USC Digital Folklore Archives / Folk medicine
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Protection

Spitting in China

Main Piece

WY: “Let me think…so it’s like superstition. Whenever my mom hears something terrible or scary she will always spit on the ground. Kind of like a ways to spit out the horrible things so she won’t be hurt by those things.”

Collector: “Where I am from (San Francisco), I know a lot of Chinese people who spit deliberately like that, too, but none of them have ever mentioned that to me. Guess I know now!”

WY: “Yeah. A lot of places in China they probably have the same tradition. Chinese people also do it for general health. They call mucus and other stuff in the system ‘toxins.’ I think the air quality has a lot to do with it, so they just try to make their lungs feel as empty and breathable as possible.”

Collector: “Do you do it?”

WY: “Generally not, but every once in a while when I hear something really terrible, I end up doing it.”

Analysis

I found the informant’s insight on this tradition enlightening because she grew up in an environment where she understood the meaning of it and had had time to process it. She did not hold a strong belief in it, but in desperate times fell back on the practice that she had learned from her mother. It was also interesting to hear how a scientific idea was also put forward in order to justify it for those who would question it. The two beliefs could work hand-in-hand, and do not contradict each other.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Material
Protection

Coffee Enema Can Clear You of Worms

Background

Informant: K.M. – 21 year old female, born and raised in Los Angeles

Context

When talking about health remedies and ways to eat better, K.M. presented this wives tale that has gained more attention due to the internet and the claims about this “healing treatment.” Told to the informant by a friend, she then researched and found multiple variations of the treatment and the benefits, even expressing that she herself would like to try it. I have transcribed her telling below:

Main Piece

“So I’ve heard that humans have a lot of toxins in their bodies and that due to all of the processed food we eat, most of us actually have parasites living in our intestines. So then I asked my super health freak friend about it and she showed me this thing called a coffee enema. I was super skeptical at first but then she showed me all this stuff about how it’s an ancient technique used to clear the body of the toxins. And then I started watching all of these videos of people who did it and got rid of their worms, so now I’m not sure if I should do it.”

Thoughts

This is an example of a homeopathic remedy, which are quite common both in folklore and in a number of cultural communities. Using natural techniques to clean the body and rid it of toxins and outside invaders is a common folk belief that has recently surged again due to overall consciousness of our health and the things that we put into our body. However, most science actually states the opposite, that there is no method humans can use to clear the body of these “toxins” and that the liver and kidneys actually physiologically do this already, as long as they are healthy. However, this specific belief  and others like it may be a call back to the times of widespread spiritual cleansing. Many believe in the power of burning sage to clear bad energies and spirits, perhaps the coffee enema is an extension of that desire to create a pure state for ourselves. An enema quite literally forces the body to expel waste, and this could be seen as a parallel to a spiritual cleansing ritual. However, what was interesting to me was the spread of this belief among our group of friends after she shared this folk belief, with most of us in the group initially believing the claims and then sharing it with others in our community.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Vaporub Cures a Cough- A Folk Belief

Main Text:

RB: I was told by my mom that if you put Vaporub on your feet and then cover your feet with socks then your cough is supposed to go away.

Context:

RB is a first generation Mexican-American. He said that he remembers this folk belief because every time when he was little his mom would get the Vaporub and socks and rub the Vaporub on his feet to help him feel better. Miraculously he said it works so that is why he believes in it and says he would tell his kids if he had his own to do the same thing.

Analysis:

Although VapoRub is not proven to cure colds, especially but putting it on one’s feet. Its presence in hispanic folk-medicine that I have encountered is a large one. I hypothesize that this belief continues to be passed down because of the context that it is associated with and not necessarily the affect it has itself. For example, most of the time when you little and you get sick in hispanic culture the mother is the one who takes care of you. If your mother is the one who carries this folk belief and she rubs VapoRub on you, you associate the VapoRub with the caressing and soothing touches of your mother. When someone who has experienced this and then goes on to have children of their own, they may pass this knowledge down to their child and rub VapoRub onto them, not necessarily because they believe that it works but because they associate this process with the gentle care and affection that they had received from their own familial member or whomever performed this act for them.

Another way to analyze why this folk belief is still being passed along and striving is the culture that many hispanic people have built around it. I have grown up around many hispanic people, mostly of Mexican decent, all of my life and am currently in a long-term relationship with someone who is Mexican. Having this background I have realized that Vaporub is used for almost any ailment in a Mexican household, even if there is no proof that it works. This is not limited to y boyfriends household either. I have asked many hispanic people about Vaporub and they all know exactly what I am talking about and even more so they usually have a a jar of it sitting around somewhere in their houses. They have built a culture that they share amongst themeselves because they all share common memories of being smothered head to toe in that stuff since childhood. Most of those who I have talked to also continue to use it to this day because of this shared memory that this is what people of Mexican or other hispanic cultures do. The use of Vaporub in Mexican households is such a common occurrence that the online realm has take hold of this belief and practice and have adapted it into hashtags, published poems, telenovela appearances, memes, emojis and even comedy skits. You can also buy t-shirts, paintings, cards and candles that all contain an appearance of Vaporub. These adaptations into the online realm and buyable objects just work together in order to strengthen the culture that many hispanics share with each other surrounding their common memories and experiences with this “magical” topical ointment. This resulting strengthened culture allows for stories and folk beliefs (like Vaporub and socks during a cold) to continued to be shared from family to family and household to household.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine

Folk Medicine, Pneumonia

UB: I think as a person who helped to heal in my community, um, she also seemed to know something about um, and I, I don’t want to call it acupuncture, but she knew that, that uh, there were certain that went on with the foot, um, that if you, if you, did certain things with the foot you would also cure other things. And this was before acupuncture and before mapping of the foot and all this other kind of stuff that went on.

N: mhm

UB: and what had happened was that when I was almost 2 years old, I had pneumonia, and, uh, my mother managed to get me to the hospital, which sent me home because they wouldn’t give me penicillin. There was none available and the prognosis was that I was gonna die. And my mother was very upset about that, and so when Mom Mae came, Mom Mae said that, to my mother, my mother told me about this many times, Mom Mae said you should turn his feet to the fire. This was her way of, of, addressing the congestion in the lungs and the nasal and everything else because I was barely breathing, that’s what my mother said and so, that’s what she did. They opened the stove, the gas stove, and my mother said that Mom Mea sat with her all night, of course prayed, and held my feet to the fire even though I tried to resist it, and she said the fever broke I started coughing all of this phlem and everything and cleared my lungs and everything and so then I survived this.

N: interesting

UB: So in my neighborhood, um when people became ill, um they would always call for Mom Mae, her name was Mae Springfield, was her full name

 

Folk medicine is a staple in culture, ancient and modern, and is a basis of much modern medicine. Thus use of folk medicine is seen by some to be a source of magic, often being practiced by a select chosen few such as shaman, witch doctors and medicine men, for example. This bit of folklore was given to me by an informant, now in his late 70s, who experienced it first hand, and was then retold it as he grew up. He remembers it because of all the help this woman, Mom Mae, brought to his community. Mom Mae was not a trained doctor, but someone who was able to learn these things, probably through oral tradition, a show of her West African heritage that had survived through the atrocities of slavery. While I would be skeptical in the beginning, it would be because of a general lack of understanding and the societal idea that folk medicine is to be considered not “real medicine”, though, these recalls seem to say otherwise. The retelling of these stories also turns Mom Mae into a sort of a local legend, giving her status while she was alive, and mystifying her among the generations afterwards.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Legends
Narrative

Folk Medicine, Copper Penny

UB: Ok, well I’ll tell you the story about Mom Mae

N: Mom Mae?

UB: Um, her her name, Mae, was her name

N: ok

UB: and, um,  we called her Mom Mae, cause, she was a mother, a mother to a lot of people growing up. And Mom Mae was born into slavery

N: mhm

UB: um, around 1857 or something like that. When I, (clears throat) when she first came to the community where I was born, which was public housing,

N: mhm

UB: in Chester, um, she was already in her 80s and that was, uh, that was around 1942, right at the, uh, after we had entered into, the United States had entered into the World War 2

N: mhm

UB: um Mom Mae, um we often referred to her as a witch doctor

N: mhm

UB: Um, but that was because we didn’t know what else to call her. But she was a, uh, a person who practiced folk medicine

N: mhm

UB: and where she got all of this knowledge, um, I really don’t know but I believe, um, much of it came from West Africa

N: mhm

UB: um, her mother was also born into slavery, um, and during that time, uh, in the early 40s, I was born in 41, 1941, um, doctors were not available for the most part to black people

N: mhm

UB: and it was a time, uh, that, uh, that penicillin had been discovered but all that was being produced was being used by the military.

N: Mhm.

UB: and I, I, and it just wasn’t available to people, uh, who were seriously ill, and I was one of those people, with pneumonia

N: mhm

UB: um so, in my neighborhood, when people got sick they called Mom Mae

N: mhm

UB: to come and, and to uh, and to help out. Now She understood a lot of things, about medicine and curing people

N: mhm

UB: but she couldn’t explain, she couldn’t explain how she knew it

N: mhm

UB: uh, for example, she knew that um, uh that garlic had an antibiotic properties, she also knew that honey had antibiotic properties. And so she used garlic and she used honey, in a number of cases, cuts, infections, stuff like that.

N: mhm

UB: um, she, she also knew, and and this was very interesting to me, many of the households in my community, uh, would keep, there were no refrigerators, there were ice boxes with blocks of ice in them, but in the icebox, you would find a, uh, a small cup with, uh, vinegar in it

N: mhm

UB: and a penny, a copper penny

N: mhm

UB: and, I don’t know whether you’ve had any chemistry or not, or if you would understand what would happen-

N: Not since 15 (says with a chuckle)

UB: Not since you were 15, ok so the penny, the copper penny and the vinegar interact, uh, form the chemical reaction

N: mhm

UB: and it produced, uh, copper acetate. Now Mom Mae knew nothing about copper acetate or chemistry she just knew that when the penny turned blue, blue-green, that you could rub that penny on sores and it would cure fungal infections

N: interesting

UB: Copper acetate is a, is a fungicide

N: mhm

UB: and when I was growing up, it was really common for ring worms to be spread around from one child to another and ring worms are caused by a fungus infection and there’s lots of skin infections, um um, that are caused by fungus, getting into scratches. So you take the penny after it turned green and rub it on the, on the sore, and it would cure it.

N: interesting

UB: and, and, we all, we all knew that that’s what was going on but we didn’t understand it, not until I was an adult and looked back on this that I see what she knew and how she did it

 

Folk medicine is a staple in culture, ancient and modern, and is a basis of much modern medicine. Thus use of folk medicine is seen by some to be a source of magic, often being practiced by a select chosen few such as shaman, witch doctors and medicine men, for example. This bit of folklore was given to me by an informant, now in his late 70s, who experienced it first hand, and was then retold it as he grew up. He remembers it because of all the help this woman, Mom Mae, brought to his community. Mom Mae was not a trained doctor, but someone who was able to learn these things, probably through oral tradition, a show of her West African heritage that had survived through the atrocities of slavery. It is interesting to see how other can survive without the use of modern medicine. I interpret this as proof that the idea of “modern science” is not so modern, but acts as an example of the concept of colonizing what is often the culture of people of color and calling it new and innovative. My informant sees it as extraordinary that this woman came into his community and was able to help so many people, seeing the circumstances of the story, I agree, given her age, background, the year, etc, this woman was a god sent to a community in need. She, to me, represents those who dedicate themselves to helping others out of care, sharing their knowledge for good.

Folk medicine

Chinese folk medicine for sty

Main piece:

Me: So what are some other folklore that you have?

B: so, when you have sty, we usually don’t put on anointment, but we usually use a small part of our cloth, clutch the cloth by your hand, and pat your eyes with it.

Me: wow, a new form of cure! Have you ever tried it? Does it work?

B: well, I never got sty, and I don’t think it work.

Me: ok.

Analysis and context:

My friend is a lowkey superstitious person, partly because her hometown is a very small city near Nanjing. She wears special bracelets everyday which work as traditional Chinese amulets. Also, when she performs the folklore, she acts like it’s a very serious tradition. It’s fascinating that she knows way more folklore than I do.

So this is a folk cure. There are many folk cures in China, especially from smaller cities. There are many Chinese mystiques about sty. For example, they used to say that if you see someone naked, you will get a sty.

Folk medicine
general
Homeopathic

Running Faucets for Cramp Relief

Context: I came home one day at the beginning of this year to all of the faucets running and I asked my roommate what was going on and she told me this story. So I asked her to re-tell me why she does it.

Piece: So basically, I don’t know where my mom… well let me tell the long version of the story. So you know when you are you they tell you not to keep the water running when you brush your teeth? They’re like “turn off the faucet to save water!” Well I would always say that, and my mom always left the faucet running when she brushed her teeth and I would be like, “Mommy, you’re wasting water!” And she has always said, “I have to leave the faucet running or I’ll gag or like throw up.” And I never understood that until I started like, when I’m on my period or nauseous for any reason and so I turn the faucet on and leave the water running. It’s supposed to help you like feel like less nauseous. Something about the sound of running water can like ease nausea. I feel like it might have been something my mom got from my grandma. It sounds like something my grandma would do.

Background: The informant is a 19 year old USC student of Pakistani and Indian descent. She is very close to her family and shares many traditions and beliefs with them. She learned this from her mother and does it whenever she gets her period cramps.

Analysis: This tradition is something I have never heard of before. It is a sort of remedy/ homeopathic healing technique. It is often said that water sounds are soothing, but this is the first time I have heard them help with pain. I have heard of soaking in hot water to ease pain, but it is interesting that this piece refers to sounds, which tackles the mental state rather than the physical.

Customs
Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Gestation, birth, and infancy
Magic
Protection

Arabic Eyeliner Gives Good Vision

Background Info/Context:

My boss and I were talking about cultural traditions she grew up participating in, and one example she gave was about wearing a special Jordanian eyeliner. This eyeliner was put on her as an infant, and she has applied it on babies as well to help ensure them to have good eyesight.

 

Piece:

Rehab – “They have this stuff called Arabic eyeliner. So for all the girls, and it’s like black like coal, eyeliner. It looks really nice, but I think they think that, um, it’s supposed to help the baby’s vision.”

 

Sophia – “Oh, they put the eyeliner on a BABY?”

 

R – “Yeah like a baby baby. I have pictures when I was younger, like FULL on eyeliner. Inside your eye.”

 

S – “And the baby didn’t cry? That’s hard to do.”

 

R – “Well it’s like a little thing that we have. It looks like a genie bottle. It’s so pretty. It’s like all brass and the eyeliner is powder, so you just pull it through and it gets on the top and bottom.”

 

Thoughts:

My boss wore this special coal eyeliner up until she was in high school. Although its initial use is to help the newborn baby’s vision, many people continue to use it as they get older. They may still believe it has potential powers to bless people with good vision. However, it is more likely that people keep applying the eyeliner because wearing darker eye makeup is common in Arab beauty standards.

I think it is interesting to learn about a culture that is heavily tied to Christianity, but still has its separate cultural beliefs. Many Christian dominated countries follow the miracles and stories written in the Bible, and I have not personally heard of many practices in American or Korean culture that are independent from the Christian text.

 

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
general
Gestation, birth, and infancy

Watermelon Seeds Make You Pregnant

Text:

Informant (C): Remember at Walton’s when we used to have watermelon and I refused to eat it and said I was allergic?

Collector (J): Yeah

C: I was never actually allergic and I actually really liked watermelon, but when I was at school some other dumbass kid told me that people got pregnant from eating watermelon seeds so I was crazy paranoid about like, being a child mother, and so I just avoided it like the plague because I didn’t want a kid.

J: Really?

C: Yeah, because, like, my mom was pregnant like my sister and the kid said “oh she probably ate watermelon” and I was like “what?” and they were like “well, like, she has a watermelon in her tummy” or whatever and my dumbass just fell for it. I thought that, like, if you swallowed the seed, you would grow a watermelon in your stomach and then the baby would form in the watermelon. Like now I know that’s ridiculous, but like it was believable as a kid because I didn’t know about sex. I guess that kid’s parents or someone told them that because they didn’t want to explain the whole “your mom and dad had sex” thing. But yeah, after I learned about sex I started eating watermelon again.

Context: C and J met at a summer camp (Walton’s). At the end of each camp session, there was a camp-wide barbeque where watermelon was served.

Analysis: Like the informant said, this belief likely started as a way to wholesomely tell kids how their mothers got pregnant. Instead of explaining puberty and sex, the narrative of having a woman swallow a watermelon seed is easier to explain to a child. It also makes physical sense, because a pregnancy belly does approximate the size of a small watermelon. The inside flesh of the watermelon also arguably could resemble human flesh, which is why it is so believable that a baby can be formed in it. There is also something to be said about the association of fruits and fertility, with the human and plant lifecycle often being associated with each other. The cyclical nature of life as both human and watermelon allow a further association to be made with the human gestation period. Overall, the idea that pregnant women are carrying watermelons and are pregnant because of watermelon seeds isn’t that far-fetched from the eyes of a child who has no knowledge of sex.

Folk Beliefs
Folk medicine
Material

Lemon Juice as Hair Dye

Text

Informant (C): I don’t know if this is like, “folk” or whatever ’cause I think it really works, but like, before I started dyeing my hair with, like, real dye, I would put lemon juice in my hair in, like, streaks and then I’d go outside and sit in the sun and wait for my hair to get lighter. Like, I’d do the streaks to get highlights because I didn’t want to be totally blonde, but I wanted something other than just… brown. But like yeah, I’d always see a difference, I mean, it would take a few hours and like multiple lemons, but, like, I’d definitely be blonder afterwards, which was nice because I never actually had to buy hair dye or, like, get yelled at by my parents because it was “natural” or whatever. But after, like, sophomore year, I just stopped giving a shit and went to Hot Topic to actually dye my hair.

Context: The informant is a natural brunette, but frequently dyes her hair, typically red, but originally experimented with blonde highlights. This was a common practice around the school the informant and collector attended. The collecter herself also participated in this practice but didn’t see the same results as the informant.

Analysis: This “beauty hack” is a common belief among young, brunette women who are attempting to lighten their hair. Many online blogs and websites endorse the belief and recommend that those interested put lemon in their hair and sit out in the sun. The belief is that the acidity of the lemon reacts with the sun, creating a bleach-like effect. At the same time, lemon juice is viewed as less harmful than actual bleach and is “healthier” for the hair. This view makes sense, as lemon juice isn’t created in a lab like most artificial hair lightening products. This belief places an emphasis on the “natural” alternative to larger, corporate solutions to lightening hair. It’s a way of outsmarting the beauty companies and embracing a natural way of dyeing one’s hair, which gives the person who used lemon juice a unique story of how they achieved their beauty look. In a way, this practice creates an identity for those who do the practice as natural beauty experts who are savvy enough to avoid the corporate norm of beauty products.

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