Author Archive
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Folk speech
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Rituals, festivals, holidays

Band Chain Link Necklace

Informant:

S, a 22-year-old Caucasian female who was born and raised in Colorado. She went to a catholic school and played saxophone in the band. Her family practiced Catholicism regularly. She is now a senior in Computer Science at the University of Southern California.

Background info:

S spent her summers at band camp, where her and the others in band would spend the entire time getting closer to each other as friends. Her director would always make them do group bonding exercises so that the kids would interact with others they wouldn’t normally. S was in band for all four years of high-school.

Context:

Late at night, a lot of weird conversations happen. Because S is on a project with me, we were working together at around 2:00am when we started discussing traditions that stuck with us from our childhood or teenage years. The following is a one of the group bonding exercises her band director had the team do.

Main piece:

“One of the biggest lessons we had to learn in band was that we are only a single link in a chain. If one link breaks, the whole chain breaks… The director would always compare this to a violin concert. If one violinist is off key, the whole piece is off key… We had to learn to think as a single unit, walk as a single unit, and play as a single unit. Our director would give out a single chain link on a piece of string to each member of the band at the beginning of camp We had to wear it all day every day to remind us that we are only as strong as our weakest link. If any of the band members lost their chain link, our director would tell us that we would have bad luck that season… Of the four years, only one time someone lost it, and we did terribly that year.”

Thoughts:

I like this tradition because it does embody the English phrase “a chain is only as strong as its weakest link”. Having to wear a physical link around them is a cool way to remind people to better themselves for the good of the team. Other traditions also involve wearing a physical reminder of something important. In Christianity, for example, people often wear a cross or crucifix, or even have a statue of Jesus on the cross in their home. Losing an item of importance is also a common way to get bad luck in a lot of superstitions. It was interesting to hear that the one time someone did lose their chain link, the team did poorly. The thought of something going wrong can lead to it actually going wrong if one gets into that mindset. My football coach would always tell us that if we believed the other team was better than us, then we would already be defeated because we allowed ourselves to get into that mindset.

Customs
Foodways
Holidays
Material
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Píng’ān yè (Chinese Christmas Eve, roughly ‘Night of Peace’)

Informant:

M, a 21-year-old, Chinese male who grew up in Beijing until he turned 17 before moving to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, California, and attends the University of Southern California with his girlfriend who is from Southern China.

Background info:

M’s first language was Mandarin. His family spoke Mandarin and he only learned English before moving to the United States. Because he grew up in Beijing, he believes himself to be fairly knowledgeable about the folklore that every day people participate in. This is one of the Chinese traditions in their household.

Context:

This is a Chinese tradition that M’s family would participate in during the Lunar New Year in Beijing. Because he was close with all his family, he and his younger sister would often have to do these traditions twice a year, once with their mother’s side of the family and again with their father’s side. This was told to me during a small get-together at his house. The following is a transcript of the piece as told by M.

Main piece:

“A more recent tradition that became popular in China is… you know how America has Christmas? Well, in China, Christmas Eve is called Píng’ān yè (in Chinese: 平安夜), which means like… ‘Night of Peace’. And because the Chinese word for apple sounds like the word for peace, people will go around and hand out apples. Almost like Halloween here in America, except instead of people going door to door, people will go and hand out apples to people walking around. It’s weird, too, because the stores will sell apples with the word ‘peace’ on them, but for higher price than normal on this day. You don’t really see middle-aged or older people doing this, though, it’s typically only the young adults or teenagers. There aren’t really gifts on Christmas, but on Christmas Eve, there is apples! I think that it is kind of interesting that young people in China took this Western holiday and like made it their own. It’s almost… uhh… artificial, in a sense, but you know, I think it is a good way to mix the two cultures without the older generations thinking we are trying to make China like the West. It’s also funny because my sister is in high school now and one of her volunteer projects this year was to go and hand out apples.”

Thoughts:

Although this is a relatively new tradition in China, I was fascinated by this. Sometimes it’s hard to disassociate yourself from your own traditions and see that other cultures do things differently. When M discussed the tradition being only celebrated by the youth, and almost dismissed by the older generations, I was left to wonder why. When I asked him what he thought of such a new tradition, he laughed and asked me what a tradition was, or how long needed to pass before something became a tradition. He also asked if a tradition needs to be celebrated by everyone in the community, whether that be a family, a group of friends, a neighborhood, a city, state, country, etc. I liked the idea of the youth creating their own traditions, blending two cultures together as the world becomes closer and more connected to each other. Often, when people examine traditions outside of their own, they shut them out, or even shut others out of their traditions. It was cool to see the blending of two traditions, rather than an exclusivity. On a side-note, I also found it interesting to learn that markets would sell apples for a higher price around Christmas Eve. Money dominates everything, even tradition!

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Chinese New Year Doll (Tu’er Ye)

Informant:

M, a 21-year-old, Chinese male who grew up in Beijing until he turned 17 before moving to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, California, and attends the University of Southern California with his girlfriend who is from Southern China.

Background info:

M’s first language was Mandarin. His family spoke Mandarin and he only learned English before moving to the United States. Because he grew up in Beijing, he believes himself to be fairly knowledgeable about the folklore that every day people participate in. This is one of the Chinese traditions in their household.

Context:

This is a Chinese tradition that M’s family would participate in during the Lunar New Year in Beijing. Because he was close with all his family, he and his younger sister would often have to do these traditions twice a year, once with their mother’s side of the family and again with their father’s side. This was told to me during a small get-together at his house. The following is a transcript of the piece as told by M.

Main piece:

“This is also about Lunar New Year. Lunar New Year like spans for two weeks. By the end of that… this is specific to Beijing… you’ve got something called Tu’er Ye (in Chinese: 兔儿爷). Basically, this means uhh… ‘lord rabbit’… Um, so essentially, it’s like a little doll made from porcelain… a porcelain doll… and the tradition is that you are supposed to get one at the beginning of the year and get rid of it at the end of the year. Essentially, it is still like a paganism folklore thing that is supposed to serve as protection for your family. I remember that in the traditional folklore, you needed to like break or shatter the doll at the end of the year, but we don’t really do that anymore, we just get rid of it and get a new one. We would never really do this as a family, you would sort of just know it was there. It’s always the same chubby rabbit who is like riding on a tiger. It’s kind of weird, but people still do it. I think people would break the doll to represent kind of breaking all the bad fortune from the previous year, and you get a new one to have a fresh start.”

Thoughts:

I found it interesting that the tradition involved breaking the glass/porcelain doll to dispel bad fortune. In a lot of other folklore that I have seen, the breaking of something as fragile as glass is considered bad luck. One example of this is the folk belief that breaking a mirror will result in seven years of bad luck, a popular belief that I heard numerous times as a child. Doing a little more research on this topic, I found that Tu’er Ye is actually related to moon worship, and he is considered to be the moon rabbit of the goddess Chang’e. The keeping of a porcelain doll visible in the house all year reminded me of various scary stories involving dolls that came to life. Because the Tu’er Ye doll is supposed to represent, or shield from, the family’s bad fortune, I can see a slight connection behind the horror story dolls being an embodiment of evil.

general
Legends
Narrative

College Studying Murder Story

Informant:

J, a 22-year-old, Caucasian male who grew up in San Francisco, California until he turned 16. He now lives in Boise, Idaho. He spent his summers at summer camp with his friends.

Background info:

During summer camps, counselors and children would sit around a firepit at night and tell stories. While some of these were positive, most of them would be told with the aim of scaring people. This is one of the stories told to J during one of these sessions.

Context:

This was told amongst a group of friends sitting in a circle around a firepit late at night, slightly intoxicated, telling each other their favorite scary stories they heard as children.

Main piece:

“This story was told to me by a counselor who was actually in his freshman year of college. It goes something like this… There are two college roommates, Briona and Ellee, who are in the same math class and have a bit midterm in the morning… Briona decides to stay in and study, while Ellee goes out to party with a guy in the same class. *pause for childish laughing*… After a while, Ellee returns to find the lights out and Briona in bed asleep. To be courteous, Ellee does her nighttime routine in the dark before going to bed… *beep beep beep, beep beep beep, beep beep beep*… Sleepily, Ellee climbs out of bed and walks over to wake Briona… She rubs the sleep out of her eyes and notices the blood-soaked bed and stiff body of Ellee. On the wall above her, the words ‘Aren’t you glad you didn’t turn on the light?’ are scribbled in blood…”

Thoughts:

As I read back through this transcript, I wish it could better capture the feeling of this piece. The ambiance of the environment in which it was told played into it with the cold, quiet, dark night with the flames casting shadows around us, making us feel as if we were not alone. I think the story was interesting coming from J, as he never went to traditional college. However, it was still an effective ‘scary’ story for us since we all knew what it was like to share a room with a person you haven’t known for very long. Things are often represented in sets of three, and this one used the alarm beeping in threes to give the listeners something familiar before the big reveal. The writing in blood is a common element in scary stories, but it implies so much more in this story that it played a larger part than it normally does. J was unsure of which names were meant to be used in the story but didn’t think they were terribly important.

general
Legends
Narrative

Backseat Butcher Horror Story

Informant:

J, a 22-year-old, Caucasian male who grew up in San Francisco, California until he turned 16. He now lives in Boise, Idaho. He spent his summers at summer camp with his friends.

Background info:

During summer camps, counselors and children would sit around a fire-pit at night and tell stories. While some of these were positive, most of them would be told with the aim of scaring people. This is one of the stories told to Jacob during one of these sessions.

Context:

This was told among a group of friends sitting in a circle around a fire-pit late at night, slightly intoxicated, telling each other their favorite scary stories they heard as children.

Main piece:

“A young woman spent the night out on the town. As she decides to come home, she takes the back-roads to avoid having to stop at lights. That, and she can speed a bit haha…. It’s quite a far drive in the dark, so she decides to listen to music on the radio to stay awake. A few minutes into her drive, she notices a large truck driving up behind her. She slows down to let them pass, but the truck just drives directly behind, matching her speed…Nobody else is on the road and the truck flashes its high beams. No matter how fast she drives, or which turns she takes, the truck stays right behind her. Terrified, she speeds home and pulls into the driveway. The truck is still there… She considers locking her doors but opts to get out and run to her house. She opens her car door and starts to run. The driver gets out of his truck, as well, and aims a gun. Time seems to stop… She can feel her heart beating… *Thump*… *Thump*… *Thump*… Silence… *Bang*… The shot echoes in her ears as she looks down at her chest to inspect the wound. As her ears stop ringing, she hears a thud as a body falls out of her car, a butcher’s knife in hand…”

Thoughts:

Having someone follow you is a common trope in folklore that invokes fear in everyone. It rattles your nerves and using it in this story subverts expectations. The final part of the story utilized a lot of sound effects to make the listeners feel calm, despite being the crux of scariness. The ambiance of the environment in which it was told played into it with the cold, quiet, dark night with the flames casting shadows around us. It was obvious that some of the people in the circle were nervous of the shadows, thinking someone was behind them. It was interesting to hear that this was a campfire story told during summer camps due to it being set more in a cityscape. However, I think it works well in that setting because often back-roads had to be taken to get to/from the camps. There are many stories in which events happen in sets of three. This story utilizes it for the sound of the woman’s heartbeat. The sound effects that J used during the story really made it come alive, which is why I believe most recounts of live stories like this do not capture the actual experience of the story.

Folk speech
general
Proverbs

Turkish Barking Dog Proverb

Informant:

D, a 23-year-old, Turkish male who grew up in Turkey until he turned 8 before moving to the United States. He now lives in Boise, Idaho, but spent a lot of time with his mother, who only spoke Turkish until D was 16.

Background info:

D’s first language was Turkish. He and his mother would converse this way, despite him being fluent in English. His mother would tell him stories and folklore from Turkey, as she was very proud of her heritage. This is one of the Turkish proverbs in their household. D’s mother would use this phrase with her children to console them if they were fighting online or getting cyber-bullied.

Context:

This is a Turkish phrase that D’s parents would say to their children when they would get into arguments or fights with their peers. D quoted this phrase to me when I came to him for advice. The following is the context for which it was said.

Me: “I want to be the bigger man and just brush it off, but there has just been so much piling on top of me lately. They just keep going on and on, even after I took a break from social media. I hate that I am even angry about this, it’s so petty.”

D: “My mother used to tell me ‘havlayan köpek ısırmaz’, which means that people will talk and talk but nothing ever comes from it. People just like to think they are on top, even if that means making a fool of themselves by talking a big game and not acting on it.”

Main piece:

Turkish: “havlayan köpek ısırmaz”

English Translation: “A barking dog does not bite”

Thoughts:

When I initially asked D what this meant, he related it to the common phrase, “You’re all bark and no bite!” When asked how it relates, his reply was that when people use this phrase, it generally implies that the other person will only talk about action, not pursue it. He says the Turkish phrase also represents that. Practically, the saying does not make the most sense. Barking in dogs is effectively a warning, like growling, before they bite. However, in humans, I think it makes more sense. People who do a lot of talking typically only do that – talk. It also ties into the popular saying of “You can talk the talk, but do you walk the walk?” People question the seriousness of people who talk a lot instead of acting on their words.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Kinesthetic
Legends
Narrative
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Origin of Chinese New Year Fireworks

Informant:

M, a 21-year-old, Chinese male who grew up in Beijing until he turned 17 before moving to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, California, and attends the University of Southern California with his girlfriend who is from Southern China.

Background info:

M’s first language was Mandarin. His family spoke Mandarin and he only learned English before moving to the United States. Because he grew up in Beijing, he believes himself to be fairly knowledgeable about the folklore that every day people participate in. This is one of the Chinese traditions in their household.

Context:

This is a Chinese tradition that M’s family would participate in during the Lunar New Year in Beijing. Because he was close with all his family, he and his younger sister would often have to do these traditions twice a year, once with their mother’s side of the family and again with their father’s side. This was told to me during a small get-together at his house. The following is a transcript of the piece as told by M.

Main piece:

“Lunar New Years is a big deal in China, so my grandmother… my grandmother on my mother’s side… has three daughters, and each other my cousins all come back for Lunar New Years, so we are all pretty close. So… traditions, right? Lots of people know that China does fireworks during the Lunar New Year celebration, but like here and Japan people get together to watch the fireworks that are like set up by some organizations. Uh, in Beijing, people set up their own fireworks, and everyone in the city participates, so it sounds like the city is in the middle of a war. Millions of fireworks go off from like midnight until like five in the morning and you won’t be able to sleep. So, the folklore behind firing off fireworks is that in Chinese stories about Paganism, there is a monster that is called Nian, which has the same sound as the word year. Nian, year, New Year, you know? So like this monster goes around eating people and stuff and the people don’t know what to do. They decided that they are going to launch explosive fire-powder into the sky to scare it off. It worked, and now that is why we call a year a year, because it is named after Nian the monster. Now, it has become less about that and more people do fireworks because they are fun, but my mother would always tell us that before we could go out and light them. We had to know that there was a reason to like play with explosives.”

Thoughts:

I like that his parents would make sure that the kids knew why a tradition exists before allowing them to participate in them. I think that it is interesting that they place a lot of importance on the folklore behind this tradition, while in the United States, the average parent does not explain why we celebrate the fourth of July. Kids learn about it in school, but that almost takes away from the tradition because it is taught institutionally, rather than organically. I was most intrigued to learn that the word year in Mandarin is pronounced the same as the creature in the story. It shows just how much society takes from folklore.

Folk speech
general

“On blood”: Los Angeles Inner-City Gang Saying

Informant:

Due to some self-incrimination, the informant wishes to remain anonymous, and thus I will only use his first initial. A is a 22-year-old, African American male who grew up in Southern California. He dropped out of high-school and did not attend college. He now lives in Southern California and works as a mechanic.

Background info:

A and I grew up in a similar environment. We met when we were both around 12 and 13 in the Los Angeles foster care system. Because foster-parents rarely kept track of the children and usually did not keep them fed or clothed, A has been heavily involved in gang-related activities since I met him. His home environment was abusive, and he was subjected to drugs early in life, as well.

Context:

Because A and I lived in a few foster-homes together, we have a shared tragedy, and thus a bond where he felt comfortable to talk to me. I invited him over to discuss how he had been since I last saw him, and we eventually began discussing the state of current Hip-Hop music. This piece is a phrase popular in his vocabulary, and, for context, the following is a transcript of the conversation we had that led to the phrase being said. (I will be represented with a J.)

Main piece:

J: “Have you heard the diss tracks between Joyner Lucas and Tory Lanez?”

A: “Yeah, I heard ‘em. I can’t believe this fool Tory think he can just come into the rap game and claim to be the best. Joyner clowned on this fool on his own track.”

J: “Yeah, his song was fire. He’s actually pretty lyrical, as well. I’m glad he and Eminem did a track together. I thought for sure they’d get an Emmy for it.”

A: “Man, you know Eminem is done. That man ain’t getting any more awards – his whole career was built on being the only white boy who could spit. The hype has been over for years. Ain’t nobody out there listening to him, only the white people who want to think they apart of it.”

J: “Do you think Eminem should get praise for his lyricism, though?”

A: “On blood, if Eminem tried to blow today, he wouldn’t sell a single track. Half the stuff he be saying goes over everybody’s head, man.”

Thoughts:

Growing up in the poor areas of Los Angeles, without help from home, a lot of children and young teens end up joining gangs. The gangs become their new families, and people would die for that. A was one of these kids and ended up joining a subset of the Bloods gang. I was familiar with this when I met him. Because he was so young, the gang influence became a major part of his life. “On blood”, or “On the blood”, is a common street phrase among Blood gang members. It is typically used as a promise or swear, meaning “I swear to the Blood gang”, like when people say, “I swear to God” or “I swear on my mother’s grave”. Swearing to something important represents a promise that you would never break without breaking faith with the thing you swear to. This phrase is common because the culture of gang life is to value the gang over everything else, even religion or one’s own life.

Folk Beliefs
Foodways
general
Homeopathic
Magic
Material
Protection

Chinese Fish Eating Superstition

Informant:

M, a 21-year-old, Chinese male who grew up in Beijing until he turned 17 before moving to the United States. He now lives in Los Angeles, California, and attends the University of Southern California with his girlfriend who is from Southern China.

Background info:

M’s first language was Mandarin. His family spoke Mandarin and he only learned English before moving to the United States. Because he grew up in Beijing, he believes himself to be fairly knowledgeable about the folklore that every day people participate in. This is one of the Chinese traditions in their household.

Context:

This is a Chinese superstition that M and his girlfriend’s families believe in, despite having different recounts of what the superstition is. Because they are both close with their families, he and his girlfriend would often have to change how they behaved depending on who they were around at the time. This was told to me during a small get-together at his house. The following is a transcript of the piece as told by M.

Main piece:

“Something that is pretty interesting that is a distinction between Northern and Southern China is that… when you’re eating like a fish… You know how when you eat a fish, they’ve like roasted or cooked the whole fish, right? And they’ve got some sauces or marinate on them. So when you eat a fish, it’s like laying this way *shows a horizontal motion* and you eat one side until there’s the fish bones. And then below that there is another side of meat, right? In Northern China, like in Beijing where I am from, people will flip the fish over to eat the other side and it means like. ‘Oh, if I’m flipping the fish over, it means that I am flipping away all the bad luck and starting fresh.’ But in Southern China, that is a big no-no. You can’t do that because if you do, it means that your fishing boat is going to turn over. It’s going to get blown over. I think the reason for this superstition is because in Southern China they were very reliant on the fishing industry for food in like the olden days. So doing something like flipping a fish over would mean that the next fishing trip would be dangerous. It’s weird because doing the same thing has two very different meanings in such close proximity, so like… my girlfriend is from Southern China, right? So when our families cook fish for events or uhh… holidays… there’s this almost contention between us over how to eat it. Though it is mostly just the older people who still believe this superstition.”

Thoughts:

I have been out to eat with M before and never seen him do this, so it is interesting to learn that he and his girlfriend follow different traditions based on who they are around. In Northern China, they believe that flipping the fish over is getting rid of all the bad luck and starting fresh. This is very similar to the English phrase of “turning over a new leaf”, as many view that to mean one is starting fresh and discarding whatever bad things were in the past. I do not know of any physical embodiment of that phrase in American culture, but it’s interesting that, in Beijing, people must do a physical action rather than just a saying. The distinction between Southern and Northern China over the same action also showcases how local industries can influence traditions or superstitions. Southern China’s belief that the flipping of a fish will mean that a fishing boat will flip over, there is almost a voodoo vibe about this superstition. The lack of participation or belief in superstitions or traditions by the younger generation also shows that the beliefs are waning, and new ones are being formed.

Customs
Festival
Folk Beliefs
Protection
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Taiwanese Ghost Month

Informant:

E, a 22-year-old Chinese-Taiwanese female who was born and raised in Los Angeles. She is currently a senior at the University of Southern California.

Background info:

E’s first language was English, but because her parents were immigrants, she quickly learned Mandarin as well. Her parents are proud of their culture, and thus they often participated in many Taiwan and Chinese traditions, and believed many of the superstitions, as well. This is one of the superstitions E’s mother believed.

Context:

Late at night, a lot of weird conversations happen. Because E is on a project with me, we were working together at around 2:00am when we started discussing superstitions. When she knocked on wood, it brought this conversation up. The following is a transcript of the conversation I had with E. (I will be represented with a J.)

Main piece:

J: “Are there any other superstitions that you experienced growing up? With your family or friends? School, even?

E: “I’m not sure that this would count as a superstition, it’s more of a tradition centered around various superstitions… In Taiwan, there is this thing called Ghost Month. It’s in August, but basically there are just things you aren’t supposed to do during this month that could cause you to become haunted by a spirit.”

J: “What kind of things?”

E: “Well… For one, you aren’t supposed to have like… major life events during this month. Like if a child is born during this month, then it means that the child is cursed in some way. Or you aren’t supposed to get married or else ghosts will haunt you and try to break the marriage apart… Swimming and bathing are discouraged otherwise a ghost will try to drown you? Ghosts just don’t like people doing things during this month…”

J: “Do you know when this started? Or when your family started to avoid these things?”

E: “My brother was born in August, so clearly my parents didn’t care haha… But no, it’s mostly like my grandparents and other family still in Taiwan that observe this. My cousins, for example, have like… ghost-themed things in school to sort of like honor the dead. The only thing my dad warned us not to do was get married during August because he believes that’s why his sister got divorced… Otherwise, I think there are just too many things that are considered ‘unlucky’, or bad, during this time to take the tradition seriously.”

Thoughts:

There is a lot to break down with this tradition. It is filled with a multitude of superstitions, but they all sort of revolve around ghosts haunting you for doing things like whistling, swimming, etc. This is very reminiscent of Halloween in the United States; ghosts just roam around looking to haunt people. From E’s recount, it seemed to me like most of these “offenses” were just actions that some would consider unruly. Whistling can become annoying, swimming in places other than a pool could be frowned upon, flying commercially could be supporting corporations, etc. However, I was interested in the abstaining from major life events – specifically the example of her father believing his sister got divorced because she was married in August. A common thread in the folklore I have seen or experienced is that people use it to explain something bad happening. “Oh, it wasn’t that the two people were not meant to be together, it was just the ghosts messing with their marriage.” Or when bad things happen on Friday the 13th, people do not see them as logical events, they blame it all on bad luck.

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