Author Archive
Folk Beliefs

Haircuts Kill Uncles

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as HZ.

HZ: This involves a Mandarin wordplay, so it might not translate into English, but I think it’s funny. So there’s a saying in China, that in January—like lunar calendar January, the whole month of New Year—you can’t cut your hair.

BD: Why is that?

HZ: Because it will kill your uncle on your mother’s side. Your mother’s brother. Because in Mandarin, we differentiate your mother’s siblings and your father’s siblings.
So your mother’s brother is “舅舅” (pinyin: jiù ji), and your father’s brother is “弟弟” (pinyin: dì di). The saying goes “正 月 剃 头 思 旧” (pinyin: zhēng yuè tìtóu sī jiù) meaning that if you cut your hair in the first month of the year, your uncle is going to die. In the Qin dynasty, when the Qin government took over, they forced all the Hun people to shave their heads, and change their hairstyle. So if you look it up, the first half of the head is shaven, and there is hair only in the back half. But a lot of people who didn’t like the new government and were reminiscent of the old regime, they protested by not cutting their hair. Being nostalgic, the word for that are the last two characters in the saying, “思 旧” (pinyin: sī jiù). But it sounds very much like “死 舅” (pinyin: sǐ jiù), which means “to kill your uncle.” So people just started saying that cutting your hair will kill your uncle. A lot of people still choose to not cut their hair in the New Year’s month.

BD: Does your family believe it?

HZ: It’s obviously silly, and I don’t think it really matters. But everyone keeps saying it, and Chinese people are very superstitious. So if they really don’t need it, they will try not to cut their hair. It’s totally baseless, but people still avoid that. Old barbershops just close their businesses in the lunar new year month.


 

Analysis:

http://usa.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2011-03/06/content_12126196.htm

The article above discusses the same saying, as it is thought about today in modern day China. The informant is quite accurate in that many people today do not believe the idea that an uncle will die, if they cut their hair during the first month of the lunar year. But the article also introduces another saying into the mix—”a time for the dragon to raise its head.” So there’s two contrasting ideas about getting a haircut during the lunar new year month. The photo caption introduces another superstition, that “getting a haircut on the second day of the second Chinese lunar month, which falls on March 6 this year, is likely to bring good luck.”

These varying superstitions around hair cutting and luck (whether it be good or bad) are all related to how words are spoken and thought of in Mandarin, or related to numbers and numerical values. I feel that this marks the significance of attributing specificity in meaning in Chinese culture. My informant, a linguistics major, would definitely agree.

Holidays

German Christmas Traditions

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as SH.

SH: It’s a German thing to open presents on the evening of the 24th. Christmas in Germany isn’t the 25th—the 25th is nothing. My family celebrates in the morning of the 25th because my brother and I grew up in here—Christmas is at its peak when you’re young, and my brother and I lived in Michigan, and I feel like it’s more exciting to wake up as a kid and think “There are presents!” as opposed to like, seeing them there the entire evening.

With Germans, it’s the thing where you go to church and then come back, and the presents have magically appeared. But like, if you don’t go to church, like my family, the presents would have have just kinda been… sitting there.

I guess it’s also a family tradition that my father always tries to force us to go to church, and the rest of my family always resists. Didn’t happen this year though, my dad gave in. He didn’t even mention church. He was like: “It’s fine, it’s whatever. We aren’t doing it.” I’ve found that a lot of other families make a big deal out of doing like—a home cooked meal for Christmas eve, or Christmas dinner, you know. We usually go out.

BD: But not to church?

SH: Nope.


 

Analysis: The German tradition to open presents the night before Christmas Day reminds me of a tradition my family celebrates, called Noche Buena—celebrated in Spain, the Philippines, and some places in Latin America, this holiday also puts more of the emphasis on Christmas Eve rather than Christmas Day. I was unaware that Germany had a similar idea, and I find it interesting that my informant’s family changed their traditions upon being in America. Though she did not consider her family to be “very German” to begin with, the ease with which they adopted a more “Americanized” tradition for Christmas is very interesting. It helps to show what their family values as well—the excitement of Christmas for the younger generation is emphasized, and in a way, the children are prioritized.

Holidays

Korean New Years Traditions

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as KP.

KP: New years. For Koreans, new years is huge, right? New years, for us at least, we have like a family reunion, with like our other extended family. If you are like, considered a child, you bow, and you get money, and it’s wild. So obviously, the bigger the family reunion is, the more money you get. So that’s great. We always eat ddukguk, which are rice cakes. Traditional korean foods on the holiday—ddukguk is the main one. Every Korean family eats that on New Years—that’s just a thing you do. This is just typical Korean tradition, and it’s even way more intense in Korea.

BD: What do you mean way more intense?
KP: Well, I mean, New years is a way bigger deal there. Everything is closed. Here, all the American places are closed, but for some reason the Korean places are open. I don’t know about that. On Christmas all the Korean places are open. Straight up, we don’t care—we’ll work. Money is money, right?


Analysis:

This piece of Korean folk tradition covers two topics—money and food. Food is a central part of many holidays, but the ubiquity of a particular dish is pretty interesting, especially that it has also become a thing here in America. The discussion of money is also very interesting. “Red envelope money” is a tradition in Chinese culture as well. It is likely that this tradition is tied with the ideas of “good luck” and “good wealth” for the coming year in Korean culture, as it is in Chinese culture.

Game

Stick Games

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as DG.

DG: Over the summer, I learned the stick game. Basically how it works is that you’ll have sticks, and you play with a group of friends around you in a circle. You tell them you’ll put the sticks out to signify a number, but you start putting them out in a random order, and what you’re actually doing is tapping the number out on your leg. So, they’ll try to guess it, but they’ll keep getting it wrong because it’s not actually a number from the sticks. You keep telling them that they’re focusing on the wrong thing or looking at the wrong thing, while you keep tapping out a different number. Usually people won’t get it for a good fifteen minutes, and so it’s something you do when you’re bored, or if you want to irritate your family and your friends. So usually, it’s people you know, because if it’s people you don’t know, it’s not that fun.

BD: Where’d you learn this game from?

DG: I learned this over the summer from my supervisor.

BD: Do you know where your supervisor learned this from?

DG: I have no clue.


 

This is the first time I have heard of this game, and searching for it on the internet yielded close to no results, because of the vague nature of a game with sticks. However, it is very similar to game played by children that are meant to trick each other. It is likely that there are variations of this game with different objects, but seeing as the informant does not know the origin of this game, that would be a poor inference to make.

 

Folk Beliefs
Myths

Don’t Point at the Moon

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as MW.

MW: My mom told me not to point at the moon. I don’t know why, but she said that if you point at the moon with your hand, your ear will get cut off.

BD:Where did your mom get this belief?

MW: Her mom told her, like my grandma.

BD: Your mom’s from Taiwan, right?

MW: But my grandma is from China.

BD: Is this belief common? Like, do other people believe in it?

MW: I think it’s common, in Taiwan.


 

Analysis:
Upon researching this piece of folklore further, I found that there is a story that accompanies this belief. The goddess of the moon is angered when she is pointed at, because that is disrespectful to her. As a punishment, she will cut off the pointer’s ear in their sleep. A Taiwanese publication includes this belief in list of some more surprising superstitions: http://focustaiwan.tw/news/afav/201603200005.aspx.

Folk Beliefs
Life cycle

Taiwanese Death Practices

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as MW.


MW: If a person dies, we have to not eat meat. Because our religion is Buddhism. They believe that you have to clarify yourself, as a family, so that your family member that died will go to heaven.

BD: You can’t eat meat for how long?

MW: I think for at least 30 days.

BD: Does only your family do this?

MW: It’s not only just my family. I think all Taiwanese families, and probably Chinese families too. For seven days we will turn on the lights, after they died, we believe that their spirit will come back. The light needs to be on so they can see. We also have to clean the front doorway, like with no shoes, so that they can walk into the house. Another thing we do is put coins at the door because we believe there is a God controlling the money, and he can walk in. But this one we do all the time.

BD: Not just after someone died?

MW: No, all the time for good luck.


 

Analysis:
This conversation had quite a few folk beliefs, some regarding death, some about good luck. It is rooted in Buddhism, according to the informant, and it is interesting how food is related to death in this way. The Providence Zen Center.  says the time period should be 49 days, for people to “check their consciousness and digest their karma,” http://providencezen.org/49-day-funeral-ceremony.

folk metaphor

Doors and Windows Saying

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as PH.

PH: Every time that I’m blocking something, specifically when I’m like walking by the television and my mom is watching TV and then I get distracted, and I start watching, and I’m standing in front of the television, and she says “you’re a better door than window!” Like, “please move, you’re blocking my way.” But it’s like a cute thing that she says.

BD: Did she get it from anywhere?

PH: I don’t know! I think it is a normal saying, and I think her mom used to say it to her, but I’m not sure.


Analysis:
This piece of folklore is a very lighthearted metaphor. I have never heard it before, but it does make an awful lot of sense. It is interesting how the informant’s mother had likely heard it from her own mother, and I speculate this saying may be relegated to only their family. The use of doors and windows draws the mind to think of houses and buildings, which may be an effect the metaphor is going for.

Folk speech

“Fricky, Dicky, Dutch!”

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as NC.

NC: My father used to say “fricky, dicky, dutch!” whenever he got frustrated with something, but I have no idea why. I thought it was like a normal thing for people to say when they were frustrated. But then I was talking to my brother, and he told me he said that one time and everyone looked at him really weirdly, and that’s how he learned. So he gave me advice so I wouldn’t make the same mistake.

BD: Did your dad get this from anywhere in particular?

NC: I have no idea. My dad’s spanish, so English is his second language, so he definitely didn’t get it from his family. I have no idea. I feel like it’s something—when he says it, it’s like “freeky deeky duck!” because he has a Spanish accent—I guess it’s something that sort of rhymes, when you say it, it rolls off the tongue.

BD: No one else in your family says it?

NC: No.


Analysis: I hypothesize this bit of folk speech arose out of a need to not use profanity. It is interesting how it would have passed down to generations after the informant’s father, if not for the normalization by society—an unusual saying is stifled by those who are not familiar with it. The three words in the phrase seem to have no interconnectedness, save for the similar endings of the first two, and similar beginnings of the last two. Perhaps it only arose for the way it rolls off of the tongue.

Holidays
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Christmas Traditions

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as NC.

NC: Another tradition we have is Christmas morning. We have a very specific routine on how to like—attack the day. So first, everyone had to, like, wait for everyone else to get up. We normally had a preassigned time when we allowed to wake up the parents. Normally—I’m the youngest—normally I’d wake up first, then I’d wake up my brother, and then we would wake up my sister. Then, after that, we would wait, and all go down at the same time. No one was allowed downstairs before everyone’s allowed downstairs, so we’d all go down together. This includes parents. No one was allowed downstairs until the whole family was ready. And then we would go into the kitchen, and we would let my mom start preparing the coffee cake, because we would always have a coffee cake for breakfast. And once she had put that in the oven—she had already set up all the ingredients the night before, so she just had to mix them together and put it in the oven, we were then allowed to open the stockings. After that, once the coffee cake was done, we would eat breakfast and clean the dishes, and then we could open the presents around the tree. And we did this one by one, looking and commenting on each present, telling stories why we gave the present to each other, or why Santa gave it. And that was our day. I think this is funny because we’re actually Jewish, so this has nothing to do with anything that we believe in. It was just like, a fun tradition, that became very systematic.

BD: Who set this tradition? Your parents?


NC: I guess—my mom is Jewish, and my dad is Catholic, but he doesn’t celebrate Christmas. He’s from Spain, and they celebrate Three Kings’ Day, not Christmas in the same way. So I don’t really know, I guess it evolved as we got older.

BD: Where’s your mom from?

NC: She’s from New York.


Analysis: The thoroughness of this holiday tradition was both startling and quite entertaining. It reminds me also of another Christmas tradition I had listened to, and I am surprised at the ease with which immigrants to the United States adopt some very American traditions. As the informant said, his family is Jewish, so Christmas Day should not be that big of a deal. However, his dad is Catholic, though this does not seem to affect their traditions very much. Perhaps it is explained by his mom’s background—she is not first generation, and perhaps helped to start what the informant thinks is a more “American” Christmas tradition.

 

Legends

Chinese Moon Goddess

The interviewer’s initials are denoted through the initials BD, while the informant’s responses are marked as JL.

BD: So tell me about this legend.

JL: Okay, so there’s a legend about this woman who lives in the moon. She is the goddess of the moon, and what happened is there was this guy, a warrior—I guess the equivalent would be like Apollo, because he’s an archer. And he shoots down the suns. There’s like ten suns, back then, eons ago. And he shoots down nine of them because having ten was just way too much. The earth was just way too hot, and the people couldn’t do anything like grow crops and stuff because it was just too hot. So this guy comes along and shoots down nine of the suns—he has to keep one, otherwise there would be no daytime, but it’s a perfect balance where it’s not too hot. Because of his feat, he was granted a potion of immortality, but he didn’t drink it. He was a sweet guy, and didn’t want to leave his wife behind. He didn’t want to watch her grow old while he was immortal forever. So he stored it in his house. But then his apprentice broke into his house and tried to steal the potion, and the warrior’s wife instead drinks it herself. I guess, so it wouldn’t fall into the wrong hands—his apprentice was not a cool dude. So her spirit went to the moon and she lives there immortal forever.

BD: Why the moon?

JL: I have no idea.

BD: Do most people know this story?

JL: Yes, it’s one of the better known myths in China. Like how everyone know the Greek gods, the moon lady is one of the better known stories.


 

Analysis:
There are many variations of this legend, likely in part because of how common it is in Chinese folklore. This is not the first time I’ve heard of the moon goddess, but this is the first time I have heard of her origins. Another version of this legend can be found at: http://www.moonfestival.org/the-legend-of-chang-e.html. The moon goddess is named as Chang’e. This legend is very interesting, because from it stems a lot of folklore regarding the moon. Superstitions such as pointing at the moon will cause the moon goddess to cut off your ear are related to this legend. A lot of Chinese cultural values also present themselves in this legend. The importance of family, and not leaving anyone behind is a very apparent one. Another is the importance of sacrificing for your family, which the goddess does—she does not want to live without her husband either, but she must in order to prevent his apprentice from obtaining the potion.

[geolocation]