Saturday, January 5, 2008


I have just finished a book called The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman. It is a true story about a Hmong child with epilepsy who was born in California twenty-five years ago. The child does not receive appropriate medical care because her parents do not understand the doctors and the doctors do not understand the parents. The parents do not speak English, but even if they did, the doctors would not have really understood them because the Hmong culture was so completely foreign to them.

For example, the Hmong believe that the human soul is like a shadow that does not always stay with a person, but takes flight as easily as a butterfly. They also believe that when a soul wanders away from someone, that person will feel sad or sick. When the soul returns, the person will feel well again. The family in the story believes that their daughter has seizures when she is separated from her soul. They want to explain this to her doctors, but they don’t know how to do so.

Most of the Hmong in America spent some time in refugee camps when they were forced from Laos after the Vietnam War. The doctors there often treated the sick with antibiotics, which were sometimes successful. By the time the Hmong arrived in the United States some had learned to trust western doctors enough to seek their medical help, usually hoping to get the short course of antibiotics that had helped them when they were refugees, regardless of their current medical complaint. At the same time, most Hmong held tight to their belief that the sickness was caused by the loss of the shadow-like soul. Hmong families were willing to hedge their bets by seeing a western doctor, but they did not abandon their traditional attempts to reunite the patient with his or her lost soul.

The Hmong use the word “neeb” to mean healing power. It is pronounced “neng.” The final “b” is included in the written form only to indicate in which tone the word should be spoken. The word comes from “ua neeb kho,” which is a ritual performed by a shaman. In the healing ritual, or neeb, an animal is sacrificed and the soul of the sacrificial animal is traded for the wandering soul of the sick person. Different sicknesses require the sacrifice of different animals, including chickens, pigs and cows. Some sicknesses require the sacrifice of a dog, which has created much anxiety among American pet owners in Hmong neighborhoods and has been the source of racist jokes.

“What is the name of the Hmong cookbook?”
“I don’t know.”
“101 Ways to Wok Your Dog.”

The family in the book had several neebs performed on their daughter’s behalf. They wanted to explain the neeb’s importance to their daughter’s doctors, but they were unable to do so. Meanwhile, the American doctors were unable to communicate the importance of correctly administered anti-seizure medications to the Hmong parents.

We learned about pagan practices and ritual sacrifices such as the neeb when I was in grade school. I brought part of my allowance to school each week to rescue the poor, pagan babies in Africa from such a life. Every $5 that we collected purchased a Catholic Baptism for one of these children and allowed us to give him or her a Christian name. My friend, Vicki, contributed so much money to the mission box that she believed there were little girls all over Africa answering to the name of Victoria Rose.

Never did I imagine that these poor, pagan babies would some day become a part of my American world or that my desire to convert them would be replaced with a desire to understand them. One of the largest settlements of Hmong refugees in America is now in the Twin Cities. A Hmong family moved into the house next door to ours two summers ago and lived there for a short time. A Hmong boy attends school with my daughter, Somer. Sister Michaelene, the third-grade teacher who I considered to be omniscient, collected our quarters for the missions without preparing us for these eventualities because she did not see them coming any more than we did.

As more and more Hmongs become Hmong Americans, words like neeb will find their way into our language, our consciousness and our dictionaries. They will challenge our way of looking at the world. They will help us to understand each other. We can hope that they will teach us to avoid repeating the sad chain of events that affected the life and family of a poor, pagan epileptic Hmong child born in California twenty-five years ago.

The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down sometimes reads a bit like a history book, but it's interesting history and I highly recommend it. Published in 1997, it is a winner of the National Book Critics Circle Award. I do not recognize the other non-fiction books that have won this award, but the fiction winners include All the Pretty Horses, A Thousand Acres (a personal favorite of mine) and Atonement.

P.S. Neeb is not YET a Scrabble word, but it does remind me of some words that are.
1. nee: born with the name of (feminine). Example: My gramma is Loretta Pelletier, nee Reinert.
2. ne: born with the name of (masculine). My cousin, Joan, played this one against me in Tucson last week. Example: My brother-in-law, Peter Somers, ne Stenzel, thinks he invented Platers (See: Platers).
3. neb: the beak of a bird. I remember this one because it is like the French word for nose: nez, and a stereotypical French nose can look somewhat like a beak.
4. n00b: someone who is new to a website or game, especially an on-line game. It can also be spelled noob and is short for newcomer or newbie. Newcomer and newbie are in the dictionary; n00b and noob are not in the dictionary YET.


Erin said...

Fascinating. I wonder if neeb is something we have experienced in this culture, or if we have a word or understanding for it, or if it is completely culture-specific and/or only fully understood in Hmong. Sounds powerful. I wonder if there's a way to reclaim the wounded spirit without sacrificing an animal. I wonder if that's how it was always done, or a more recent practice... and why must the healing power come from the death of another being? Similarly, in what is lost in a culture of people that migrates to a new land, is there some new reclaimed aspect of soul to that culture, to the new nation, to the world? ie all that is lost in translation allows for what is gained in attempted understanding... and we are closer to whole though part of us is lost. ??

Interesting. Thanks for the post Mom!

Anonymous said...

"Neeb" does not have a direct translation in English. However, the approximate meaning as indicated in your post is accurate.

As for the need to sacrifice animals, that part of "ua neeb" has always been performed in order to appease whatever malevolent spirit has disturbed the equilibrium of the Hmong human existence.

This need to sacrifice in order to obtain/maintain life and health greatly ties in with the sacrifice of Jesus Christ for our sins, and so many evangelical Hmong Christians use this to point out the fact that with Christ's sacrifice, the Hmong people only need to accept Jesus Christ as Savior and no longer need to continue the "old way" of making animal sacrifices to appease the spirits--whether these spirits be "dab" (evil/devilish) or ancestral.