Author Archive
Adulthood
Childhood
Customs
Material

Chinese Changzhou Combs

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “There’s this special brush, or comb I guess is more accurate, that girls get when they graduate high school, or any sort of graduation beyond that, although I think is mostly for high school. But the comb is supposed to be meaningful and it’s made out of this special wood, and you’re not supposed to like, get any water on it.

Me: “Do you ever use it?”

Informant: “I do. And yeah, the wood’s supposed to be good for hair and you can stroke your hair with it however many times and it makes it healthier, I think.

Me: “Who gave it to you?”

Informant: “My mom’s cousin. She said she got one from her mom, and it’s all about womanhood and all that blah blah blah.”

Me: “Who typically gives the comb?”

Informant: “Family, relatives, mothers usually I guess.”

Me: “Do you think you’ll get one when you graduate college too?”

Informant: “Oh, no.”

 Analysis:

It’s interesting that the comb is given to girls at graduation, and my informant stressed the fact that this is an upper education graduation gift. Yet at the same time, she mentioned how it was relevant to womanhood, and indeed it can seem like an appropriate gift to a girl who is transitioning into becoming a woman. Traditionally, I would have assumed that this process would be celebrated earlier, but since it is education-based, this custom would evidently be a more modern one, even if the item itself is older.

My informant also remarked that it’s typically a high school graduation gift, indicating again that it is part of the shift from living with one’s parents and being a girl to living elsewhere in the world and becoming an adult.

My informant didn’t know the name of the special wood used, but her gift is presumably aChangzhoucomb, which can be made out of mahogany, jujube wood, heather, and boxwood.Changzhoucombs have been in production for over 2000 years and have been traditionally used only by royalty, making them a popular and valuable award or present to anyone who may deserve it. Additionally, though the combs can be good for the hair, they seem to be mostly decorative in purpose. They are hand-painted and can often be very intricate, emphasizing the importance of beauty in a young woman.

I’m not sure how popular throughout Chinese culture it may be to give these combs as graduation presents, but no doubt they will be in use for a long, long time, bestowed as various gifts for any occasions.

Folk Beliefs
Signs

Chinese Eye Twitching Superstition

Interview Extraction:

Informant: “There’s a belief that if your left eye is twitching, then that’s good, like good luck, and if your right eye is twitching, then that’s bad. I think in other cultures, like in India, it depends if you’re a boy or a girl, like for guys, if your left eye twitches, then its good, and if you’re a girl and your right eye twitches, then that’s good, but in China, it’s just the left eye that brings good luck if it twitches, and it doesn’t matter if you’re a girl or boy. I think it’s because the word for ‘money’ is similar to the word for ‘left’ in Chinese, and the word for ‘disaster’ is similar to the word for ‘right.’”

Me: “Do you believe in it?”

Informant: “Me? No, I don’t. It’s just a saying. I mean, when my eye twitches, I think about it, but I don’t worry if the wrong eye twitches.

Me: When did you hear about it?

Informant: “In middle school I think. I just hear it from around I guess, and when I was older I got what it means, but when I was younger I just sort of heard it, you know? I still don’t really believe it though.

Analysis:

There are indeed many different superstitions regarding eye twitching around the world, and they come with different explanations or remedies, depending on what each culture believes. Eye twitching is a natural and common enough phenomenon, and yet it can be unusual enough to merit its own series of legends and superstitions, just as other bodily functions can be used ways to predict fortune or events. The eye itself is, of course, universally an important symbol, so there would presumably be much folklore surrounding every aspect of it, from twitching to shape to color. My informant was correct about Indian culture centering the auspiciousness of eye twitching around gender. In Africa, some people have different predictions of good and bad luck depending on which part of your eye twitches, while in Hawaii, eye twitching can foretell the coming of a stranger.

I found it interesting that in Chinese culture, the good and bad luck are designated based on their proximity to fortunate or unfortunate words, thus emphasizing the importance of language and word significance. This is similar to the number four being a very unlucky number in Chinese culture, again because the word for “four” is homogonous with the word for “death.”

Perhaps because my informant speaks other languages besides Chinese, the value and significance of each word in her native tongue are somewhat decreased. Therefore, although she consciously thinks about the superstition every time her eye twitches, she doesn’t necessarily feel either elated or frightened, depending on her luck. Additionally, my informant doesn’t live inChinaanymore either, so she wouldn’t be surrounded by people who believe the superstition, and this could also lessen her own belief.

Folk speech
Proverbs

Take From Life with the Small Spoon, not with the Ladle

Proverb: “Греби от зивота с малката лажичка, а не с черпака”

Transliteration: Grebi ot zivota c malkata lazichka, a ne c cherpaka.

Literal translation: Take from life with the small spoon, not with the ladle.

Meaning: Don’t do so much at once that you can’t enjoy the sweetness of life.

Analysis:

This is a Bulgarian proverb I heard from my mother when I went home for one weekend. She said it to me when we were talking about my college life and I was feeling overwhelmed by all the meetings, classes, and work I had to do. She encouraged me to slow down and perhaps limit my activities so I could better enjoy my time in college, and as we were speaking in Bulgarian, she mentioned this proverb.

I asked her more about it, and she said it was related to “бяло сладко,” (byalo cladko) or “white sweets”, which is a small dessert served in delicate plates or saucers alongside an appropriately sized spoon and a glass of water, to offset the sugary taste. Since the spoon is very small, only miniature bites can be taken of the sweet, but that way it lasts longer and one can relish the dessert much better than they could if they ate the sweet all at once. “White sweets” is a traditional Bulgarian dessert, so it naturally lends itself to folk sayings.

My mother also mentioned that there was another similar saying: “шоколада се яде по малко” (shokolada ce yade po malko), meaning “you eat chocolate only little by little.” Beyond this phrase serving as a dietary suggestion, it again indicates that life should be appreciated in small bites and small moments. One should not guzzle down all the desserts or become greedy in getting too much of a good thing. Additionally, as Bulgaria has been mostly agrarian and many people have been relatively impoverished, they would naturally value small enjoyments and appreciating the simple things in life. Both these proverbs reflect that state of mind. They also gave me a craving for a sugary or chocolaty dessert, which I indulged in, and most importantly, it relieved some of my stress from my classes.

Folk speech
Foodways
Proverbs

You Only Know a Person After You’ve Eaten Through a Whole Sack of Salt with Him

Proverb: Само знаеш човек след като си изял цял чувал сол с него.

Transliteration: Znaesh chovek camo cled kato ci izyal cial chuval ot col c nego.

Literal Translation: You only know a person after you’ve eaten through a whole sack of salt with him.

Meaning: It takes time to really know get to know someone.

Analysis:

I was at home from college for a weekend and I was spending time with my family, which involved mostly listening to my mother gossip about her friends. She began to talk about someone whom we both knew that had turned out to be quite a different person that what we had originally thought. We had misjudged that friend’s character, and while it wasn’t anything too serious or dramatic, my mother shook her head and said a Bulgarian proverb I had never heard before: “cамо знаеш човек след като си изял цял чувал сол с него,” or “you only know a person after you’ve eaten through a whole sack of salt with him.”

Upon seeing my confused face, my mother explained that since one would sprinkle only a little bit of salt on one’s food occasionally, it would take an exceptionally long time to eat through a large sack with someone. However, that amount of time is necessary to truly understand a person’s character, given that personalities and circumstances are quickly liable to change.

Since salt has been a common spice used in Bulgarian salads, dinners, and various meals, there was bound to be at least one proverb using it. I feel that my parents and relatives that live in Buglaria use salt much more than I prefer to do, either because they prefer saltier food or I am more used to the plainer cuisines I eat in California. Whatever the reason and wherever I am, people agree that it is important to know and understand whom one is with.

Proverbs

God Helps Those Who Help Themselves

Proverb: Помогни си сам да ти помогне и Господ.

Transliteration: Pomogni ci cam da ti pomogne i Gospod.

Literal Translation: Help yourself so that God may help you too.

Meaning: God helps those who help themselves.

Analysis:

This proverb urges people to act as well as to have faith in God. Not many things can be accomplished only through prayer or self-pity, so actions must be taken in order to reach success.

My mother told me this during spring break when she was urging me to apply for a program I wanted to get into but I wasn’t sure I had a chance. She encouraged me with this proverb, claiming that I had to put in the effort so I could at least have the potential, and theoretically, if God saw how hardworking I was, he would reward me.

This saying is similar to the American one, “You can’t win until you try,” though with a more religious emphasis. The proverb indicates that the Orthodox Church is prevalent inBulgaria, and that the culture encourages people to both work hard and to be strong in their faith.

Folk speech
Foodways
Legends
Proverbs

From the Last Bite, Heroes Are Made.

Proverb: От последната харка, юнаци стават

Transliteration: Ot poclednata hapka, yunaci ctavat.

Translation: From the last bite, heroes are made.

Meaning: You have to finish all the food on your plate, especially the last bite, if you want to be strong.

Analysis:

I have heard this expression used multiple times throughout my childhood at nearly every meal. Whenever I had felt full and did not wish to finish everything on my plate, my grandparents and parents would insist I ate the last few bites, because otherwise I would not be strong as a hero or heroine. I had not heard the expression in a while, as it is reserved for children, but during spring break when I was home with my family, I heard it again when my younger brother, who is twelve, did not want to eat the remainder of his dinner. My mother prodded him to finish off his plate, reminding him that unless he ate everything, (in this case he was lagging on eating his salad), he would become a hero.

The motive behind the phrase is clear: caretakers want the children to eat all healthy components of their meals and be strong, and they encourage them to do so by comparing the kids to heroes. The word for hero, as it’s used inBulgaria, typically refers to the legendary Krali Marko, who was incredibly strong and brave, sort of like a Slavic Superman. Every youngster would hear tales about him and naturally wish to emulate such an incredible man. My grandparents would continue the expression by adding that even the strongest man was once a child, though he was a dutiful one who ate everything on his plate, and thus he became a great hero. It would be very difficult for any young person to refuse this offer, and my brother and I grudgingly ate the remainder of our meals each time we were reprimanded.

I should also note that although the term for hero is masculine in the expression, it would be used universally for both boys and girls. Female children such as myself were encouraged and urged to eat our dinners in their entirety as much as male children.

Childhood
Narrative
Tales /märchen

The Clever Boy

Once there was a boy who worked for a giant. It was a very hard job. The giant had a great big ox that made a horrible mess, and the boy had constantly to sweep out after the ox, and he still couldn’t keep the place clean. The giant was always bawling him out.

One day when he’d worked especially hard, the boy got a bright idea. He took a cork and pushed it into the ox’s rear end. In the morning the giant came to inspect the barn, and found everything nice and clean, but he couldn’t understand why the ox was so fat, or why it wouldn’t eat.

“Perhaps you’d better take a look, Pop,” said the boy.

“Perhaps I should,” answered the giant, and started his examination. When he got to the tail, he lifted it up, causing the cork to fly out of the ox’s behind. It hit the giant right in the temple so hard that he died on the spot and was buried under the manure.

The boy took over everything the giant owned and lived there happily for the rest of his days.

Analysis:

This narrative was taken from a collection of Swedish folktales, in which many of the stories featured bumbling, boisterous giants who posed problems for the humans. In some way, the human would always outsmart the giant and kill him or steal his riches. The tales, especially “The Clever Boy,” highlight the skill of those who appear underprivileged at first glance. What chance does a small boy have against a giant, who in this story and many others, is extremely wealthy and powerful? The answer is stressed in the title; with his cleverness and manipulation, the hero is able to thwart the giant and demonstrate the important of brains over brawn.

Furthermore, the giant himself would stand in for an abusive authority figure perhaps, particularly one who was corrupt and much richer than the rest of the townsfolk, who could pride themselves on nothing else but the cleverness they carried with them. It’s a typical triumphant tale of underdog beats bully, only with Nordic characters.

There is also quite a bit of humor in these tales, no matter if they are long or short. “The Clever Boy” features an ox’s behind and the giant dying in a pile of manure. We still have bathroom jokes and tales to this day, because as perverse and immature as they may be, they can still be funny, especially to those whom the stories are aimed at. Children would be satisfied and gleeful at this ending, in which the boy gets out of doing chores, something which they also probably dream about, and makes the authority figure die in a very undignified way. The boy even calls the giant, “Pop,” a term that’s too familiar for a employer-worker relationship, but very applicable in a parent-child one. Thus the children instantly see themselves as the hero and may strive to outsmart the giants in their lives, also known as their parents. All these features combined make the story a memorable one and lets it stand out from the other hero vs. giant tales.

 

Collected from:

Blecher, Lone Thygesen and Blecher, George. Swedish Folktales and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. Print.

Humor
Narrative
Tales /märchen

Who’s Got the Dumbest Husband

Once there were two women who had very stupid husbands. One day they made a bet to see which one of them was best at fooling her husband.

When one of the men was lying in bed feeling a little under the weather, his wife convinced him that he was dead. He was so dumb that he believed her, and he laid himself out so that he looked dead. His wife dressed him in burial clothes and put him in a coffin. Then she got everything ready and invited people to his funeral.

Among the funeral guests were the other woman and her dumb husband. When this husband had started to change his clothes of the funeral, his wife convinced him that he was already dressed! He believed her, and went along to the funeral in his birthday suit.

Afterward, the rode to the graveyard carrying the “corpse” to his grave while he lay in his coffin, peeking out. There was a small hole in the coffin, and through it he could see his neighbor walking stark naked in front of the funeral procession. After a while he couldn’t hold out any longer, and he burst out laughing. One just can’t bury a laughing corpse, so everyone had to walk back home again.

Analysis:

This story was also from a series of Swedish folktales, focusing on marriage relations. There is no true hero or villain in the story, only a comedic tale of wives and husbands, in which the wives are portrayed as the clever, good-natured tricksters and the husbands as shameless simpletons. The situations presented are ridiculous and hard to believe, but they would provide the target audience with ample amounts of humor, despite the fact that the story itself is relatively short. Children who heard the folktale wouldn’t fully understand the dichotomy between wives and husbands in marriage, but this story allows them a little preview of what the future holds. There are inter-couple and intra-couple competitions, to begin with. Also, the tale proves that one can’t shouldn’t take oneself too seriously, as the husbands are not shown to feel particularly embarrassed, and it also stresses the it’s important, or at least, better, to be clever than a fool, regardless if one is a woman or a man.

It is peculiar that the “joke” of the wives’ ends because “one can’t just bury a laughing corpse.” It’s not that the corpse was not a corpse at all, or that the wife felt sorry for the husband, but it was a socially unacceptable act to bury a non-somber body. It may simply be the writing or translation, or the style of the folktale itself, but I still found it interesting that the townspeople had to walk back only because the corpse was laughing, making it seem as if they would have had no problem burying the stupid husband alive.

 

Collected from:  

Blecher, Lone Thygesen and Blecher, George. Swedish Folktales and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. Print.

Folk Beliefs
Humor
Narrative
Stereotypes/Blason Populaire
Tales /märchen

The Burning Lake

Two students decided to go to a parson and tell him a story so outrageous that he’d pay them just to keep it quiet.

The first student went to the parson and related two strange events that he’d just heard about. The first was that God in Heaven had died, and the second was that the Sea of Galilee had caught fire and burned. The parson refused to believe him. Late, the second student went to see the parson, who asked him if he’d heard these stranger rumors: Could God in Heaven be really dead, and the Sea of Galilee burned to a crisp?

“Well,” said the second student, “I didn’t see it with my own eyes, but I’m sure it’s true. When I was in Nazareth a few days ago, the entire marketplace was filled with fried fish, and the angels were buying up all the black cloth in town for mourning clothes.”

The parson gave them both a large sum of money so that they wouldn’t pass on this news on; otherwise, he’d never be able to preach again.

Analysis:

This Swedish folktale employs humor to criticize the Church in multiple ways. The characters in the story have no qualms with conning the Church and more importantly, they know exactly how to do so, thus insisting that authorities in religion are dimwitted, corrupted, and unfaithful themselves. The parson believes quite easily that God is dead and the Sea of Galilee, the largest freshwater lake in Israel, has burned, and then bribes the students not to say a word so he can keep his position. In other words, even the parson here admits here that Christianity is more of a scam, only functioning as a power when there are enough people faithful, or stupid in this case, to believe in it.

The tale celebrates the cleverness of the students, a major theme in many Swedish folktales, and openly points out the flaws of the Church. After all,Swedenwas converted relatively late to Christianity, around 1000 AD. It stands to reason that the people would be aware of the corruptible sides of the Church after having such a long history with Pagan religion and culture.

Though “The Burning Lake” is a märchen, this one does not seem to be particularly aimed at children. The humor in this story would be more understood by adults; however, young people who read or heard the tale would pick up on the value of cleverness and perhaps some of the flaws of blindly believing in religion.

 

Collected from: 

 Blecher, Lone Thygesen and Blecher, George. Swedish Folktales and Legends. New York: Pantheon Books, 1993. Print.

Childhood
Legends
Narrative

Grovers Mill Haunted House

Interview Extract: 

Informant: So there’s this legend in my community, and I don’t know if people outside of it would really know about it, but definitely all the kids in my class know about this because we all went to a field trip and we learned about the history of our little town in class and like, ok do you know H. G. Wells’ book, War of the Worlds?”

Me: “Yeah, I know it.”

Informant: “Well in 1938 Orson Welles did a reading of it on the radio, and he read in the style of a news report. And this was in Grover’s Mill, this small town inNew Jersey, but people didn’t realize that like, it was fiction, so they all actually thought that like aliens were coming in and invading earth, and people legit thought it was real, since it like, sounded like a news report. They all were running out of their houses, shooting with guns, and basically, it was just like, a huge disaster.

So in my elementary school, they taught us all about this, and I guess it was like, the history of our town. Also, so in the 80s, they created a time capsule and buried it in the area where the hysteria culminated, and it’s by this park that I always used to pass like everyday after my mom dropped off my dad, and there was this um, water tower behind this creepy-looking house painted gray. And it’s pretty big too. And like, I passed it all the time without ever really thinking about it, but I guess back then people thought it was a spaceship and started shooting at it.

And with my friends, we made up all these stories about it, because we didn’t actually know what the house was for or who it really belonged to. Like we’d see a car in front of it always, but never anyone actually going in and out, you know. It was just a staple in our community and everyone thought it was really old and weird. We made up stories, like ‘Oh, aliens live there, Oh, it’s haunted,’ that kind of thing.

It’s just the kind of creepy house and I have friends that definitely still believe in some of the stories, or the ones from before when people actually thought it was a spaceship. And like, honestly, if it turned out that aliens really did live there, we wouldn’t be surprised.

In the end, we learned when we were older that a chiropractor lived in the house, which took away from some of the creepiness, and he repainted the house a different gray so it’s less run-down looking. But there still is that vibe of creepiness, I mean, at night also, you see the lights come on inside but still you’d never see anyone inside!”

Analysis:

This is a good example of a memorate, or how someone will create a memory of an incident, such as a haunting or alien invasion, after hearing previous legends regarding the area or situation. My informant has been told about the mass panic in her town since she was a child, so it’s natural for her and her friends to fabricate stories about real aliens or sinister people in the strange house they often pass.

It also shows how important it is for a small town such as hers to distinguish itself in whatever way it can. Orson Welles may have done a reading there, but that was nearly a century ago, so new stories and legends have to be made up to keep people’s interest in the town. This is why the time capsule was buried in the 80s and why the children were led on field trips to visit the supposedly haunted house, which they in turn also believed was ghostly or inhabited by extraterrestrials. It provides interesting locations to visit for tourists and gives a sense of pride to townsfolk who live there.

I find it interesting that my informant remembered seeing a car parked in front of the “haunted” house, but because she and her classmates never saw a living person, they still had probable cause to believe something out of the ordinary was going on. This brings up the question of how much “creepiness” is necessary for a person to believe a haunting is real. My informant says the house was a strange gray color, but had she not heard that it was the location for the climax of hysteria in 1938, it’s doubtful she would have noticed what color the house was painted. It’s likely that the house itself would never have attracted any attention had she and her classmates not been taught about their peculiar town history.

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