One of their daughters, Lia Lee, suffers from severe epilepsy, and Fadiman covers the terrible struggles the family endures in dealing with her illness in the American medical system of the 1980s. Much of the provision of care was free, but the cultural barriers were enormous.
A friend who read this book years ago told us she remembers it as being a book with “little relief”; it’s a good description, as page after page follows the family and their terrible experiences, with no respite.
The Lees fled their village of Houaysouy in Sainyabuli province, Laos after the communists came to power in 1975. The book covers the American War in Laos and the circumstances that led up to their departure:
“There was an average of one bombing sortie every eight minutes for nine years. Between 1968 and 1972, the tonnage of bombs dropped on the Plain of Jars alone exceeded the tonnage dropped by American planes in both Europe and the Pacific during World War II… Hmong soldiers died at a rate about ten times as high as that of American soldiers in Vietnam.”
As the mountain-dwelling Hmong fought on the Royalist/US side, when the communists won, the Hmong for the most part tried to flee.
Just leaving the country was drama enough, and given the struggles refugees face today, it is illuminating to read the fight they faced getting to the United States in the first place. The history of the Hmong is expertly woven into the story of the Lees, making this excellent background reading for anyone heading to Laos.
But the real drama occurs between the Lees and the US medical system, where doctors have no idea about the Hmong and their culture. The clash is devastating.
At one point Lia’s parents want to sacrifice a cow. They do so legally and bring the cow’s head to their front stoop.
“When I asked the Lees whether any American passersby might have been surprised by this sight, Foua said, “No, I don’t think they would be surprised, because it wasn’t the whole cow on the doorstep, only the head. Nao Kao added, “Also, Americans would think it was okay because we had the receipt for the cow.”
Read how the Hmong spirit world collided with Western medicine in the story of Lia. Learn about just how much empathy and cultural education matters.
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