JD is on the captain of USC’s crew team. He has been racing for over two years now, and the sport has, in his words, “become my life.” Rowers are dedicated athletes that train every day at the crack of dawn. The sport is brutal on the body. J tells me that if he doesn’t puke during practice than he’s not going hard enough.
Races are intense affairs. They only last a few minutes long, and rowers are pushing themselves to the limit the entire time. As in any sport, competition is taken very seriously, and winning means everything.
But rowers have an interesting way in which they celebrate their victories. At the end of the race, the winning team gets the shirts from the team that lost. As J described it, the losers literally remove the shirts they wore during the race and hand them to the victors. “The other team is basically publicly humiliated by having to take off their clothes and give them to us,” J explains.
I think this is a very aggressive celebration that encapsulates the intensity of the sport. It’s almost war-like: the champions are claiming their spoils from the competition. It is very symbolic. The winning team goes home with a material memento that symbolizes the opponents they have defeated. And the losing team goes home with nothing but their (nearly) naked bodies. Of course, I am dramatizing the celebration a bit, but the way J describes it, and from what I’ve seen of their practices and get-togethers, rowers take their sport very seriously. The war-like attitude is very much a part of it. They yell throughout the entire race, and have various other pre-race chants to pump themselves up.
These celebrations are an important part of any sport. In our society, sports have replaced war and fighting as the main way that the lay-man proves his worth. In war, victory was clear because the opponents were literally dead. But in sports, athletes have created new ways to perform and recognize their victories.
“So there’s a beautiful, charming Weaving Maid who’s a servant in the palace of the Queen Mother, who is basically a really important female goddess. And this Weaving Maid just weaves all day.
“Then on Earth, there’s this, um, super hard-working Cowherd—that’s his name—who’s miserable and lonely because cows do not make inspiring companions. His parents died, he lives with his older brother and wife, and they treat him like a slave.
“No one really knows how the two of them [the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd] met, but the most common one is that one day the Weaving Maid and her six sisters came down to Earth to take a bath. And the Cowherd saw them. And being a creepy guy he picks up one of their clothes. And so when they see him, the six sisters turn into doves and flew away, but he took the Weaving Maid’s clothes. No one really knows how the negotiations went, but by the end she had fallen completely in love with him. So instead of turning into a bird and flying back, she stayed on Earth and married the Cowherd. And they had kids.
“When her master found out she was pissed. So she ordered the troops to abduct the Weaving Maid back up to Heaven. Um, the Cowherd tried to follow but he also had to carry the kids so he couldn’t catch up. He was a mortal so there’s no way for him to catch up to the god.
“But the Queen Mother, she doesn’t want to take any chances. So she takes a hairpin and forms a river—what we know as the Milky Way. And it flew between the Weaving Maid and the Cowherd, so then they’re separated forever. The kids that they had cried a lot to the Queen Mother to try to reunite the family, and the Weaving Maid’s six sisters also wanted them to reunite.
“So, after a lot of complaining the Queen Mother finally became a little bit merciful and called up a flock of birds to build a bridge over the river. She allowed the lovers to be reunited for one night every year, one the seventh night of the seventh lunar month. And on that day here, a flock of magical birds suddenly appear and form a bridge over the Milky Way, and they can meet up in the middle.
“Uh, so on the seventh day of every seventh lunar month, called the ‘Festival of the Seventh Evening,’ girls hold weaving competitions in honor of the maid and they sacrifice fruits that they put out overnight. It was a very good sign if you had spiders come out and spin webs over the fruit because it’s kind of like the weaving.”
My roommate, KY, performed this folk myth for me. He was born in China and lived there for the first few years of his life. The story of the Weaving Maid is a classic Chinese myth that is told all over the country. K told me there are many versions, but this is the one he remembers his parents reciting to him when he was young. He said that he always liked this story because it explains the Milky Way. He remembers that his dad would take him out at night to look at the stars and sometimes tell him about the Weaving Maid and similar stories. Apparently there are other Chinese myths that explain how different stars and constellations were formed.
K actually performed this piece for me when we were sitting out in our backyard one night. Being in LA, we couldn’t really look up and see the Milky Way. I don’t think the story had the same effect as it does when you can look up and see the “river” that the Queen Mother creates in the myth. But it still captured my imagination. My roommate and I are both physics students and avid lovers of astronomy. I asked him if he thought this story influenced his decision to study physics at all. He mused on this and replied that he had never thought of it, “but it must have something to do with my fascination of the stars and stuff.”
That is what I love about folk tales, and creation myths especially. Even though we know they are (probably) not true explanations for why things are, they allow us to think about beautiful, grandiose phenomenon, such as the Milky Way, in familiar, human ways. I believe myths were, in fact, early human’s first attempts at explaining the mysteries of the universe. Before we had hard science, we had our imaginations and our special ability to craft stories that could decipher this amazing world.
For another version of this myth, see Picturing Heaven in Early China by Lillian Lan-ying Tseng. This book features a lot of interesting Chinese creation myths about space and the stars.
The joke is simple: the jokester says “Pull my finger” and sticks out his finger, the victim pulls the finger, the jokester farts. My father (still) thinks this is hilarious. As he explains,
“It’s something we did as kids. It was super funny back then. And being a dumb guy, still think it’s funny. Back then we would literally fart when you pulled someone’s finger. Tears of hilarity. So every time I hear it I think of being in grade school.”
My dad “performs” this joke every time I see him. It has become something that everyone in my family expects, and that has become a part of the humor for Dad. It’s basically his way of saying, “I’m going to fart.”
Another part of the humor is that the victim becomes complicit in this nasty thing the jokester is doing. The victim is meant to feel like his action of pulling the finger is what caused the fart. I remember as kids we would be astounded as to how my dad could do that on command. Really he was just fooling us all. This joke is more of a prank; it is most fun for the jokester (unless, of course, the victim respects good toilet humor). Pranks are interesting because they walk the line between being cruel and being amusing. I think they exist so that the prankster can be cruel and get away with it by calling it funny.
Cruelty is a common theme in humor in general. A lot of jokes are deprecating and sometimes mean, but if they’re clever or funny enough, they allow people to find joy in all sorts of things that are usually not very funny. Self-deprecating jokes can be used to brush off embarrassing mistakes. And other jokes can be used to inject a little bit of happiness into depressing events.
Pranks, on the other hand, can sometimes be just plain mean. But I think the “pull my finger” joke is one of the simplest, funniest pranks you can pull on someone… no pun intended.
SB is from Costa Rica. We have been friends for some time, and whenever she cuts avocado I notice she says a little limerick to herself. I asked her what she was saying. She told me: “Agua pasa por mi casa, cate de mi corazón.”
It’s a riddle (adivinaza), and the answer is aguacate, which means “avocado” in Spanish. The phrase literally translates to ” Water runs down my house, it is a punch to my heart.” It is not really apparent what this has to do with avocados, but the solution to the riddle is found in the wordplay. Agua + cate each have meaning on their own in Spanish, but also form the word aguacate.
S explains, “Riddles like these are used to teach kids various fruits in Spanish.” It clearly works, because S remembers this riddle all these years later and still associates it with avocados whenever she has one. I asked her why she thinks there are riddles to learn simple things like fruit, and she explained that aguacate is actually a pretty difficult word for kids to say. This little rhyme, which breaks down the word, helps teach how to say it.
S told me another one of her favorites:
Tiene ojos y no ve,
posee corona y no es rey,
tiene escamas sin ser pez,
¿qué rara cosa ha de ser?
It has eyes and doesn’t see,
It has a crown and isn’t a king,
It has scales but is not a fish,
What rare thing could it be?
The answer is piña, a pineapple.
Throughout my time collecting folklore, I’ve noticed there are a lot of rhymes and riddles in various cultures that are meant to teach kids simple things like manners or words. These riddles stimulate creative thinking at a young age. Riddles are not always obvious and you have to connect the puns or wordplay to come up with the right answer. Folklore is a prominent part of children’s development. I believe a majority of what children learn in their early ages is through folklore; before they can read, kids pick up what people are talking about around them. Learning culture is just as important as learning to read and write, and folklore teaches this.
LS is from Thailand. She explained the folk superstition surrounding eating. According to L, “If you eat the last piece of food on a plate, you’ll get a hot boyfriend, or a fan lhor as we call it.” Food is generally shared in Thailand, served family style with a bunch of plates in the middle of the table that everyone eats from. L told me that this was a favorite custom of hers because all her family and friends took it very seriously. She explains how you say “fan lhor” as you reach for the food. “Whenever we were at the end of the meal,” L recounts, “me and friends would all shout it [fan lhor] and race for the last piece. We always wanted a hot boyfriend, obviously.”
I love this custom because it is so much fun. I have seen L perform this in person at a few dinners. It is a natural thing for her to do at the end of a meal because she is so used to doing it at home. The custom captures the spirit of Thai meals, which are meant to be lively affairs with a big group of people.
I believe the custom exists because it encourages people to finish all of the food served by making a fun game out of it. Table manners are such an interesting part of a culture because they vary greatly. In some cultures it is rude to be aggressive and loud at the table, but in Thailand it is encouraged. Furthermore, these dining customs encourage good eating habits in a fun way. Folklore has this power to stick in our minds because it is performed for us in such casual, quotidian ways. It is easier to remember folklore than traditional rules or literature because it is so informal that it can be repeated and reheard daily.
SB is from Costa Rica, a small country with broad culinary tastes. One of the most traditional dishes is gallo pinto, which translates literally to “painted rooster.” Gallo pinto is rice and beans with a little bit of spice and cilantro. This is traditionally served for breakfast, so S taught me how to make this dish one day for brunch. She explains,
“The original recipe of gallo pinto is made by doing a sofrito of garlic, onion and bell pepper. As soon as its ready, the beans are added to pan. The beans are gently blended. Most Costa Ricans add the famous ‘Salsa Lizano’ which is a slightly sweet sauce with a hint of pepper and cumin. Finally, the rice is added to create the perfect combination between rice and beans.”
Making the dish seemed like a simple process, but S really took her time, making sure that the ratio of ingredients and flavors was perfect. There’s clearly a craft to making gallo pinto, and I could tell that it was important to S that it be prepared the absolute correct way. I commented on the care S was taking with her cooking, and she replied, “Food this delicious must be made right. In Costa Rica, when we do something we make sure to do it well.” Her attitude was indicative of the pride Costa Ricans have in their culture. They’re a small nation, but their culture is rich and the people are not afraid to brag it. In fact, I believe their intense pride is due to how tiny the country is; they want to be known and recognized as a prominent culture.
S’s nanny taught her how to make gallo pinto. Her nanny has been making it for nearly every day ever since she was a little girl. S says the dish reminds her of home more than anything else because it was a part of her daily life.
The food was delicious. The flavors are simple and it tastes very fresh. This freshness symbolizes Costa Rica itself, which is tropical and green. The country is covered in rainforests and beaches, so the people are close with nature and spend most of their time outdoors.
S told me that “eco-tourism” is actually one of the biggest industries in Costa Rica. Eco-tourism is tourism centered around nature, such as hiking, swimming, beaching etc. Clearly nature is an important part of the Costa Rican experience, and I could really taste this in the gallo pinto. Even though I was eating this dish in LA, I felt like I was on the tropical beach in the middle of Central America.
“Once upon a time there were two brothers who were very different. One was named Chun, who was very diligent and got all his shit done and never complained to anyone. And there was his lazy ass brother who isn’t even named. So one day Chun was busy working, chopping down wood, and he got very tired and he decided ‘Oh you know what? I need to take a rest under an oak tree.’ And while he was resting a bunch of acorns fell to the ground and he was like, ‘Oh you know what? I’ll take some acorns.’ So he pockets a bunch of these acorns, right? And then as he’s like doing whatever he’s doing, darkness falls and he’s like, ‘Oh shit I need to find somewhere to stay because I can’t stay out here cause I’ll get murdered or something.’
“And so darkness falls and Chun was lost. He was walking around trying to find shelter and he stumbles upon this house. And he’s like, ‘Oh shit, nice house.’
“He knocks on the door… there’s no reply. So he tries the handle, opens the door and goes inside. And once inside, he starts to relax a little bit, but he hears these voices approaching. So he hides in the closet, and he just kind of stays there hoping they’ll go away. And this gang of goblins walks through the door and they sit down in a circle. Each one has a club. They start to chant ‘Make gold, make gold, make gold’ as they thump their clubs onto the floor. So what happens is just a bunch of gold starts appearing in a big pile in the middle of them. And they chant ‘Make silver, make silver, make silver.’ A bunch of silver piles up. ‘Make rubies, make rubies, make diamonds.’ A bunch of shit piles up.
“And while that’s happening Chun’s stomach starts to growl, like ‘grrrrr,’ in the closet. And he’s freaking out like ‘Oh shit they’re going to find me!’ But the goblins think, ‘Oh! It’s the crack of thunder. We need to be careful!’
“To relieve his hunger pains he takes some acorns out of his pocket and slips them in his mouth to try to abate his hunger. But he cracks down on the acorn and makes a loud CRACK noise. And the goblins freak out like, ‘Oh shit the roof is going to collapse on us!’
“So they run out, they leave all the their shit behind, they just run out of the house. And Chun stays in the closet super scared. He’s like, ‘Oh are they going to return? What’s going to happen?’
“So he waits in the closet until dawn. When dawn breaks, he comes out of the closet, fills his knapsack full of as much gold and silver and all that stuff as he can. And he runs home. And he takes the club as well.
“So he goes back home. He has the magic club and he can make gold for himself whenever he wants. And so he puts his parent in a nice mansion, he takes care of all his shit, and he doesn’t have to worry about anything anymore.
“Meanwhile, his brother hears about Chun’s story because Chun trusts him so he tells him what happened. So he does the same exact thing. He goes to the tree, he waits there, he takes some acorns. And he finds the house.
“And when he finds the house he does the same thing. He walks into the closet and the goblins enter. And the goblins are sitting in the circle and they pound their clubs and say, ‘Make gold, make gold, make gold.’ But the older brother was so excited that he couldn’t wait to scare the goblins away. He put an acorn in his mouth and bit down hard and he heard a loud CRACK and waited for the goblins to flee. But nothing happens.
“He peeks out of the closet and the goblins are just standing there. They take him out, they beat him silly, and then they let him go. And he staggers back home with nothing. And Chun sees him and he shakes his head. And his brother says ‘I have learned my lesson.’ ” – MY
This story is a Korean fairy tale. My Korean friend, M, performed it for me. He was born and raised in America, but his parents are both fully Korean and they have passed much of the culture onto him. M’s mother used to tell him this story when he was a child. M says it is his favorite because of the goblins, which are called Dokkaebi in Korean. Dokkaebi appear often in Korean folklore. They are mischievous creatures that play tricks on bad people and reward good people with wealth and blessings. Here we see the good-bad binary that is so often a theme of folk tales (the Dokkaebi representing both good and bad is an interesting play on the motif).
Similar to themes of good vs. bad, we see how this story has a moral/lesson in it. I asked M to elaborate on the lesson, because it kind of just came out of nowhere in the end. He said the story is meant to teach the virtue of patience and the vice of greed.
I mentioned that this lesson seemed tacked on at the end of the story. M agreed, but said he didn’t mind. “I like the story because it’s funny,” he said, “Chun’s brother is just such an idiot.”
I enjoyed the story too, because the performance was very colloquial, as you can probably tell. Me and my informant were simply sitting in my living room as he told me the story. It was very casual, and yet the story captivated its audience (me). This shows the power of folklore as entertainment. Before books and movies, humans entertained one another through stories. Yes, it is important to analyze a folktales message and themes, but I believe it is also important to respect the performance as a form of pure entertainment.
Furthermore, I think this performance is an especially great example of a folktale because it utilizes many common tools, such as the “rule of threes” when the goblins are conjuring their treasure. M’s performance showed me value of this simple rule. With each succession of “Make gold,” “Make silver,” etc, he got more and more excited. The repetition carried the performance and aided the performer. It gave him a rhythm. It was interesting to see a live example of the tools and themes we discussed in class.
“No Bitches, Damn Proud”
“No Bitches, Damn Proud” is a proverb in my fraternity. It can be said in many occasions and has many meanings. I specifically talked to AK about his interpretation of this important piece of Phi Sigma Kappa folklore. A is prominent brother who has been strongly involved in the house. In his words,
“NBDP [No Bitches, Damn Proud] is a thing we say at the end of every meeting. It signifies goodwill and good luck. It’s sort of like a cheers. I guess it can be used in pretty much any occasion. It can be a greeting or a farewell. Or just a cry of pride.”
NBDP is an interesting little piece of folk speak. I’ve been in the fraternity for less time than A has, and yet I use the phrase often, as every brother does. It reminds me of those simple phrases that a lot of cultures and languages have that can be used in many situations. For example, Italians have the word prego, which can mean “thank you” or “please” or simply “ok.” Prego does not really have a literal translation because the word has many meanings. Similarly, NBDP is a phrase that can be used whenever to mean whatever the speak wants. It doesn’t need to be taken literally. Still, I asked A about his interpretation of NBDP. His response:
“Well ‘No Bitches,’ that means we don’t want anyone who’s a bitch. Phi Sigs are tough, mentally and physically. And ‘Damn Proud’ means you’re Damn Proud to be a Phi Sig. And to not be a bitch.”
A’s translation gives insight into the popularity of the phrase at the fraternity. It makes guys feel strong and proud when they say it. It is kind of like Phi Sigma Kappa’s battle cry. Furthermore, I believe the phrase promotes camaraderie and brotherhood. It is a phrase that only brothers really know, so saying it proves that you are a brother. This shows the importance of folk speech. It is usually only known by members of whichever group says the word or phrase. So saying these words reaffirm individuals membership in the group they are a part of.
“So there’s this story of the Ramayan. It’s involves a lot of heroes and stuff. It’s a part of the Bhagavad Geeta. The story revolves around Prince Ram and his Sita, which basically means princess. They’re banished from their kingdom, and the evil king Ravan, who has ten heads, is mesmerized by Sita’s beauty, so he abducts her while distracting Ram. Ravan holds Sita captive. Ram goes through all these different trials to get Sita back. He builds a bridge across an ocean to get to her. He does this thing called Tapas where he becomes really spiritual or something like that. And what he does is he writes something on a rock and when he throws it into the water and it floats so it forms a bridge. So he gets to Sita, and a massive war breaks out. Ram kills Ravan by shooting an arrow through his middle head. So that’s why we have the festival of Diwali.” – SJ.
S is nineteen years old and she is from India. This story is a popular Indian myth, so S has heard versions from many people while growing up in her home country. She says it’s a common tale that most everybody knows. She says she loves this story because of how “dramatic and romantic” it is. There is an official version of the story in the Holy Book, which she has read, but S says there are many versions and variations throughout India.
The piece is clearly religious, and shows how intertwined Indian culture and religion are. Diwali, or the “festival of lights,” is a massive Hindu festival that happens towards the end of every year. Millions of candles and lights are lit, and it symbolizes “good beating evil,” as S says. As one can see, this story also revolves around themes of good (Ram) triumphing over evil (Ravan), which is also an important theme in Hinduism.
S performed this piece for me at late one night at a party. The celebratory mood was perfect this tale, and it aided in S’s performance. She was very animated while telling the story, practically acting out all of the elements of the kidnapping, and stone throwing, and slaying. I could tell that this was a story S knows well. She is clearly fond of it. Furthermore, I can imagine it reminds her of fun memories from her home country. She is studying abroad here at USC, far from India. It was interesting to see how performing a piece of native culture can transport a person back to their home.
I could practically experience S reliving all the memories associated with this tale. The more she told, the thicker her accent got as she jumped between Hindi and English.
While this piece has interesting content, the most striking part of the performance itself was watching S’s enjoyment in telling it. This performance really revealed the importance of one’s native culture, and the powerful emotions that can be associated with a simple story from one’s home.
LS is from Thailand. She says the worst thing someone can be compared to is an animal. A lot of Thai insults and swear words are animals. For example, ควาย (kwaai), which means “buffalo.” According to L, this is one of the worst things you can call someone. She says, “It is degrading to be called an animal.” Another insult is sàt, which simply means “animal.”
I can see where the insults come from. To be an animal is to be less than human. Being called an “animal” is worse than being called a “stupid person” or a “mean person.” By likening someone to an animal you are saying they do not even belong in human society. It is certainly a harsh thing to insinuate, which is the entire point of insults and swear words.
Parents will also use the bad connotations of being an animal to teach their children manners. L explained, “Parents tell their kids that if they eat while laying down they will turn into a snake.” And also, “If you don’t close the door behind you, you’re considered to have a really long tail because your tail is still coming through the door.” L told me her parents would always tell her these things, and that most Thai parents would tell their kids this; therefore, these phrases are commonly know. L told me that she would also use the familiar phrases with her friends to mock each other for fun.
I think this an interesting way to teach children. Children have such active imaginations that they probably believe they’ll really turn into animals. I believe that in most cultures parents teach their children through fantastical consequences. Using fun, imaginative punishments is sometimes easier than explaining to a child the real reason why it is inappropriate to leave the door open or something similar. A lot of folklore that is directed towards children is meant to teach simple lessons such as this.
It is clear why parents teach lessons through folklore. Children are more likely to remember to, say, close the door behind them if they associate it with something crazy like having a tail. This form of teaching clearly works, my friend L remembers the lessons more than ten years later. Folklore has this power to stick in our minds because it is performed for us in such casual, quotidian ways. It is easier to remember folklore than traditional rules or literature because it is so informal that it can be repeated and reheard daily.