Author Archive
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Concert Interactions for Luck

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“So as a pianist, whenever I have a recital or competition, or when I’m about to perform, I guess it’s a habit or something I always do, I have to talk to someone. So, if it’s a stranger, I don’t really care, I just go up to someone like, ‘hey.’ you know, just talk about something, I don’t know about what. It just helps me calm down and gives me that strength and that luck to play well.”

My informant has established a ritual to cope with pre-performance stress. Perhaps the interaction with another human being relaxes him and allows him to think about other things rather than worry about how he’ll perform. Often times, a person’s nerves may prevent him or her from performing their best. Focusing too much on one part of the song may cause him to tense up or forget a different part of the song. Therefore, maintaining a calm state for him before going on stage may prove beneficial. The ritual is relatively easy to achieve as there are people everywhere in a concert hall. Through this ritual he is able to quickly able to calm his nerves and boost his confidence with some luck from his ritual.

Folk Beliefs

Nail Worms

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“When I was little, my parents used to tell me that if I bit my nails, I’d get worms in my stomach. But, I never did, so it’s okay. But it’s one of those things parents tell you to discourage you from doing bad things.”

Sometimes parents seem pretty desperate to discourage bad habits. As a child, I think this would have information deterred me from biting my nails. When I was young, I really enjoyed eating raw tomatoes. For some reason, this really bothered my mother who told me in graphic detail how parasites living on an uncooked tomato could bore their way through my intestinal tract and come out of my bottom. I am still hesitant to eat uncooked tomatoes to this day.

The idea that she would get worms from chewing her nails may be influenced by the fact that nails are known to carry many different species of bacteria. Since kids are constantly putting their hands into their mouths, parents would find it necessary to scare them into stopping, or teaching them to clean their hands often to prevent them from becoming ill.

When we hear about horrible things like this as a child, they really stick in your mind even after you’ve grown up even if you’ve learned otherwise. Parents hope to discourage bad habits from forming by slightly scaring their children. It makes sense why many of the folktales that the Brothers Grimm collected were so grim: so the cautionary tales children heard would stick with them.

Contagious
Folk Beliefs
Magic

Lucky Socks for Basketball

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“So I used to play basketball and when I played well I’d mark my socks, so if I played well I’d always wear the right sock on the right foot until I played bad and then I’d switch them up.”

I think this is a good example of contagious magic. According to my informant, the thinking behind this is that if he plays well with a certain sock configuration, the socks must either be causing the good performance or they must soak up some of the “mojo” of the good game and will lead to good games in the future. However, once he starts playing poorly, it’s obvious that the sock configuration has lost its magic and needs to be reconfigured. This is a way for him to relieve pressure from himself and stay calm in stressful games. If he does well, he will continue to do well thanks to his lucky socks. If he does poorly, it is not because his game is bad, but because his socks are no longer good luck socks and simply need to be changed. By rationalizing his basketball performance like this, my informant is able to stay cool and confident under pressure. Furthermore, the belief is that luck can be recycled, as long as he finds the proper order for his socks.

Folk Beliefs

Lucky Red Shirts

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“So whenever I have to dress up formally for a competition or a recital or an interview I’ll always wear my lucky red dress shirt. It’s something I’ve done since probably middle school. I always get a different red shirt, but it has to be red which is my favorite color. Whatever I do it gives me that luck that I need to do well to do whatever I need to do that day.”

It seems like the color red instills confidence in this informant. Interestingly, he is Chinese American. Many Chinese see red as a lucky color. Perhaps this is doubly so for him as it is his favorite color. Having lucky items of clothing seems quite common. This informant differs from the norm of having a lucky item of clothing in that he does not have one lucky red shirt, but derives luck from red dress shirts in general. In this case, red dress shirts are less like a lucky item, but closer to a symbol he derives strength from.

While not religious, the red dress shirt is somewhat analogous to the Christian cross. Those of the Christian faith gain strength and feel protected by crosses, they feel the presence of God when they see symbols of their religion. They feel this way not only about all crosses of their religion, not just about one specific cross. Similarly, my informant feels lucky and successful from the symbolic power of a red dress shirt, not just one specific red dress shirt.

Furthermore, the fact that he wears a dress shirt may affect his confidence. Many people claim to feel more confident and assertive when dressed professionally.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Water Bottle Toxins

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“So whenever I bring a water bottle onto the car I almost always forget it there. My dad says that after you leave it in the sun and the bottle heats up, you’ll get cancerous toxins in the water and he would never let me drink it and would always force me to pour it out in front of him.”

The belief that water bottles leach toxins into the water that they hold is not a novel one.  I have heard this health belief from many other people in the United States. Generally, the usual concern is due to BPA (bisphenol-A), which is said to interfere with natural hormone regulation. My high school chemistry teacher believed strongly in this health belief and spent one of his lectures demonstrating how it is possible for BPA to leach from a plastic water bottle into the water it holds. As a precaution, he was often seen with a metal water bottle.

However, this is my first time hearing about possible toxins causing cancer. I think this plays into a cultural fear of carcinogens, especially within the food manufacturing sector, and combines it with our health beliefs about plastic water bottles.  None of my foreign relatives share this health belief, which leads to me to believe that it is mostly a belief shared by those in the US or specifically health and environmentally-conscious California. This health belief most likely stems from the fear of “chemicals” that seems to run rampant in our society. It is a fear of the unknown. We don’t know how water bottles are made and how the substances used in manufacturing them interact with our day-to-day usages, so we tend to assume the worst.

Furthermore, water is a life-giving substance to humans and the idea of vessels used to hold it “betraying” us and leaching something poisonous into it has a certain appeal to it. This health belief has been largely debunked in scientific literature: while plastic water bottles do leach BPA, the amount leached is so negligible that one would be more likely to die of water poisoning before the BPA levels would reach any significant level.

See:
Schmid, P., Kohler, M., Meierhofer, R., Luzi, S., Wegelin, M. “Does the reuse of PET bottles during solar water disinfection pose a health risk due to the migration of plasticisers and other chemicals into the water?” Water Research. 4 Sep. 2008, Volume 42, Issue 20: 5054-5060.

ACC. “The Safety of Polythylene Teraphthalate (PET).” PlasticsInfo.Org. American Chemistry Council, 1 Jan. 2007. Web. 13 Nov. 2009. <http://www.plasticsinfo.org/s_plasticsinfo/sec_generic.asp?CID=657&DID=2605>

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Cure for Asian Glow

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“I’ve heard that if you get Asian glow that if you drink pepto bismol before you drink, you won’t turn red, but I don’t get Asian glow so I guess I would never find out first hand. Unfortunately.”

“Asian glow” describes when a person of Asian descent consumes alcohol and experiences flushing of the face, neck, and chest. This is often considered unattractive and embarrassing. This phenomenon stems from a single mutation in the aldehyde dehydrogenase gene, which ultimately prevents the breakdown of alcohol. Because acetaldehyde builds up in the body, creating the symptoms characteristic of Asian glow, the condition is commonly thought of as an allergic reaction. I have definitely heard of drinking Pepto Bismol to quell Asian glow because it contains common digestive enzymes that prevent other conditions, but recommended dosages vary from a capful to an entire bottle. This advice is a modern folk remedy.

See:
Impraim C., Wang G., and A. Yoshida. (1982) “Structural mutation in a major human aldehyde dehydrogenase gene results in loss of enzyme activity.” American Journal of Human Genetics 34(6):837-841.

Folk Beliefs

Advice for Tap Water

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“My dad used to tell me, or I guess he still tells me, that when you’re using tap water, you should try to have it on the coldest setting because if its too hot it’ll dissolve minerals in the pipes and that’s bad for you to ingest. So you should always use cold tap water.”

There is a lot of mistrust towards municipal water supplies and the plumbing that carries it in the United States, as exemplified by this advice. One only needs to look at Brita water filter sales to confirm that many people in the US do not trust that the water coming out of the tap is safe to drink. I feel there is a lot of paranoia about municipal water because the subject happens to combine two very important topics: the government and water. There is a lot of distrust and ill-will towards the government. Often, it seems like there is a general consensus that the government is inept and does not care about the well being of its citizens. Whether this is actually true or not is up for debate, but when this idea of governmental bungling is applied to water, a vital resource, we seem to tend to assume that there is no way that the government could be managing such a vital resource properly.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Beware of the Cold

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“So other things that my parents told me about like cold being bad for you is that when I get out of the shower, I should dry my hair otherwise the cold will give me like, headaches when I grow up. And I shouldn’t work out in like a really air conditioned or cold environment, because I’m going to get sick and not like cold sick but like lifelong illness and pains. So yeah, that’s what they told me.”

The informant’s parents are Taiwanese. My parents would tell me things similar to this all the time. It seems like Taiwanese people have a lot of problems with the cold. Since air conditioning is a relatively new invention, the fear of air conditioning is reflective of the suspicious attitude towards new things that many older Taiwanese people hold. Even in the United States, many parents tell their children to dress warmly to prevent them from catching a cold. However, it has been proven beyond a shadow of a doubt that cold temperatures have little to do with illness and colds. There is no causal relationship. So how did this association between cold and illness come about?

A professor at USC studying alternative health beliefs explained to me how, based on her research, the belief came to be. Long ago, before modern medicine and the advanced understanding of disease we have today, lower class citizens often lived in squalor, had poor nutrition, and did not have the resources to keep warm. Due to compromised immune systems from malnutrition coupled with poor sanitation, diseases spread quickly through these perpetually cold populations and eventually being cold became tied to illness.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Microwave Fears

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“Something else my dad told me was that when you heat up food in the microwave, you can’t stand in front of it or you’ll get cancer. But I used to really like processed food, so I would always use the microwave and I would be really hungry so I’d stand in front of it and wait and he would get mad.”

The health belief that microwave radiation will induce cancer is something that I’ve heard before. I have also heard this belief applied to the tera-hertz radiation used in TSA body scanners. Many of my relatives from Taiwan have also mentioned this health belief about radiation in general.

As mankind has entered the nuclear era, harnessing the intramolecular forces for energy and weaponry, radiation has become a very real threat. Radiation often dominates our news and our history. Chernobyl, Fukushima, Three Mile Island, and Hiroshima have left very strong impressions on the global consciousness. This fear is perhaps intensified by the fact that radiation is an invisible force that none of us are capable of perceiving. We do not know when we are subjected to it and most of us do not understand the complexities of its various forms. So we’ve simply learned to fear the word “radiation”, associating it with all of the nuclear tragedies that has befallen mankind.

However, this fear of microwave radiation and tera-hertz radiation is unfounded. Microwave radiation and tera-hertz radiation are very different from the radiation that nuclear meltdowns produce. I once held the belief that microwaves could induce cancer. A physicist I worked with in high school told me that while high concentrations of microwave radiation might cook a human being from inside out, microwave radiation simple does not carry enough energy to do the genetic damage to induce cancer. The same applies to tera-hertz radiation.

See:

Vecchia, Paolo. “Perception of Risks from Electromagnetic Fields: Lessons for the Future.” Journal of Biological Physics 29.2-3 (2003): 269-274.

Folk Beliefs

The Flag and Luck

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“When I was younger, at my school we would have flag duty, which meant that every morning before the start of classes we would have to go take the American flag and put it on the flagpole and hoist it up and apparently its bad luck if it ever touches the ground. So we had to make sure it never touched the ground.”

The American flag is one of the symbols of our country and should be respected. There exists a formal United States Flag Code in Chapter 1 of the United States Code that outlines how the flag of the United States should be treated. According to this document, the flag should not ever touch the ground or anything beneath it, as it is considered disrespectful to allow that to happen. This might be where this piece of folklore stems from. It certainly does seem like disrespecting something as symbolic and important as the US flag would invite bad luck. Perhaps the teachers at the school felt it may be difficult for young students to comprehend treating the flag with such respect, and described the consequences as “bad luck” as a more universal reason not to accidentally disrespect the flag. Furthermore, this piece of folklore might help to ensure that young flag guards take extra care when handling the flag.

A related urban legend states that the US flag must be burned if it ever touches the ground. This is actually just a combination of the two United States Flag Codes. The other flag code is about how a worn out flag must be destroyed respectfully, most often in fire. The urban legend sounds plausible as a flag dirtied by the ground might be considered ruined and fire is often thought to be a purifying force.

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