“‘The walls have ears,’ you know, everyone is listening, shut your mouth, don’t talk. Don’t talk bad about the government, don’t talk…don’t say stupid things, because there’s always someone listening. That’s my parents’…their Soviet upbringing. Because, like, everyone was listened to… I had relatives who, for a joke, went to prison. So that kinda…got pretty well ingrained, just don’t…don’t talk bad.”
My informant moved to the US when he was less than two years old, but the memory of Soviet oppression was so strong for his parents that they taught him to hold his tongue about the government, and authority in general. Obviously, this stems from the horrors of the GULAG and other ways in which the Russian people were oppressed during the Soviet era. The fact that even the Americanized children were taught how to survive in a communist country shows how enduring an impression the repressive Soviet regime made on those who lived under it.
“In this family, there’s a mother, a father, a grandma, and an older brother, and a daughter. And they’re eating pears. And what you’re supposed to do, like you can never split a pear. You can only eat a full pear. And I actually remember, fairly recently, I asked my mom if she wanted to split a pear, and she wouldn’t. The story started off with the littlest child gets the smallest pear. It’s about filial piety. The elders get the best pears. And you also can’t split pears. Because that splits your relationships with people. Keeping the pear together keeps the family together.”
There are two different stories going on here: a tale about a family who gets differently sized pears depending on age, and a folk belief that it is bad luck to split a pear. My informant told them so that they were interconnected. The story of the family eating pears is related to filial piety – the head of the house gets the biggest pear because he deserves the most respect, and the size of the fruit diminishes until the youngest child has the smallest pear.
When viewed in this light, the belief that splitting pears with someone is bad luck makes perfect sense. If a pear represents filial piety and the relationships between family members, splitting it would be terrible for the family.
“You never take the trash out before you leave your house. It’s just bad luck. You don’t–you can take it out earlier, but once you leave the house, you don’t take any trash with you when you go out.”
Russians have a vast number of superstitions that revolve around leaving the house. Perhaps because setting out on a journey was traditionally so dangerous, they have a number of rituals that place a great deal of gravity on the act of departing one’s home. They usually involve a sort of introspection on the idea of leaving and the possibility of not returning; however, there are others, such as this one provided by my informant, that are more demonstrative. Taking out the trash brings back luck, and no one wants bad luck on their journey.
“In China, there’s this thing called your ben ming nian, which is pretty much the year–for example, I am the year of the ram. So when it is year of the ram, so every twelve years–so when I’m twelve, twenty four, thirty six…every day of that year, you should wear red. For example, my mom’s ben ming nian was last year. She wore red underwear every single day. Red is not a normal color in her normal wardrobe, but she was just like, ‘I have to wear red every day somehow,’ so she went to Victoria’s Secret and bought seven pairs of red underwear. Red is just a good luck color in China, and especially when it’s your zodiac year.”
The zodiac is a powerful belief in Chinese culture; many Chinese people believe that the year of your birth strongly influences your personality. As told by my informant, wearing the lucky color red during your zodiac year, or ben ming nian, makes the luck stronger and gives you a good year. The belief is so strong that her mother, who normally never wears the color red, went out and bought enough underwear so she could wear the lucky color year-round.
“My mother comes from a Mormon family, and none of the women in her family are supposed to have middle names, because you’re supposed to get married and take your original surname as your middle name and then take your husband’s surname. But then she gave herself a middle name when she became forty because that had frustrated her.”
My informant told me this story about her mother and made it seem as though this is a common practice among Mormon women. In a strongly male-dominated culture that values marriage as much as Mormonism does, this did not come as a surprise to me. By taking your husband’s surname, you become part of a new family unit, and keeping your original surname as your middle name keeps a connection to your original family. The name her mother gave herself, incidentally, was her father’s first name.
“If you shake your leg when you’re sitting, you shake off all your good luck.”
My informant comes from a Korean family. She had no idea why she was taught this as a child, but recalled her mother being adamant about the dangers of shaking one’s leg (she demonstrated – the saying seems to apply to when one is sitting with one leg crossed over the other, jiggling the foot of the leg on top). There could be some sort of superstition involved in this belief; however, I think it’s likely that people simply wanted their children to stop fidgeting and made up a reason for them to refrain.
“So what’s common in Jewish culture is that you’re not allowed to get tattoos, because should you get a tattoo, you’re defiling your body, and you can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery. My grandfather had this idea that all his children would be buried with him in a Jewish cemetery. And then my father got a tattoo and I got a tattoo, and my grandpa actually ended up getting a tattoo because he got heart surgery, and now he jokes about it and talks about how he can’t be buried in a Jewish cemetery.”
My informant comes from a culturally Jewish household, but neither she nor her father practices the religion. The ban on tattoos can be found in Leviticus, but many modern-day Jews choose to ignore it, even though it means that they can’t be buried in consecrated ground. I was surprised that her grandfather, who she describes as religious, was willing to break the taboo in order to get a tattoo. It is an interesting dichotomy between what people see as an inarguable point of their faith and the way they actually behave.
(This belief comes from Leviticus: “You shall not make gashes in your flesh for the dead, or incise any marks on yourselves: I am the Lord” (Leviticus 19:28))
“Macbeth–the Scottish play. You can’t say it backstage during a performance.”
Actors are probably the most superstitious professional group on the planet. Among their more common superstitions is the idea that “the Scottish play” – Macbeth – is cursed. Simply speaking the name of the play backstage will bring calamity upon whatever production is being put on, so actors call it “the Scottish play” instead. There are legends about bad luck following the productions of Macbeth, but at this point, the superstition is likely kept up just for traditions’ sake. However, my informant was adamant about the fact that she would not speak the name backstage, even though she doesn’t personally believe in the curse; apparently, enough actors do believe in it that it is better to refrain than risk their wrath.
“You can never say ‘good luck,’ you have to say ‘break a leg.’”
My informant grew up in the theater. This is perhaps the most common superstition among stage performers. Although my informant wasn’t sure exactly where the tradition comes from, it is likely that performers don’t want to jinx their show by talking about luck or anticipating a good show. Instead, “break a leg” does just the opposite – it wishes harm on the performer so that the opposite will happen.
“We don’t have bridal showers or wedding showers, because the evil eye will see, and you won’t have a baby or a husband. You better not celebrate too soon. So, even if you have a bridal shower or a baby shower after the baby’s born, that’s a bad idea, because you’re not trying to bring attention to the good things you have in your life.”
My informant learned this from her Italian grandparents. It seems to be a common theme across cultures that drawing attention to good fortune will somehow jinx it; in this case, they believe that celebrating a marriage or a baby will draw the attention of the evil eye. This is interesting because my informant and her family are devout Catholics, and the evil eye is not a Christian belief. This shows how folk beliefs can get passed down through generations and endure through different religious traditions.