Author Archives: Svadharma Keerthi

Thai Culture: Head and Feet

Transcribed Text:

“In Thai culture, the head is the most important part of your body, and the feet are considered dirty, cuz that’s on the ground all the time. So it’s very disrespectful if you point your feet at somebody’s head, or if you point your feet at somebody in general. And also, if you step over books, or like, put your feet on books, or put books on the ground, because books are considered knowledge from your head.”

This is a Thai folk belief about knowledge and dirt. The informant says that she learned this belief from her mom when she was a child. She says that she remembers pointing her feet towards the prayer room at Buddha in her house and she remembers her mom reprimanding her for doing so and explaining why it was wrong to do so. It makes sense that the feet are associated with dirt and the head is associated with knowledge, so this is a folk belief that is tied a lot with logic. Furthermore, books are also associated with the brain in Thai culture, because books contain the knowledge that people have in their heads. Therefore, stepping on books, or even stepping over books is considered offensive, as it is considered to be stepping on somebody’s knowledge. This also branches out to temples and houses as well. A person is not allowed to enter a temple or a house with shoes that one would wear in the outside world, because they are entering an area of holiness and family.

This folk belief is also an oicotype of the folk belief in India. In India, people are not allowed to wear their shoes into a temple or a home. Often times, it is even encouraged for people to wash their feet before they enter, to cleanse the dirt that they may have. Both Thai and Indian culture have such a similar folk belief because there was a lot of interaction between the two cultures over the past hundreds, if not thousands of years. It is extremely plausible that many pieces of folklore exchanged between the two countries and developed along in similar fashions.


The German Story of the Pied Piper

Transcribed Text:

“Well basically what happened is there was a town, in somewhere in Germany, that was infested by rats. And, uh, they had this huge rat problem. And they were like “oh crap, what are we going to do about this?” So they hired this man, (audience member mines a piper), yeah exactly, who um, who enchanted the rats by playing his, uh..whatever his piper or something like that. And all the rats follow him out of the city. And, um, so the town never paid him. And, uh, he got super pissed, so, during the night one night, he came back, and he enchanted all the children of the town, uh, to follow him out and that was their uh, punishment.”

The informant is a student at the University of Southern California and says that she has German heritage through her mother and grandparents. She learned of this story from her grandparents and says that it is a good story to teach people about karma and owing up to people. This piece of märchen uses the typical points, where there is a moral story in the end. It is clear to all audience members as well as the informant that this story does not contain real characters that existed at one point, but is of a made up fantasy realm where a piper can enchant rats and humans to do his bidding.

This piece of märchen is normally performed in a family setting from an adult to a child, according to the informant. It is usually told by a parent or grandparent to a young child to teach the lesson of being honest and and fair, so that one won’t be punished. This piece of folklore has also been found published by the Grimm brothers, and they tell a very similar version, though theirs have a lot more concentration on the motifs of the story, rather than the vague version the informant gave. It is obvious that the informant is not normally an active bearer of this story, as she tells it without much detail and with only general knowledge on the overarching themes and plot line.

Annotation: This story has been adapted into a film called “The Pied Piper” in 1972, directed by Jacques Demy.

German: Owls, Change and Good Luck

Trasncribed Text:

“There are some superstitions in German. Like when you hear, in German or..for German people. That when you hear an owl hoot, if you jingle the change in your pocket, you’ll have good luck for the year with your crops.”

The informant is a student at the University of Southern California. She says that she first heard this folk belief from her grandma when she was a young child. The informant says she knows many pieces of folklore from Germany but rarely believes in any of them. She says she thinks this superstition originates from centuries ago when many people believed in luck for their crops to grow. She doesn’t know why and how owls and change are related, though she speculates that many superstitions do not make sense in modern context anymore.

I agree with her analysis about superstitions and crops. Because farmers cannot determine the fate of their crops from just working hard, as weather and other factors were often uncontrollable aspects of the occupation, farmers relied a lot on luck and superstitions to help them. The lack of understanding the meaning of owls and change shows the loss of context as this saying was passed down through generations. If the saying originally had meaning for the owl and the change, it is lost today, at least in the informant’s family.

You have to wear red on New Year’s because you want to scare away the monster. The monster is scared of red, which is the color of firecrackers.

The informant is a student at the University of Southern California. She says that she has always performed this piece of folklore ever since she could remember, as her family is Chinese and they participate in the tradition. This belief causes the Chinese to wear red and decorate everything in red. They also set off firecrackers based off of this superstition. She says that this tradition is based off of a Chinese myth where a monster came to attack the villagers a long time ago. To appease the monster, the villagers would offer up food in front of their houses to the monster every year. One year though, they noticed that the monster was scared off by a person wearing red, so the villagers started wearing red and covering the village in red so that the monster would never come back. It is believed that because every year on New Year’s, everybody in the community wears red, the monster doesn’t come back anymore.This folk belief also related to magic superstition, where by participating in the ritual of scaring off the monster by wearing red, one will not have bad luck for the rest of the year. When everybody participates in the ritual, it causes a sense of community as well, strengthening the relationship of the common group that participates in the piece of folklore amongst themselves.

Japanese Culture: Chopsticks

Transcribed Text:

“In Japanese culture, if you’re eating with chopsticks, you shouldn’t put them straight up in your rice bowl, cuz it looks like um, the prayer incense sticks when you go pray to the dead.  And also, you shouldn’t point your chopsticks at people, cuz that’s disrespectful.”

This is a Japanese belief and tradition with chopsticks. The informant says that she learned about this folk belief when she was about to go study abroad in Japan two years ago. The informant says that because chopsticks placed upright in a bowl of rice resembles incense sticks that are used to pray to the dead. This resemblance probably deterred the Japanese from doing this with their chopsticks no matter how convenient it is, as to associate food and mealtime with death is not wanted. Furthermore, the informant says that pointing chopsticks at people is disrespectful, but does not know why exactly that is. The use of chopsticks is part of Japanese meal time etiquette, which can be rather elaborate depending on how casual the meal is. Even with casual meals, the Japanese are much stricter than many other cultures about keeping with food traditions, so it makes sense that these folk beliefs about chopsticks are very prominent for Japanese people. According to the Encyclopedia of Asian American Folklore, chopsticks shouldn’t be propped up in rice because that is how it is offered to the spirits and is a way to call the spirits to the person. In some extreme cases, some even believe that doing this wishes death upon one’s family.

The informant is an active bearer of this tradition, as she describes that whenever she uses chopsticks, she makes sure to actively never place them sticking up in the rice, and never points with them. She also mentions that it often irritates her when people not familiar with the Japanese tradition make the mistake, as she worded it, of doing that. She recounts that when her group mate did that while she was eating a meal with the informant, she did not say anything about it, but was very shocked.

You shouldn’t wash your hair the day before Chinese New Year, because then you will wash away all your luck

The informant is currently a student at the University of Southern California and has resided in the United States all her life, though she has gown up with Asian culture due to her parents. She knows many Chinese, Japanese and Thai proverbs due to the fact that her mother is Thai and because she studied abroad in Japan when she was in high school. She first heard this saying when her mother told about it when she was a young child as New Year’s was approaching.The folk belief about good and bad luck is a prominent theme in Chinese culture and the community has several different things that indicate good and bad luck in their society. In Chinese folklore, the informant says that a lot of beliefs are mimicked by the actions of a person. For example, the luck is washed away because a person washes their hair. The act of washing one’s hair simultaneously causes the luck to “wash” away as well. She says that there are several pieces of folk beliefs in China and East Asia that pertain to these types of actions.

I agree that Chinese folklore does have a lot of superstitions about good and bad luck. The analysis of the meaning behind the saying also makes a logical progression, which is easy to follow. The saying is very phonetic, like many of the sayings and proverbs in Asian culture. However, the informant couldn’t tell me why exactly the saying was the day before Chinese New Year’s. I believe it is because Chinese New Year’s is a day full of celebration and beginning anew for the year, and to wash one’s hair the night before would be washing away all the luck that one would have begun with for the year. It is also possible that because the night before New Year’s is a liminal phase between the end of one year and the beginning of a new year, the creation and participation in this ritual is is important.

Man Cheating Joke

Transcribed Text:

“So, this man and this woman get married and they’re totally in love with each other. And, when they first move in together after their married, the man tells the woman “Ok, I’m going to be completely honest with you. I’m willing to share my entire life with you and everything with you, as long as you promise me one thing.” And the woman says “What?” He’s like “Ok, I have this box. And I’m going to keep it under our bed. And I need you to promise me that you’re never going to look inside of that box.”  And the woman says “yeah sure, sounds easy enough. That’s fine.” So, many, many years go by. And, the husband is out a lot. The woman is basically at home, by herself all the time, which is really sad and depressing. Anyways, so like, the woman finally one day, is cleaning up, and under the bed she notices that box. This is like ten years later. And she’s like “Oh wow, I totally forgot about this.” And being alone, she gets curious, and finally decides to open the box. And inside, she sees, three empty beer bottles, and a wad of cash. She counts it out, and it’s about 2000 dollars. And she’s like “holy shit, this is two thousand dollars. Is he planning on leaving me, or like, what does he have all this money for, he’s never told me about it before? What’s going on.” So she’s like freaking out. Um… and she’s like thinking why does he want this to be a secret from her. So when he finally gets home late that night, she kind of just can’t keep it in anymore, and she finally confesses. “Hey, uh, I’m so sorry. I finally looked inside that box. I know you told me never to do that, but I did, and I just really need to know. What’s the deal with like those three beer bottles?” And so, he said to her, “Ok… I guess I have some fessing up to do. Um…I, every time I was unfaithful to you, I- I kept a beer bottle inside that box. “ Um…and she just started crying, and cuz, there were three beer bottles in there. And so she’s like oh my god, he cheated on me! But at the same time, you know what, she loved him, forgave him, and-and, they, they went to bed that night, like as a couple, they forgave each other. Him for uh, for her looking in the box, and her to him for like cheating on her. Anyway, so like, uh…in the middle of the night, she kind of just like, wakes up and realizes, wait, so what was all the money for? So she kind of like wakes him up. “Hey honey, wha-what was the money for?” And he’s like “shit,” because uh, he thought he got out of it. So he told her, “ok honey, here’s the deal. Every time I put a bottle in the box, and the bottle- uh, the box got full, I went to the recycling place, and got it redeemed for cash. Haha, and that’s that.”

The informant says she remembers hearing this joke freshman year of high school. She also remembers that it was popular in her high school and that it was one of her favorite jokes to tell to her peers to see their reactions. She thinks it’s funny in how the story goes in a direction that is not expected. The audience is left wondering what the wad of cash means after the wife asks about the bottles, and when the punch line is delivered, it comes with a sense of bewilderment and unexpectedness. She says that it is also a quite lengthy joke, which serves the purpose distracting the audience from the twist and the punchline of the joke.

It makes sense that this joke is circled around in this age group and older, as this type of joke with adultery and money tends to cause more humor in a teenage and adult group. It is a joke that would be told in a normal school or casual setting amongst a group of friends. The punch line causes chuckles and senses of bewilderment and amusement amongst the audience, as it isn’t expected. It also has a theme of couples and sex, which is a big topic in teenage and young adult society. This is an example of age group folklore, where the joke is targeted towards a specific range of ages. Children wouldn’t be expected to understand it. Therefore, to understand the joke, one would have to understand the concept of sex and cheating, which is usually something people learn towards middle, high school and college.

German companies don’t make blue gummy bears.

The informant believes that German companies do not make blue gummy bears because the point of gummy bears is to make children happy when they eat them. In Western culture, the color blue is often associated with sadness, so the informant believes that German companies don’t create blue gummy bears, because they may make children sad. This is a folk belief that is associated with superstitions in Western Culture with the phrases “the blues” and “I’m feeling blue” that is often used.

Regardless of whether or not this belief is true, the informant firmly believes that no German company makes blue gummy bears. She states that she doesn’t know if blue gummy bears are made in any other countries, like America, but is insistent when it comes to the fact about German companies. The informant grew up with a German mother and grandparents and makes frequent visits to Germany. She speaks fluent German and heard this belief from her grandparents when she was a young child.

I agree with her analysis of why a German company wouldn’t make blue gummy bears, as “feeling blue” is a very western concept. However, when looked up, sources say that the German company Haribo Goldbears which creates gummy bears does not create blue gummy bears because there is no fruit or plant with bright blue extract color with which to make these gummy bears with. Furthermore, “to feel blue” in German is not to feel sad, as it is in the English language, but it means to feel drunk. It is interesting to note the intersections of cultures within this piece of folklore, and as the informant is both American and has German origins, it makes sense why she believes it completely. It would be interesting to research the ways in which this piece of folklore traveled and changed possibly through the Historic Geographic Method, to see where the color blue and sadness intersected to cause this belief.

Rubber Ducky

The informant is currently a student at the University of Southern California and went to elementary school in Northern California. The game was described in a casual setting where the informant and all audience members were sitting on the couch. The actual piece of folklore is performed in a school setting during recess for young children.

Informant: Uh so this game…it’s called Rubber Ducky, I couldn’t tell you why it was called that…And it was played, so there’s two teams, as many people as you want can be on the team, doesn’t even have to be an even number of people on each team…Um, just like however you divide it up. And you play, like, with a basketball court, on the short length of the basketball court. One’s on one side line, the other’s on the other side line, those are where the teams are. And you can either divide it like, the field extends from like, the base line to half court, or full court, depending on how many people you have. And, uh…you get as many dodgeballs as you want, it’s very very, well, depending on the amount of people, and you just hit the dodgeball to the other side. If it lands, you get a point, if they catch it, you don’t get a point.

Audience Member: Hit it with what?

Informant: Just hit it with your hand. Just hit it over, spike it over, throw it over.

Audience Member: Over what?

Informant: Over the basketball court. And you have to hit it, and if it lands on the other side of the basketball court, then you get a point. But if they catch it, or if it lands before the other sideline, then, you don’t get a point.

Audience Member: Can you lose a point?

Informant: No, you can’t lose a point, you just don’t get a point.

Audience Member: So you play this where?

Informant: Elementary school. Me and one of my friends made it up.

Audience Member: How does it end?

Informant: Uh…You just play to a certain amount of points, or play until, you know, recess is over.  Whoever is winning at the end.

Audience Member: And your whole elementary school played?

Informant: The whole elementary school, people in other grades. Teachers got in on it, and coached and like reffed it. It was awesome.

The game described is a game that does not involve many rules and is easy to learn. The title of the game “Rubber Ducky” has no relation to the actual game and seems to serve as more of a humorous title to amuse children. It is also a nonviolent and simple game, which is probably why the game became so widespread across the informant’s elementary school, and why the teachers allowed it and encouraged its growth. The simplicity of the game comes from the fact that two 8 year olds created it and the widespread popularity of the game in the informant’s elementary school shows how fun and easy it is to play, allowing it to multiply and change across grades , time, and possibly schools.

Unlike most folklore, the origin and the creator can be traced back to my informant. Although the game is not completely unique, taking aspects of several different sports and games, the name and its execution causes it to be considered a new game. Its rapid spread from two people to an entire school shows the power of folklore, and the informant states that last that he heard, which was a few years ago, the game was still being played in the elementary school. Therefore, it can be said that this children’s folk game follows the idea of monogenesis, and can be tracked back to its origin.


I’m as serious as a rubber crutch in an orthopedic ward

The informant first heard this saying from her mother in Washington, USA where the informant is from. This is an American saying that is used in a conversational setting. The informant states that this saying is used when somebody is trying to say that a situation is not serious at all and is silly. This is because, as she says, a rubber crutch is not very useful in any orthopedic ward, so this phrase is used to convey that. This is a folk metaphor and makes use of a silly concept to describe a situation as accurately as possible. The use of which the informant describes the saying  as makes sense. The phrase itself and the way its told has a humorous and silly tone to it, indicating that this is a piece of folklore that would not be performed in the professional setting, but rather, used in a casual conversation.