Author Archive
Folk Beliefs
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Cat Over the Coffin

The informant, JT, is the mother of one of my friends. She is Vietnamese, and she grew up in Ho Chi Min City. Here she shares a superstition regarding funerals and her own personal experience with it:

“In the Vietnamese culture, when someone passes away, there are many things you are never supposed to do with the body. Autopsies are looked down upon by some more traditional people because the body should remain whole. If someone steals a part of the body, they may be able to do black magic with it. The person is never cremated either.

They dress the body in simple clothes and put it in the coffin, where they leave it there for about three days, so family and friends can pay their respects. But the coffin always has to be supervised, at all times. They say that if a cat jumps over the coffin, the lid will open and the person will wake up!

Let me tell you something! When I was 12, I walked by the house where they have the funerals, and I saw exactly that happen. They would keep the coffins outside so people could go to look at them. A stray cat from the street went to where the coffin was and jumped over- and the lid of the coffin flew open! I saw it with my own eyes and it was the scariest thing I ever saw in my entire life! The man sat up for a second, and then he lay down and went back to how he was before. I heard people say though- and I don’t know if this is true- that it’s possible for someone to wake up after the cat jumps and stay alive.

I guess it’s because they say that cats have nine lives, they don’t die like we do. It’s really freaky actually!

 

My thoughts: Cats feature in many superstitions around the world. They’re often associated with bad luck, witches, and even the devil. This may be because of the secretive and solitary nature of cats- they have a certain sense of mystery surrounding them. In this folk belief, the cat is associated with bad luck at funerals. Many other cultures also have superstitions involving people coming back to life at their own funerals or wakes. This could be due to the fact that before modern medicine it was harder to determine whether the person in question had actually died. So there may have been real life cases were people seemed to come back from the dead when they were really never dead to begin with that in turn inspired folk beliefs such as this one.

I noted that superstitions still play an important part in the funeral traditions of Vietnam often clashing with the “modern” and the “scientific”, such as autopsies.

Earth cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Full Moon Celebration

JT is a 40 year old Vietnamese woman who lives in Arcadia, California. She grew up in her home country and immigrated to the US as a teenager. Here is a Vietnamese tradition she remembers from her childhood:

“The Vietnamese have certain holidays that are, in some ways, like the Jewish tradition of Passover, were we don’t eat certain foods and eat others that are special to that holiday. One of the most important celebrations is the Full Moon. I was very young, but I remember that during the full moon, we would go to the Buddhist temple, where there would be tables and tables of vegetarian food- we didn’t eat meat during this time.

Who was usually cooking that food?

They didn’t always cook it there. You could have vegetarian foods from restaurants- during that time, every restaraunt will have the vegetarian dishes. It’s becoming more common now for restaurants in Vietnam to have vegetarian dishes all the time, too.

Do you know why you celebrated the full moon?

I remember that it wasn’t every full moon- some full moons were more special than the others. We used a lunar calendar, not like the American Calendar- it’s the Chinese version. The full moon of the “month of 7″, for example, was very significant. But the biggest one was the full moon of January- this is called Tet Nguyen Tieu- was the most important because it was the first full moon of the New Year. Everyone would go to temple then and pray for good luck in the New Year.

Is this something you still celebrate?

I usually do, but it’s inconvenient- we do it in our own way, buying more fruits and vegetables instead of eating meats around the full moon. We do it at home. Most Buddhist families we know do this too.

 

My thoughts: This piece is interesting because it shows how a Chinese tradition like the lunar calendar has spread to other parts of Asia as well were the festival changes to reflect that particular culture. This piece also shows that many different cultures have similar beliefs when it comes to the concept of the New Year, such as wishing for good luck in the year to come. This may imply that Vietnam is a future-oriented culture- the informant also told me that Vietnam has been ranked the most optimistic country in the world!

The informant noted that each Buddhist family havstheir “own way” of celebrating the full moon. If it’s inconvenient to go to an official celebration at a temple or to go to a Vietnamese restaurant, the family will alter their eating patterns at home. This shows how each family incorporates their own family folk customs with official religion as well.

 

Foodways

Pupusas

EM is a 45 year old Salvadoran man who moved from El Salvador to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, a city with a strong Salvadoran presence. EM shared with me the significance of a traditional food from El Salvador, the pupusa:

“Ok, so, this is what people consider the national dish in El Salvador. It’s called pupusas. It’s a corn tortilla stuffed with different things. It could be pork, it could be cheese, it could be beans…now, people even have hot dogs as part of it! That’s something I haven’t experienced since I don’t live there anymore, but it’s happening- people are trying out new things. American pupusas even have stuff like spinach or mushrooms added to them to appeal to people who may not have tried them before.

It is pretty much everywhere. I would say that it is a very humble, simple dish. Anyone can make it and eat it. There is no right or wrong time to eat it, so you can eat for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, ot anywhere in between. In school, when I was growing up, we would have it at recess, for example. It’s also shared in the sense that you get many of them at a time and eat it all together with a group/

Something we eat alongside it is “curtido”, which is almost like a type of sauerkraut. Usually, the places where they have pupusas will have a place where you can get extra curtido, carrots, onions, all sorts of things that have been pickled in vinegar. It’s not necessarily pickled in the way things are pickled here, it’s not very sour, but it has gone through a pickling process. The repollo- cabbage- doesn’t take so long to ferment.

It’s everywhere, so you can find it in school. Around your neighborhood, there may be three or so places where you can go and buy them. They’re not that expensive. At least, when I was growing up, each pupusa was just a couple of cents. Now, it’s about 60 cents, compared to here where they’re three dollars per pupusa! But you could find them anywhere. There are restaurants in El Salvador where that is all they do. There are regions in El Salvador where you can find specific pupusas, like ones that use rice instead of corn for the dough- the masa. There are different types of stuffings such as squash, close to the coast you can find seafood, like shrimp. People sell them at street corners, local markets- it doesn’t have to be a specific place. Like here in L.A., you’ll even find them in places like the Piñata District. So things vary, and there are specific places in El Salvador that are known for the pupusas. The buses will even stop in the outskirts of those towns and someone will come with pupusas to sell on the bus. This was back when bus trips were six or so hours and people needed a meal- it was always pupusas. They’re less commonly done at home since you can buy them everywhere.”

Pupusa Stand at the USC Farmer's Market

Pupusa Stand at the USC Farmer’s Market

Close-up of pupusas with a popular side of plantains

Close-up of pupusas with a popular side of plantains

My thoughts: Thinking about Appadurai and the idea of high cuisine, it’s clear that El Salvador doesn’t distinguish between high cuisine and low cuisine- the food that is the national dish is described as “humble” and “peasant food”. This ties into other Salvadoran folklore that reflects national pride because they often focus on the working class. Also, in relation to globalization, we can see how pupusas have now become popular in other areas of the world, such as Los Angeles, were they may be altered to fit the tastes of Americans. Here at USC, the pupusa stand at the Farmer’s Market have spinach and mushroom pupusas that are reminiscent of pizza, but don’t actually resemble any Salvadoran recipes.

Musical

El Carbonero

The informant, EM, grew up in the San Miguel neighborhood of San Salvador, El Savador. Growing up, he had a great interest in music and learned to play many instruments, as well as singing in a choir. Here he fondly remembers a folk song that is a great source of pride in his country that he learned growing up:

 

The song is called “El Carbonero”. This is considered by Salvadorans as almost a second national anthem. It translates to “The Coal Merchant”, and it tells the story of this guy who comes down from the mountains to sell coal.

This song is pretty much performed everywhere for different events, like Independence Day, or any cultural event where kids from schools- starting in elementary school all the way up to high school- whenever they want to perform something that represents who you are as a Salvadoran. Basically everyone would know the lyrics and know how to dance the song. In that sense it’s pretty popular and people know it. If a famous singer comes to perform in El Salvador- let’s say…Shakira! – or someone like that, then they would include “El Carbonero” as part of their set and the audience will go crazy. Artist try all kinds of different versions. It’s pretty much done by every foreign performer who comes.

From an ideological point of view, the lyrics of the song- it’s letting you know that, this is what we do, and we work hard. You know, being a coal merchant is kind of a messy, dirty job. All the people who dedicate themselves to it- even their faces are black, and their hands…everything is black from the coal. It also tells you something about the country and its origins. There’s an analogy in the song- the coal is something that el Carbonero is bringing to you that will light up your house and keep you warm. Coal has a positive connotation here since its good for you family and good for your home, and you identify with the hard working people.

The song begins with the verse

“soy carbonero que vengo
de las cumbres si señor
con mi carboncito negro
que vierte lumbre de amor.”

Which translates to

“I am a coal merchant who comes

fromthe high places, yes sir,

with my black coal

that turns to lights of love.”

 

My thoughts: Folk songs can often be seen as sources of nationalistic pride, as seen in the documentary Whose Song Is This? The song, El Carbonero, reflects that Salvadorans are proud of the working class- the country has a long history of economic hardship and poverty, so the working class is celebrated as opposed to the wealthy. The song also takes pride in the rich natural resources of the country, celebrating the coal that is brought down from the mountains. Even though these things may not seem glamorous to outsiders, they are symbolic of the endurance of the country’s people through a turbulent history. The informant also mentions how folk songs evolve over time and may be interpreted by established artists and transformed to different genres for popular consumption.

Legends
Narrative

El Cipitio

El Cipitio

The informant, EM, grew up in the country of El Salvador, which is in part known for its vast jungles and large amount of volcanoes. Naturally there are many legends surrounding these places, including ones about creatures that may live there. EM shared a story with me about one of these creatures, El Cipitio:

 

“So there are different, interconnecting traditions regarding beings or creatures in El Salvador. El Cipitio is a kind of a duende- or what do you call them, the Irish creature? Like those ones who trick you? A leprechaun! He’s a little bit like a leprechaun.

He always tries to deceive people, specifically young girls, because he wants to take them back to his cave or wherever he lives. So he will do silly things to entice them and deceive them.

But El Cipitio is the bastard son of another legendary figure, La Sihuanaba. Depending on the story, La Sihuanaba was a woman who lived in pre-colonial times- she was the beautiful wife of a famous chief. She was unfaithful- so there is something about that, right? A warning about what will happen to you if you are unfaithful in a very patriarchal society. So, it says, “this is what happens to women who are unfaithful”. A shaman condemned her to forever appear in front of men who wanted to be unfaithful- once they are alone together, she will become this ugly woman. So El Cipitio is her son.

In the story, El Cipitio is always alone, and he dresses like a peasant with a white clothing and a huge, huge hat. So I don’t know how you can’t spot this guy from a mile away! You’d think the hat is so huge you can see him anywhere. But he will hide in the jungle and entice youg girls to go with him, and little girls just disappear.

A statue of El Cipitio in El Savador

If you think about it, it’s a story that tells you what is wrong and what is right- there’s the idea that you will be marked for life if your mom is unfaithful. And people will always label you as something different if you were not born to a married family. There are specific places were it’s said that he lives, a specific cave in a specific town. It’s called San Vincente and its by a volcano called Chinchontepec. So there are caves there and people say he lives in them. It’s so people don’t go to places that are remote and dangerous, so don’t go there because something might happen to you and you will never return. There are stories that gold was hidden in those caves by the Spaniards- there’s a lot of folklore surrounding that region.”

Who told you about him?

“You grow up with those stories. It could be an adult, or you could hear it on the radio. You will find it any book with short stories when you are learning to read. But El Cipitio was so popular that he even had a tv show! And a song. You can see him pretty much anywhere.”

 

My thoughts: There are some very familiar elements in this story that are reminiscent of other Latin American legends, suggesting there is great intertextuality and variation by country. I was intrigued by the description of La Sihuanaba, who reminded me of two different Hispanic legends. She resembles La Descarnada, a legendary figure from Panama that another informant shared with me. Both stories seem to have the same cautionary purpose- to warn men not to womanize because they may end up encountering this monstrous woman. Her origin story also reminds me of La Malinche, another disgraced native woman who was transformed into a ghost legend (in her case, into La Llorona). These legends probably all derive from one story and then evolve as they are spread across Central America.

The legend of El Cipitio is reflective of Latin American views on gender, as discussed briefly by the informant. It warns women about infedility and how they will be punished for cheating or having an illegitimate child. It also depicts the male figure, El Cipitio, as a predatory figure who wants to steal young girls- this also reflects the common advice “don’t talk to strangers”, as well as deterring them from going anywhere dangerous like the jungle or the mountains on their own.

For more on El Cipitio, see this article, “El Cipitio” from El Salvador Mi Pais, a version of the legend in Spanish that expands upon the Nahuatl origins of this story: http://www.elsalvadormipais.com/leyenda-del-cipitio

 

Folk speech
Proverbs

“Siempre ay un ‘yo lo vi’”

EM is a 45 year old statistician from San Salvador. He immigrated to the US in the early 90s to attend Kansas University, but he grew up in El Salvador where he and his two brothers were raised by a single mother. Here is a proverb he recalls from his childhood:

“This is a proverb, or a saying- something people tell you. This one is more like a warning, but it also tells you a lot about the community.

It goes something like this, “there is always someone that saw you.”

“Siempre ay un ‘yo lo vi’

So, literally it says “there will always be someone who will say “I saw him do it”!”

If you are doing something, you are not supposed to do, someone will catch you and know you were doing something bad. It’s a warning not to misbehave. My mother used to repeat that often, and early on it is proved to be true. Suddenly you are doing something you are not supposed to and the neighbor from the corner tells your mom! So you learn early that, “oh my god, this is true! If I do the wrong thing there will always be someone who will tell on you!”

I think it comes with the idea that in El Salvador, in particular, that we believe in the English saying- “it takes a village to raise a child”. Even other adults are always aware of where every kid is, and they can correct you if they find you out on the street doing something, because you are part of that community and they care a lot about you and your parents. So proverbs like this one encourage you to behave in a way that the adults in the community find acceptable.”

 

My thoughts: Proverbs that are passed down from adults to children often serve the purpose of socializing them to follow the cultural norms of their community. This particular proverb is meant to keep kids from doing things their parents don’t want them to. It also reflects the nature of these communities were, as the informant noted, the raising of a child is a collective endeavor- Salvadorans consider their relationships with their neighbors to be amongst the most important because you never know when you may need their help. Neighborhoods in El Salvador tend to be closely interconnected, and an important part of coming of age is figuring out how you fit into that community.

Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Scattering Ashes at Sea

The informant, AA, is from a Vietnamese family. While she was born in California, her parents are first generation immigrants who escaped the Vietnam War. While she is Christian herself, many of her family members are Buddhist. AA describes a funeral tradition that combines elements from both religions:

“So when my grandpa passed away, we followed Buddhist funeral traditions as well as our own. My grandpa was Buddhist, and so was my grandma- my older relatives were all Buddhist. In Buddhist tradition, you’re supposed to cremate the body and put the ashes in an urn. So we did that. And a week afterwards, we went out to sea on a boat, and a pastor was there. He delivered a sermon and we all said prayers as we were spreading the ashes into the sea. Basically it’s meant to symbolize this idea of- taking souls across the sea into another world, the afterlife so to speak.

It was just a way to mourn and respect my grandpa. I think that for my parents it was a great relief to be able to spread his ashes and let him be free. They didn’t want to keep him an urn. It was a very liberating gesture.”

Is this specific tradition particular to your family or is it commonly done?

“The spreading of ashes, I think, is commonly done in a lot of traditions. It’s definitely common for Buddhists. What’s special about this funeral is that we incorporated some elements from our own religion- Christianity- with my grandparent’s old Buddhist beliefs. There was a bunch of different people at the funeral. It was a very mixed group.”

 

My thoughts: This personal account shows how religious practices can take place outside of the established church doctrine and combine many aspects from different religions. There are some recognizably Buddhist practices that took place at this funeral, such as the scattering of the ashes in the sea. The idea of having a pastor and a sermon, however, appeals to the Christian members of AA’s family. They have created a completely new funeral tradition that is a composite of different faiths and is ultimately unique to this family. Every family expresses their faith differently- there is no one standard way to be a Buddhist or a Christian.

 

Foodways
Life cycle
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Vietnamese Buddhist Wedding Feast

The informant, AA, is a Vietnamese American high school student. She is a second generation immigrant- both of her parents and their families are from Vietnam, and many of them still live here. AA shared with me a Vietnamese food tradition that she participated in herself at a wedding:

 

“So when my aunt and uncle were married, after the ceremony there was this big feast. There were 7 to 10 courses- they’re always the same foods at Buddhist weddings.

First there are cold dishes, like jellyfish salad, and then it goes to hot dishes, like lobster and hot pot. It’s always the same dishes in the same order. They’re always really precise about the order, especially at this wedding since my aunt is very Buddhist, actually.  It’s always very elaborate, and a lot of money is spent on the food. It incorporates many different types of seafood.

The dishes are served in a certain order as a way of wishing good luck onto the couple. For appetizers, we have sliced meats and jellyfish, and nuts shaped like dragons and phoenixes- those are served chilled as well. It’s supposed to symbolize, like, the male and female roles in a marriage. The dragon represents the groom- so powerful and strong. And then the female is like a phoenix because she is “born again” into this new life as a wife.

Later on, there is a roast pig that’s meant to symbolize virginity. I’m not sure why, exactly! I don’t know, I think it’s just a really old, sort of outdated tradition. Because back then the bride was supposed to be a virgin, and since many weddings were arranged marriages it was really valued for the girl to be a virgin.

Another common dish is shark fin soup. But since its Western style now, these kinds of weddings in America usually switch it up to pork soup or porridge. Then you have the lobster, and since it’s red it symbolizes luck and happiness and joy. Colors are really significant in Buddhist and Vietnamese weddings, especially red. Then you have fish, which symbolizes abundance, like, the abundance of money and possibly children. Towards the very end you have noodles, which is longevity.”

Which dish do you find to be the most significant, with a meaning you find particularly special?

“Desert is usually sweet red bean soup, which, stands for 100 years of togetherness because the soup contains a lot of seeds and beans- I think that one is really cute!”

Is this something all or most Buddhists do?

“It’s specifically Vietnamese Buddhist. It’s very unique to our specific background so it’s very important to me.”

 

My thoughts: Every culture has rich traditions pertaining to weddings. The particular wedding food customs AA mentioned are so fascinating because they show the intersection of Vietnamese, Buddhist, and Western traditions- for example, shark fin soup is replaced with other foods to reflect Western criticism/rejection of shark fin soup for ethical reasons. The idea of symbolic foods that ensure happiness and prosperity later in the marriage are common in different cultures, including the Hungarian wedding folklore collected by Géza Róheim, as well as foods that represent virginity or gender roles.

Folk Beliefs
Gestures

Show Choir Ritual

AA is an 18 year old high school senior. She is a member of her school’s show choir group, a performance ensemble that incorporates elements of musical theater and choir. She often goes to competitions with her team. Here she describes a pre-show practice for good luck that is deeply significant to her:

“So for show choir- our team is not very good. We’re not known as the high school that wins every competition or has elaborate dance routines or great costumes. A lot of it is because we’re so underfunded. But one thing we are really good at is teamwork.

So, before every show, the whole group will gather backstage, including the choir director and the choreographer. We all get together in a big circle and we hold each other’s hands, and then we pass a squeeze around the group to each person. Basically it symbolizes that everyone is involved, everyone’s talents are appreciated, and we’re all in this together. There’s this great sense of unity, and whatever happens, happens, that’s fine- we’re here for each other.”

I think it started as a way of calming everyone’s nerves before a big competition, but we always make sure to do it for good luck too. We never go onstage without doing this first because otherwise we might not perform as well as we could.”

Do you know who started this, or how long ago?

“I think it’s been around in our school’s show choir for a very long time. I know our choir president has been doing it all four years, and that the previous president- before any of us were even freshmen- did it too. So it’s been around for a while.”

Do you know about any other teams or schools that do this?

“I think it’s just us, at least in show choir. Only people in our show choir, in this group, know about this. When we go to competitions, we notice that each team has their own thing that they do- we notice it too. Like we saw one group put their heads together and go “caw caw!” and flap their arms or something like that- there are some weird ones! They’re all very different. But no matter how weird it may look to us, it’s special to them. It’s comforting. It’s kind of a way to relieve your stage fright and whether or not it actually gives us good luck, it’s good to have some peace of mind when you’re going onstage.”

My thoughts: Pre-show rituals for good luck are often a great way to make a group feel closer to one another- they denote you as an official member of that group. The informant mentions that each team has their own unique ritual that brands them as belonging to a specific school. I think this ritual also ties into the anxieties many high schoolers feel regarding their identities- they are often looking for a group to belong to. Also, the ritual helps to dispell any stage fright the performers might have, so it doesn’t matter as much whether it actually grants good luck or not because it’s a reassuring gesture either way.

folk metaphor
Folk speech
Humor

“Il n’a pas la lumière à tous les étages.”

JN is a 19 year old student at USC studying neuroscience and French.  Most of her family lives in Chicago, but they’re from various European countries. She has travelled the world extensively, and she lived in France during the second semester of her sophomore year of high school. Here is a humorous example of French folk speech that she learned that year:

This is a French proverb that I learned when I was living in France.

It goes “il n’a pas de lumière sur toutes les étages.”
And that basically translates to the English version of “He’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer” or “He’s missing his marbles” or something like that. So it literally means “He doesn’t have light on all of his floors” so it means, oh he’s kind of missing something, or he’s kind of “dim”.

Where did you learn this from?
I heard my host mom and dad say it a lot especially over the phone when they were talking to their friends. I understood the words and it kind of made sense to me that it was that French translation of our English expression. I overheard it from them and then asked what it meant and then I made the connection.

Why do you like it?
Because I learned it from my host parents and it’s definitely a colloquial French saying- it makes me feel more fluent in French to know those things that you can’t just learn the classroom. Plus I think it’s kind of funny!

 

My thoughts: I agree with JN when she says that when it comes to learning a new language, it is the colloquial expressions-the folk speech-that makes the leaner feel that they are truly a part of that culture. It was interesting to see that this French proverb had parallels in English with “the light’s on but no one is home” or even “not the brightest bulb in the box”- different languages and cultures have similar ways of expressing the same idea figuratively.

[geolocation]