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Saturday, January 07, 2006

Culture and medical care

My daughters do wonderful things for me. One of them expected me to read a book recently, and I'm glad I did.

In an intermediate French class . . . the students were assigned a five-minute oral report. The second student to stand up in front of the class was a young Hmong man. His chosen topic was a recipe for . . . Fish Soup. To prepare Fish Soup, he said, you must have a fish, and in order to have a fish, you have to go fishing. In order to go fishing, you need to know whether the fish you are fishing for lives in fresh or salt water, how big it is, and what shape its mouth is. Continuing in this vein for forty-five minutes, the student filled the blackboard with a complexly branching tree of factors and options, a sort of piscatory flowchart, written in French with an overlay of Hmong. He also told several anecdotes about his own fishing experiences. He concluded with a description of how to clean various kinds of fish, how to cut them up, and, finally, how to cook them in broths flavored with various herbs. . . .

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; and that the story-teller is likely to be long-winded. Anne Fadiman, The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down: A Hmong Child, Her American Doctors, and the Collision of Two Cultures. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1997, pp. 12-13.

There's more to the book than that, but that part, illustrating the culture of the Hmong, but also showing that that culture is not entirely different from the way some non-Hmong talk, particularly arrested me. The book is about a particular young Hmong girl, and how the lack of understanding between U. S. culture, and the culture of Hmong immigrants, influenced her medical care. It's a sad, and fascinating, tale.


Julana said...

That is an interesting concept. From a culture that's probably based more on the oral than the written word. It reminds me of the way we go to my grandmother's, and people would visit, and the conversation would go all over the place. People didn't visit for any other purpose than to visit.
And I think a lot of connections between varied things were made that way.
Today, people seem to get together to meet objectives, so much of the time. The conversations become more linear. Or is it just me?

Martin LaBar said...

I don't know if it's just you or not, but I think you are right, and I remember some of the same sort of conversations. My guess is that, now that I'm older, younger folks listen to some of mine and think it's going all over the place, too.

Thanks for reading!

Catez said...

I loved this post. It reminds me of late night conversations - when people are tired and just talk and it goes wherever it goes. Yet somehow it is all connected.

Catez said...

I meant to mention (talk about wandering conversation...) I left a comment on your Dec 31 post. I'm sorry I didn't see that sooner - thankyou.

Martin LaBar said...

I found it. Thanks for both comments.