Chapter 8 - Foua and Nao Kao

The author tells the reader at the beginning of this chapter that the doctors at MCMC told her that it was not worth investigating Lia’s case, because the Lees would almost certainly refuse to let her see Lia’s medical and legal records or to talk with them herself. She talked again with Bill Selvidge who told her that even an anthropologically-oriented Peace Corps veteran had never been invited into a Hmong home, so what chance did she have? Her first meeting with the Hmong community was set up by a Lao woman who worked as a nurse’s aide at MCMC. Because she was hospital connected, this guaranteed a chilly reception for the author. Every question she asked was debated among the elders and the answer was always, “No.” So the author began to fear that the Hmong community was impenetrable. Then, she met Sukey Waller, a psychologist at Merced Community Outreach Services. She described herself on her business cars as a “fixer of hearts, “because psychological problems did not exist for the Hmong, because they did not distinguish between mental and physical illness. Everything was a spiritual problem.

Sukey introduced the author to five Hmong leaders and because she was in Sukey’s company, she was received warmly. Sukey quickly disabused the author of two notions: she didn’t have to walk a razor sharp edge of etiquette. She said she had made a million errors and always followed one rule. Before she did anything in a Hmong presence, she always asked if it were okay. The second notion was the need for an interpreter. Instead, she said she told her she needed a cultural broker and the one she found for the author was May Ying Xiong who was a clerk-typist in the Merced County Office of Refugee Services. Her name meant Opium Poppy and her beauty had helped her win the Miss Hmong Pageant held annually in the Fresno Civic Auditorium.

After meeting May, the author decided to try to meet Lia’s parents. Together, as two women, they were in an advantageous position, because they were of low status and that would determine that the Hmong did not feel belittled. “With May Ying at her side, she was not an official, not a threat, not a critic, not a person who was trying to persuade the Lees to do anything they did not wish to do, not even someone to be taken very seriously. Her insignificance was her saving grace.” (pg. 97) Once the meeting had been arranged by the powerbrokers, the author was introduced to the Lees. Within thirty seconds, she could see that she was dealing with a family that bore little resemblance to the one the doctors described.

Foua and Nao Kao were a good-looking couple. Foua was about forty-five and Nao Kao ten years older. They were both short and solidly built. Foua had glossy black hair that she usually wore in a bun, but which sometimes came loose when she was talking absently and rolled down her back. Nao Kao wore nerdy glasses, and they both wore comfortable American clothing most of the time. They still had seven children at home and the nine of them lived in a three-room apartment. Foua had a collection of medicinal plants growing in the parking lot in five gallon buckets and discarded motor-oil cans. The author was to spend hundreds of hours in this apartment where the Lees refused to allow her to takes notes, but were very open to a tape recorder. They unhesitatingly allowed her access to Lia’s medical and legal records. However, after reading them, the author realized that asking May Ying to ask questions which involved time was not helpful. The Lees did not tell time in the same way hospital record-keepers did. Years were described as “when the spirits caught Lia and she fell down” or “the year Lia became government property.” They also had no calendar, but followed the lunar cycles and how they affected agriculture, their traditional work.

The Lees were more than willing to answer the author’s questions, but they also had their own agenda: to explain Hmong culture so she could understand and explain it to the doctors.” Ideas would come to them that they wanted to explain at all hours of the day, and Foua especially wanted to explain “soul loss.” She concluded her explanation by making the author aware that Lia needed a little medicine and a little neeb or soul in her encounters with malevolent dabs. The doctors, she said, wouldn’t let them give even a little of their own medicine, because they didn’t understand about the soul. The longer the author spent with the Lees, the more firmly Foua took her in hand. She improved her manners; she taught her how to cure headaches; and she decided to get the author married. When her boyfriend visited her in Merced, Foua saw her chance. Her plan was to transform the author into a Hmong bride. On a sweltering summer day, Foua began to work her magic. With the help of her daughters, she dressed the author like a little doll in the many layers of a Hmong wedding gown and hat which were kept from generation to generation and worn by all the daughters in the family. Foua’s plan worked, because George, the author’s boyfriend was stunned by how beautiful she looked in the traditional Hmong garb, and a week later, asked her to marry him.

When the author later complimented Foua on her beautiful embroidery, she agreed that she had done well, and the Hmong were proud of her. This was one of the few times that the author ever heard Foua say anything complimentary about herself. Usually, she said such things as, “I am very stupid.” When the author questioned her about this feeling, she explained how she felt she didn’t have anything in America. The language was so hard, she couldn’t read or write, she forgot how to do many things even after her children showed her, and she got lost in many of the buildings she entered, like the hospital. She said that too many sad things had happened to her, and her brain was not good anymore. The author then asked her to describe a typical day in the village where the Lee family had lived. She explained everything step-by-step, and while she was narrating her life there, her daughter May walked in, dressed in shorts, a T-shirt that said “Time for the Beach” and pink plastic earrings. She had been only three when the Lees left Laos, so this was all new to her. She sat down on the carper and listened intently to her mother. By the time, Foua finished her story, the author came to the realization that when Foua said she was stupid, she meant that none of her former skills were transferable to the United Stated except for the ability to be an excellent mother to nine surviving children. And this last skill had been legally contradicted by the American government which had declared her a child abuser.

The author asked Foua if she missed Laos. She was silent at first, and then she said, “What I miss in Laos is that free spirit, doing what you want to do. You own your own fields, your own rice, your own plants, your own fruit trees. I miss that feeling of freeness. I miss having something that really belongs to me.”


The author’s introduction to the Lee home is an eye-opener, not just for her, but for her readers as well. They are people of a different culture, but they are still human beings with feelings and dreams and need to be treated as such. It was not difficult for the author to see that Lia belonged with her parents and the doctors needed to take time to understand the Hmong culture.

Cite this page:

Clapsaddle, Diane. "TheBestNotes on The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down". . 09 May 2017