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Culture Clash: Hmong the Americans

Koeun Choi


The United States is a country built on the strength of immigrants from every corner of the world. This melting pot also drew in one Hmong family who were escaping the clutches communist soldiers of Laos. Nao Kao and Foua Lee lived among the Americans, trying to adapt to this culture that so greatly differed from their own set of beliefs and customs. Their first child to be born in America was Lia Lee, who had her first seizure at the age of 3 months.  

The Hmong name of epilepsy is qaug dab peg, which translates to "the spirit catches you and you fall down*" illuminates the Hmong belief that those who are epileptic are gifted with the ability to enter the spirit realm. Amongst the Hmong, the epileptic become shamans, helping those in need of physical and emotional aid. The American standards of treating the ill falls out of place, replaced by the herbs, chants, and other more spiritual acts for healing. Can you see the trouble brewing yet? 

The doctors who cared for her tried to give her medications and invasive procedures such as spinal taps and transfusions that her parents did not understand. Her parents looked to shamans, herbs, and special amulets to help, which the doctors did not understand. The cultural ignorance on both sides caused much conflict - so much so that at one point, Lia was taken out of her loving family to foster care because of what the doctors saw as negligence on her parents' part. In the end, Lia suffered a grand mal seizure that left her in a coma, which she never woke up from.  

The problem reduced down to the lack of communication between the Hmong and the American doctors and shed light on the problem of cultural barriers that need to be torn down in the world of health care. But, this also shows the varying views different people can have on epilepsy that is affected by their cultural heritages. Unfortunately, the misunderstandings between Lia’s family and her doctors brought upon a situation for her that maybe could have had a different future. Among the Americans, the lack of cooperatively and education on what epilepsy means to the two parties ultimately ended with no winners.

Los Angeles Times. September 20, 2012. "Lia Lee dies at 30; figure in cultural dispute over epilepsy treatment." Retrieved October 15, 2013 from 

Los Angeles Times. September 18, 1997. "The Soul Catcher." Retrieved October 16, 2013 from 

New York Times. September 14, 2012. "Lia Lee Dies; Life Went On Around Her, Redefining Care." Retrieved October 15, 2013 from