claim that some kind of animal is getting married while it’s both raining and the sun is shining. Below I copied the sayings from the website that mentioned something about animals getting married. Look at this…

  • In South African English, a sunshower is referred to as a “monkey’s wedding”, a loan translation of the Zuluumshado wezinkawu, a wedding for monkeys.[2] In Afrikaans, it is referred to as jakkalstrou,[2]jackals wedding, or also Jakkals trou met wolf se vrou as dit reën en die son skyn flou, meaning: “Jackal marries Wolf‘s wife when it rains and the sun shines faintly.”
  • In Hindi, it is also called “the foxes wedding”.[2]
  • In Konkani, it is called “a monkey’s wedding”.
  • In Sinhala, it is called “the foxes wedding”.
  • In Bengali, it is called “a devil’s wedding”.
  • In Brazil, people say “Rain and sun (chuva e sol), Snail’s (caracol) wedding”, “Sun and rain (sol e chuva), Widow’s (viúva) marriage”, or “Casamento da Raposa” (Fox’s Wedding).
  • In Arabic, the term is “the rats are getting married”.[2]
  • In Korea, a male tiger gets married to a fox.
  • In various African languages, leopards are getting married.
  • In Kenyahyenas are getting married.
  • In Bulgaria, there is a saying about the bear marrying.[2]
  • In Tamil Nadu, South India, the Tamil speaking people say that the fox and the crow/raven are getting married.
  • In Mazandarani language, in north of Iran, it is also called “the jackal’s wedding”.
  • In Pashto, it is also called “Da gidarh wade” or “the jackal’s wedding”.

I can imagine why many areas in South Asia and the Middle East would have folklore about animals (mostly jackels or foxes) getting married. Contact among and between these places was and still is common. Of the above languages, that includes: Hindi, Konkani, Sinhala, Bengali, Mazandarani, Tamil, Pashto, and Arabic (not all related languages).

The European cultures and languages that make use of this folklore may have come up with it independently, but the wedding aspect that is associated with sunshowers seems so specific to me, so maybe the folklore about the wedding goes all the way back to Proto-Indo-European. Maybe it spread to areas of Europe with the spread of language (that would include Bulgarian, Afrikaans, and Portuguese, spoken in Brazil).

But I’m so intrigued by the similar folklore that has African routes, the “monkey’s wedding” that comes from Zulu and the “Hyenas wedding” that comes from Kenya. Could folklore from other parts of the world have influenced the African folklore? Or could the African folklore have influenced folklore elsewhere? Could these tales have arisen independently? I would guess they probably did, but it seems so incredible to me. Is there something about a sunshower that seems particularly matrimonial? So many questions… I don’t really know anything about the rise and spread of tales, stories and oral traditions, but the whole thing is quite interesting.

Children’s Literature, From Denmark to Nepal

There isn’t a long history of children’s literature in Nepal, at least that I know of. I have heard of a few books written for children in Nepali like The Adventures of a Nepali Frog (Dhumdham ko ghumgham: Bhaktaprasad Bhagytako Nepal Yatra), and there must be others. A few people and organizations have been working hard to increase the number of books written in Nepali for children and to increase access to educational sources of entertainment in Nepali. For one, the school I work at has done a lot to promote the writing and publishing of Nepali children’s literature.

Maya & Max

A woman named Shrijana Singh Yonjan is also working towards providing educational TV for kids. She created a Nepali language program called “Maya & Max.” A couple of weeks ago, I went with my class to a presentation about this show, and it reminded me of some of the shows I used to watch as a kid, like “Zoom.” In “Maya & Max,” there are kid stars who speak to the camera while taking trips around Nepal and conducting interviews. We saw an episode, and it was pretty good.

The other part of the exhibit included a display of children’s literature from Denmark, which I absolutely loved. They had blown up drawings from the kids’ books and put them on glass plates behind which they shone lights to illuminate the pictures. While flipping through the books (which were also on display), I couldn’t understand a lick of what was written, but the illustrations were so fantastic, I didn’t feel like I was missing out. Some were a bit scary, and I was surprised that they were classified as children’s literature. But maybe that’s not so unusual. Some original versions of our modern day Western fairy tales are known for their gruesome and disturbing details. However, most of the illustrations were whimsical and imaginative, sometimes strange but lovely too. Here they are…

A little bit scary! They kind of look like zombies

The guy in the back reminds me of a creature from "Where the Wild Things Are"

I love his expression 🙂

Reminds me of Escher

One of the scarier images

One of my favorites

Another of my favorites

Meeting Samrat Upadhyay and Looking Beyond Grades

Kathmandu is a small place. Even though there are millions of people living here, it sometimes seems like I’m living in a village and everybody knows everybody else somehow or another. The great thing about this is that I often get to see and meet a lot of influential Nepalis. I’ve also found that a lot of influential Nepalis don’t seem to mind meeting others, talking with them, and sharing about the things they do.

The school that I work at often invites over speakers from different disciplines to talk to students, and today they invited over the award-winning author Samrat Upadhyay, who wrote the book Arresting God in Kathmandu. I didn’t think I would get to have a chance to see him speak, but his lecture fell during my lunch period, so I rushed right over after my class ended.

Mr. Upadhyay was born and raised in Nepal but now lives in the US and teaches creative writing at Indiana University. His book is a collection of stories written in English about people living in Kathmandu. I’ve heard Nepalis describe it as both “good” and “weird,” and I’ve always had an interest in reading it but never got around to it. It’s definitely on my list of books to read over my winter break, which started today.

I wasn’t able to stay for all of his talk, but I really enjoyed the 45 minutes that I did sit in on. He discussed the ways that living in Kathmandu and then in the US changed and shaped him and how he started to perceive his mother culture in a new and different way after moving to the US. I’ve been thinking about issues related to migration and immigration and how they shape our understanding of who we are. Marrying a foreigner and becoming one myself make thinking about these things almost inevitable.

He also discussed his life before becoming a writer and his years attending school in Kathmandu. Before giving the talk today, he said that he told his mother to look for some of his old work and report cards, and he brought one along with him to the talk. I’m not sure what year the report card was from, but he read us some of his grades. His highest score was in something called Moral Science, and his lowest, ironically, in English, getting 55 out of 100.

It’s always important to remember that success in school does not necessarily equal success after school or in life in general. I’m lucky enough to have parents who demanded that I try my best but reminded me of this truth. Now that I’m a teacher, even though I’m always trying to get my students to do better and try for higher scores, I must also remind them that there are things beyond grades and school, that good grades do not guarantee or reflect success or creativity or lots of other important things.

Shradda

Mamu’s shradda was on Thursday. After someone dies in the family, if you are Nepali Hindu, you have a priest perform puja (religious prayers and worship) for that person every month for a year. After a year is up, you must do it once a year, on the day he or she died. This is called shradda and is done to feed the deceased.

On Wednesday, the day before, Tri, his brother, and his dad had to refrain from eating meat and eggs and could only eat one meal of daalbhaat (rice and lentils). We weren’t sure if I was supposed to fast or not so to be on the safe side, I didn’t eat meat or eggs either. And I actually made a mistake that day. Usually we have rice in the morning and roti for dinner. Because I had eaten about 6 rotis for lunch (they were really good), I didn’t want to eat them for dinner, so I made myself some rice. After I started eating, Tri’s brother told me I wasn’t supposed to have more than one meal with rice the day before shradda.

On Thursday morning, Tri and his brother had to fast until the puja finished. All of this fasting has to do with purity. To partake in the puja on Thursday, Tri and his brother had to be pure. Neither I nor my father-in-law were part of the puja for my mother-in-law because only the sons of the deceased have to perform shradda, so we didn’t have to fast that morning.

After the priest came over, he arranged some flowers, fruit, and spices in pots specially used for puja and in bowls made from dried banyan leaves. After he finished getting ready, Tri and his brother went to the roof of the house, where the puja was taking place. The priest recited prayers, gave them some special water to drink, and gave them each a new sacred thread to wear. The long white string is worn like a sash inside of the clothing. Traditionally Hindu Baun (Brahman) men were supposed to wear this sacred thread all the time, but I don’t think it’s as common today. After the puja finished, we all sat down to have daalbhaat.
            On Friday, we had another shradda for 16 generations of my father-in-law’s ancestors. This puja occurs only once a year and is also done to feed the ancestors. It reminds me of a book I read by Lisa See called Peony in Love about a young girl in China during the 17th Century. I’m skipping over a bunch of the story, but from what I remember, the main character dies and becomes a ghost. However, because her funeral rites do not happen as they should and no one in her family sends her offerings, she starves in the afterlife. We were talking about this tradition in the context of Hinduism, and Tri made the point that if your ancestors have already been reincarnated, why would you need to feed them? I’ve learned a lot about Nepali Hinduism in the last few years, but I still have so many questions.