Author Archives: Rabia

About Rabia

Muslim Pakistani-American. Born and raised in LA area.

Urdu childhood rhyme

Context: The informant is a college-age male whose parents are both from Pakistan originally. He was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. He currently lives in Southern California in a joint family and has also visited Pakistan multiple times since he was very young. His extended family in Pakistan includes many young uncles and cousins who are closer to his age than his parents’. The informant recalls his older cousins would say to him, jokingly, when he was in trouble,

“___ ke bacche

daal daal kacche”

which literally means “___’s child, uncooked lentils”. He elaborates that this was meant as a warning, to scare him into an apology for some misbehavior, because it was always said a precursor to someone “tattling” on him to a parent.

Analysis: The informant explains that it is a saying that everyone, including himself now, says to children younger than oneself. He says that he has never thought about the meaning, and only remembered and said it regularly when teasing his younger cousins because it gave him a sense of authority over them (since only people older than you would say it to you, usually) and because it rhymed, so “it was easy to say and easy to remember”. He continues, “It was just, like a fun, teasing thing to say to the little kids, like you would joke with them but you wouldn’t actually get them into trouble.” From his own words, the informant seems to have recast the saying, not as the veiled threat his older relatives would use against him, but as something to relate to younger kids with.

From a more objective perspective, lentils are one of the staples in many Pakistani diets (i would venture to say, in many South Asian diets too). Uncooked lentils, however, are not very useful. So the rhyme could be commenting on the “bad boy”‘s or “bad girl”‘s lack of worth–no one wants you if you’re going to misbehave. Also, it could be a veiled warning that you’re about to be “cooked” or put “in hot water” or “raked over the coals”–that is, punished. The significance of not referring to the child by [his own name], but by “the child of [his own name]”, could be a reference to the fact that South Asian cultures are patriarchal and patrilineal, so knowing who the father is, is very important. Calling a child his/her own father may be a veiled way of saying they have no father and are therefore the object of shame.

Urdu slang insult/swearing

Context: The informant is a college-age male whose parents are both from Pakistan originally. He was born and raised in the Los Angeles area. He currently lives in Southern California in a joint family and has also visited Pakistan multiple times since he was very young. He recalls a curse his father would say “when he got really angry”:

___ ko goli maar/ ___ ko maro goli

which means literally “Shoot ___ (with a bullet)” or something close to the English profane phrases “F*ck ___” or “Screw ___”.

Analysis: As a swearword, this phrase is relatively straightforward: the speaker is expressing how little they care about something; so little that if the other person were to shoot it, it wouldn’t bother them. The fact that the informant is male and he learned from an older male family member suggests that it is a phrase that is most commonly used by the adult males of the group in the company of other adult (or sub-adult) males. This suggests a certain respect for the opposite sex, or at least a divide between them. And the fact that the word is a violent one instead of a sexual one (like f*ck or screw) may imply that there are certain taboos around sex that are not present for when dealing with or discussing violence.

“This is Buggy”

Context: The informant is an 11-year-old resident of Southern California, of Indo-Pakistani descent. She lives with two older siblings, parents, and grandparents and attends a public middle school in the South Bay area. She has close friends of many different religious and ethnic backgrounds, and the following narrative sequence is one she learned from one of these friends while she was still in elementary school.

Transcript of video:

“This is Buggy!

Buggy says hi!

Buggy can fly!

Yay for Buggy!

Oops, Buggy died.”

Analysis: The informant says she learned it only a couple years ago and remembered it because she “thought it was cool” and “kind of funny”. The informant relates that she enjoys many types of art, including drawing and painting, and often is in charge of making signs for events among her friend group, like yard sales and party invitations. So the personal appeal to a young artist or craftsperson is obvious.

I think the general appeal here is similar: the fact that with a few simple drawings and letters, an entire story can be told with little effort. The idea that there are just enough fingers on a person’s hand to write “T-H-I-S” on the knuckles, and then fold different fingers to show different words, must be appealing to kids who are just starting to appreciate the difficulties of both language and tactile crafts such as beading, painting, or cursive handwriting. The simple story is also humorous and a common enough occurrence: trying to save a little bug only to find that you unfortunately don’t know your own strength; or simply the humor of seeing something that causes many small children, especially girls, some anxiety–“creepy crawlies”–being put out in such a messy and unceremonious manner helps them cope with those anxieties indirectly while not being called out as a “scaredy cat” or a “sissy”.



Baje raat ke baaran


Baje raat ke baaran

Chhat par billi bhaagi hai,

Neend se (Baby) jaagi hai

Chhat par billi bhaagi hai,

Neend se (Baby) jaagi hai

Billi ne chuhe ko maara



Baje raat ke baaran


Baje raat ke baaran

Galli me bola chawkidaar,

“Choron se rehna hushiyar”

Galli me bola chawkidaar,

“Choron se rehna hushiyar”

Chawkidaar ne chor ko maara



Baje raat ke baaran




It struck 12 o’clock (Chorus)


It struck 12 o’clock

The cat ran along the roof

(Baby) woke up from her sleep

The cat ran along the roof

(Baby) woke up from her sleep

The cat killed the mouse


(Chorus) x 2

In the street the guardsman said,

“Beware of thieves!”

In the street the guardsman said,

“Beware of thieves!”

The guard killed the thief



Analysis: For some reason, similar to many Western nursery rhymes and lullabies, this song is a particularly violent one. It talks about the elimination of a small threat (a mouse) and then of a much larger, much more serious threat (a thief). But this elimination takes place in a very definitive, violent manner–murder, essentially. Unlike Western lullabies, however (some that come to mind are Rockabye Baby, Rain Rain Go Away, Old Daddy Long Legs, and Sing a Song of Sixpence), the violence is not perpetrated on children or seemingly innocent bystanders, but on entities who do pose a real threat to the health and safety of the child and indeed the whole family and therefore could be said to “deserve what they got”. Mice spread disease and could ruin a family’s crop and thereby cause them to starve. Thieves also could cause financial ruin and would not hesitate to do away with any family member who discovered them robbing the house in the dead of night. In rural areas, or places that didn’t have a very trustworthy law enforcement and protection system, the idea that there were people (or animals) that would be able to protect a child from harm must have been very comforting.

Clapping game rhyme/song

Context: The informant is a Pakistani-American 11-year-old girl and a 6th grader at a public school in Torrance, CA.  The following clapping rhyme is a two-person game she learned in first grade.


“I went to a Chinese restaurant

To buy a loaf of bread, bread, bread

She asked me what my name was

And this is what i said, said, said

My name is

L-I-L-I, Pickle-eye pickle-eye

pom-pom beauty, sleeping beauty

Then she told me to freeze freeze freeze

And whoever moves, loses.”

The word “freeze” may be said either once or three times, and at that moment the players must both freeze. The informant also showed me the two kinds of clapping sequence that are used for the two parts of the game, one for the first four lines, and the other for lines 6-8.

Analysis: At first glance, the rhyme seems like complete nonsense; but upon further examination, the rhyme could conceal casual racism. “Li” could be an East Asian name. Rhyming it with “pickle-eye” (which itself could be referring to culturally unfamiliar food which is automatically dismissed as unnatural or revolting–for instance recall the urban legend where neighborhood cats/dogs were disappearing after immigrants from [insert Asian country here] moved in), which is essentially a nonsense word, could be meant to show disrespect towards all people with similarly “Asian” names. Then referring to oneself as a “pom-pom beauty” (perhaps referring to a cheerleader’s pom-poms) and “sleeping beauty” (the classic western fairy tale) as a contrast to the “Li” lady is like proclaiming, I am an all-American girl, like a cheerleader or Sleeping Beauty, and you are not.

Irani stereotype joke

Context: The informant is a college-age male whose parents are both originally from Pakistan. He has lived in Southern California all his life, with frequent trips to Pakistan to visit extended family. He attended a private Islamic elementary school and a public middle and high school in the South Bay area. He relates the following story told to him by one of his friends, a young man whose parents are originally from Tehran, Iran.

Inf.: So when [friend]’s family went back to Iran to visit you know, like his grandparents and his cousins and stuff…but they live in Tehran, and supposedly–there’s a stereotype that people from Tehran are generous but like people from this other city–I think it was […] Isfahan, right? Isfahan is the place where they’re supposedly really stingy.

Me: Is that what he told you? Like I mean does he believe that or is it like a stereotype in his family…?

Inf.: No, i mean i guess everyone believes it. Like if you’re from Tehran, you think people from Isfahan are crooks. Like how if you’re from Pakistan you think Pathans are really stupid and people from Lahore are really rude and stuck up.

Me: Ok, ok. So then what?

Inf.: So then…so he–his family went to Isfahan and his dad went into the store, and he’s like, ok i’ll talk with an Isfahani accent so the guy won’t make me pay extra–like you know how people will charge tourists three times whatever it actually costs because they’re tourists? [I nod] Like that. So if he talks with the accent the shopkeeper would think he’s from Isfahan and tell him the actual price. So…ok, for some reason bananas were really expensive at the time,ok? So he goes up to the shopkeeper and he asks, How much are those bananas? And the shopkeeper goes, You’re not from Isfahan. And the dad goes, how do you know? And the shopkeeper said, If you were from Isfahan, you wouldn’t even bother asking how much they cost.

Analysis: The informant says he enjoyed the joke because it was very similar to and illustrative of the kinds of stereotypes that exist not just among Americans/Europeans/Westerners about other races, cultures, and ethnicities; but also among non-whites about other ethnicities. He mentioned the fact that many Pakistanis tell Pathan  jokes with the punchline being that somehow that particular ethnic group is stupid and only they could do something like whatever is told in the joke. The fact that the joke is predicated on the stereotypes between cities, a much smaller demographic than an entire ethnic group, is interesting; because while ethnic/racial stereotypes might seem plausible because of the supposed “biological connection” (i.e. DNA)  shared by all members of a race; any possible connection between members of a city is much less obvious, unless the population of that city is mainly composed of a single ethnic group and that is what the stereotype is (covertly) referencing. This joke, in order to be funny, relies on the audience knowing two pieces of information: the stereotype of Isfahanis as stingy people, and the fact that bananas were for some reason very expensive at the time. This is an example of requiring an emic point of view in order to understand the humor, or at least to fully appreciate the cultural context within which the joke/anecdote is situated.

Evil eye sayings

Context: The informant is a grandmother of 8 whose parents were originally from Afghanistan but settled in Pakistan. She also lived in Saudi Arabia for many years and has a working knowledge of Farsi, Arabic, and Punjabi along with her native Urdu. She says that a common thing to say when you see someone  in new clothes, or looking particularly beautiful; or when someone has very good fortune in (for instance) an exam or a job; or, especially, with children and new babies; is

“Nazr-bad-door” or “Chashme-bad-door”







which, word-for-word, means “look-bad-far-away” or “eye-bad-far-away”, but translates to, “May the Bad Gaze/Evil Eye stay far away from you.”

Analysis: The purpose of this little saying is basically to keep away the Evil Eye, which the informant says can be put on someone if they are envied or have something that others covet (eg, good grades or good health). When the Evil Eye is put on you, you may fall sick, fail in your job or school, lose your money, etc. Children are especially susceptible because they are often the center of attention, especially in the informant’s Pakistani family, and so if someone merely looks at a child with selfish or ungracious thought in their mind, the child could fall ill or have an accident, etc. It is thus important to remember to praise God when you see something beautiful and not be jealous or ungrateful, and this phrase is a way to remind oneself of that, and also to express the desire to protect someone from others’ ill gazes as well. The informant said all this as what people “used to believe”, implying that the traditional phrase is kept even though the specific belief may have been altered or abandoned altogether.

pakistani slang

Context: The informant is a 30 year old married Pakistani schoolteacher and mother. She jokingly asked her cousin, who was visiting America, to buy her a store’s entire stock of a certain makeup product (that had the number 420 in its name) when she came back, and the cousin replied, you are a 420. When questioned about the meaning of this phrase, the informant laughed and replied that it was slang for a thief or fraud. Questioned further, she revealed that the term comes from the Pakistani penal code, in which “302 is for murder criminals and 420 is for thieves–like they say in the movies, a 201 is going down or something.”

Analysis: This particular slang phrase is interesting in that the origin is a written piece of work–and not even something that is easily accessible to most laypeople, like a storybook or a children’s movie, but the very laws of the country, which are, no doubt, as convoluted and verbose as those of any in the US. However, these codes have made their way, either through the jargon of lawmakers and law enforcement officials, or through popular movies that use “authentic” police jargon in their police scenes, to the laypeople who now use it, not to actually accuse or apprehend anyone, but to jokingly call out each others’ social vices. The act of exaggerating a little social or moral error into something criminalizable by the national penal code may be a way of enforcing social norms while still maintaining social relationships.

Slang about UCLA

Context: The informant is a young professional who graduated from UCLA in 2012.  She relays that the acronym for her school had the unofficial meaning of the “University of Cute Little Asians”.

Analysis: A quick search of the UCLA website’s enrollment statistics shows that the ethnic category with the highest enrollment is those who have checked the “Asian/Pacific Islander” box, at 34.8% of total students; the next largest group is white students at 27.8%. The informant herself is not white, nor did she elaborate on whether or not she used the term in her own conversations, but she did confirm that at her time at UCLA, a large portion of the students she saw on a daily basis appeared to be of Asian descent.

The term therefore seems to be a somewhat racist comment on the high population of Asian-descent students at UCLA, combined with the well-worn stereotype that those of East Asian ancestry are shorter in stature than white people, and the fetishization of Asians, particularly Asian women, with the term “cute”.

A somewhat related term I have heard during my time at USC is “University of Spoiled Children”, quite obviously referring to the stereotype of most USC students being rich and white, and a good many of them “legacy” students, meaning an older family member also attended. This view, however distasteful to some, is actually rather true: USC’s student body is 39% white (the next biggest group, 23%, is Asian). And according to an LA Times article, “the percentage of USC students [whose family income is] over $200,000…is more than twice as high as [UCLA]’s”.

I have also heard the much less controversial and more humorous “University of Summer Construction” (but not just summer anymore–I have been a student since the fall of 2010, and there has been some sort of constrution, modification, addition, or repairing going on every single semester along the commonest routes I take across campus).

TRW slang

Context: The informant is an American citizen of Indo-Pakistani descent who has worked at the same aerospace and defense technology firm for his entire adult life. The firm has, however undergone several mergers, name changes, etc. The company he work for is currently known as Northrop Grumman, but when he started working there, it was the company called TRW.

To express their dissatisfaction with the inefficient and disorganized management style of the bosses, the informant relays that the workers would refer to these inept managers as TRWs, or “Turkeys Running Wild”.

The informant was moved to a subsector of the company known as Velocium; when TRW was bought out by Northrup Grumman, it became taboo to mention the name of the previous company(s), or to wear or use any merchandise featuring their logos.

Analysis: The acronym is fairly straightforward and seems like a typical response of the frustrated employee to incompetent managers. The informant commented on the “red tape” that often made it difficult or impossible for him and his colleagues to complete assignments on time or satisfactorily, and the often conflicting or unclear instructions given by the higher-ups, resulting in repercussions for the employees. For this reason, referring to the object of their frustrations as “turkeys” gave them an outlet for their feelings, comparing their bosses to confused birds who really had no idea that they were about to become someone’s Thanksgiving dinner.

The taboo on voicing the previous company’s name was probably meant to solidify the new management’s authority among the workers. It was enforced pretty strictly, even down to the pens the employees would use could not have the logo of Velocium or TRW. Giving voice to something gives it power, if only in the metaphorical, philosophical sense, so the new company was probably trying to squash loyalty to the old and ensure no employees would defect to rival companies like Boeing.