USC Digital Folklore Archives / Homeopathic
Folk Beliefs
general
Homeopathic
Magic
Old age
Signs

White Headbands – A Chinese Folk Belief

Item:

Q: Why can’t you wear white headbands?

H: 嗰啲 (go2 di1) white 係人地死咗人地 先戴白色吖嗎(hai6 jan4 dei6  sei2 zo2 jan4 dei6  sin1 daai3 baak6 sik1 aa1 maa3)

[Translation: People only wear white when people die, right.]

Q: 白色件衫定係 白色喺個 頭(baak6 sik1 gin6 saam1 ding6 hai6 baak6 sik1 hai2 go3 tau4)

[Translation: White clothes or white on the head?]

H: 個頭 (go3 tau4)  Like when the parents, like the- your upper generation, like your parents or your grandparents or something, yeah.  When they pass away, so wearing the white [gesturing a headband]. So Asians nope, not gonna wear the white headbands.

[Translation: The head.] (Rest of line remains the same)

Q: So the person who dies wears the white or when you have someone who passed away?

H: Mhmm. So the younger generation will need to put the white thing on their heads, so that’s why no Asians wearing white headbands.

 

Context:

I collected this folk belief as part of a conversation in both Cantonese and English about Chinese traditions and customs.  The informant, denoted by ‘H’ in the exchange above, is Chinese and was born and raised in a Chinese community in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in her late teens.  She can speak Cantonese fluently but chose to speak to me in both Cantonese and English for my understanding.  It should also be noted that the informant likely meant East and Southeast Asians when referring to Asians in the text because these are the cultures that are most similar to her own.  She didn’t mention specifically where she learned about white headbands from when asked but only said that you just know this kind of thing growing up because you would see it all the time in Vietnam.  She also told me about how one of her daughters unknowingly wore a white scrunchie once and thus had to explain the symbolism behind it before making her take it off.  White headbands as a funeral custom is an inherent part of the culture in which she grew up, and as such, she will never forget about it and will always stay away from wearing one out of proper context herself.

 

Analysis:

This folk belief can be tied to a belief in sympathetic magic: since white headbands are worn as part of funeral custom when a member of your family has died, you could potentially cause death in the family by wearing them if no one has actually passed away.  The likeness of performing the custom during a particular event may evoke the event itself to happen.  Here we can also see an example of the difference in color symbolism between cultures, a difference that becomes apparent when one is removed from the immediate environment of their own culture.  The informant grew up around this symbolism, taking it as a given, and as such never recognized it as significant until coming to the United States.  In the United States and other western countries, white is often a symbol of innocence and purity.  On the other hand, in Vietnam and other eastern countries, white is a symbol of death and thus only worn during funerary rights.  This is likely why the informant’s daughter did not initially realize the bad omen of wearing a white scrunchie because she did not have the background of having grown up in Vietnam where white headbands were only worn for funerals.  Now with another example of the symbolism in the color white in Chinese and Vietnamese cultures, I can understand why it is also a bad omen to wear white during the lunar new year.  Since it represents death, you may bring death upon yourself.  All in all, this folk belief outlines the symbolism of the color white in East and Southeast Asian cultures and furthermore, it proves how one’s own culture is not immediately recognizable until taken out of its initial context.

Folk Beliefs
Folk speech
Game
Homeopathic
Magic
Proverbs

Step on a crack, and you will break your mother’s back.

Context
The informant is a Chinese American. We were discussing interesting superstitions in Chinese or American cultures when she brought out this item.

Content
You’re not supposed to step on cracks in the floor. If you step on it, you’re going to break your mother’s back. And I think kids kinda play for fun with it when they’re little. There are very few kids who actually believe it. Obviously, because kids step on it all the time, and no one’s mother dies of that. It’s mostly just for fun.
Interviewer: And how do they play with it? Like in what situations?
Informant: Someone would say, don’t step on the cracks or you would break your mother’s back. And all the kids have to avoid stepping on cracks. They just have to all walk around like to avoid cracks,
Interviewer: And they just do it for fun?
Informant: Yeah, they just do it for fun.
Interviewer: Like, they laugh and walk around it?
Informant: Kind of. It’s more like if someone does accidentally step on a crack, they would point it out and like, ‘haha, you stepped on a crack; you broke your mother’s back!’ kind of thing. It’s obviously rude and stupid.

Analysis
First, the saying itself includes a rhyming between “back” and “crack”. This is probably how the crack in the road is connected with the mother’s back.
Second, the saying involves homeopathic magic. Stepping on a crack is likened to actually stepping on mother’s back.
Third, the kids make fun of the saying, because they don’t believe in it. There is a counter-hegemonic feeling involved. The kids are supposed to follow the saying even they don’t believe it, so they follow the saying in an exaggerated way: for example, they intentionally avoid all the crack, and make fun of the kid who accidentally steps on a crack instead of feeling worried for the kid’s mom.
My informant doesn’t believe in the saying. She thinks the saying is stupid. She also cannot understand the doings of the kids.

Folk Beliefs
general
Homeopathic
Magic
Protection

4 Will Bring Death

The informant shares how the number four is a connotation for bad luck in Chinese culture. She shared this in a group environment, where another member of the group, ‘Support,’ provided additional information to what the Informant was sharing:

 

Informant: We also don’t like the number 4

Me: What’s the number 4?

Informant: Like the number, four. We don’t like it. It means death. It’s associated with death

Support: Because when you say four in mandarin it sounds like the same word as death in mandarin.

Informant: So literally in my building there is no fourth floor, it’s the fifth floor.

Support: It’s kinda like how sometimes in America in buildings there’s no 13thfloor. It’s the same way… they just skip the number 4 when doing floors.

Informant: Yeah theres no 14th, 24th, they just skp the number.

Support: Oh really?!  I remember seeing the 4thskipped,but I don’t remember seeing 14th.

Informant: Like in my building there’s nothing floor.

 

Support: yeah because you don’t wanna live on the death floor… its kind of a pun.

 

Informant: But then lucky numbers are six or eight for a similar reason. Eight is associated with wealth, like you’re getting more money.

 

Context:

I was talking with a group of friends while we were working on a class project and some of the group members wanted to share pieces of their traditions with me. It was a very casual setting and the performance took place in front of three other individuals.

Background:

The informant is from Hong Kong, China, but attends school at USC. She has experienced the stigma of the number four first hand, because there is no floor containing ‘4’ in her apartment building in Hong Kong.

Analysis:

I love learning about how different cultures have similar superstitions to the United States, but while similar there is a different reasoning. While the US may view 13 as unlucky, it is not that way in China.

Homeopathic

Kalo Farming and Menstruation Superstition

Main Text

Subject: There was a superstition. Um…that, like, while we were helping with the kalo fields. Was that, um, anyone, anyone who is menstruating at the moment, couldn’t help. Um…basically like, plow the fields or whatever. Because like, native Hawaiians, they didn’t have as like, strong, as like…um…like gender binary, misogynistic, like, beliefs. But…more that like…that, and so like everyone was expected to help for, um…agriculture and harvesting and all that. But that like, anyone who is menstruating, like, the smell of blood attracts like, evil spirits. So like—and, when you’re…when you’re farming, like, any energy that you have while farming, um, will…be put into, like, will grow with the food, so if you have like, negative thoughts while you’re farming, um…like you will have, like, negative energy in your food. Um…so like, not that like people who are menstruating have like, negative energy on—already, but that like, they will attract like, negative energy to the field. While it’s being plowed.

Background

The subject, a 21-year-old Chinese-American student at USC, went on a service learning trip to Hawaii, as part of the Alternative Winter Break USC program. The trip lasted five days. The goal of the trip was to learn about native Hawaiian culture and the independence movement and contemporary struggles the state experiences.

Context

The subject first learned about this superstition from a Native Hawaiian student majoring in Native Hawaiian studies at the University of Hawaii. That student shared the superstition while people on the Alternative Winter Break trip were helping Native Hawaiians prepare a plot of land for the planting of kalo, a staple Native Hawaiian food. During the initial sharing of this superstition, people who actually were menstruating were not allowed to help in preparing the field, out of respect for the cultural significance of the superstition.

The subject recalls a similar superstition with regards to cooking, which they learned from a Hawaiian botanical garden tour guide. Traditionally, Hawaiian men would make food, because if women were menstruating and cooking, the evil spirits would enter the food as well.

The subject once shared this superstition about menstruating in the field with a person outside the Native Hawaiian folk group. The person hearing about the superstition called it misogynist, because it purposely excluded women from the fields. The subject thinks it is not right for themself to pass a judgment on the superstition, because they are not Native Hawaiian.

Interviewer’s Analysis

This is an example of Frazer’s concept of homeopathic magic in practice. Homeopathic magic is the idea that like produces like—in this case, that negative energy from menstruation draws evil spirits or other types of negative energy into crops and food. In addition, outside the context of Hawaii, farming superstitions are quite a common phenomenon, due to the uncontrollable environmental risks that are involved in growing crops. Any superstitions that provide any additional sense of personal control over the environment helps to ease anxiety.

As someone who is also not Native Hawaiian, the interviewer agrees with the subject’s opinion that it is improper to judge the morality of this superstition. The interviewer would like to further argue that trying to evaluate whether a folk belief is discriminatory is unproductive. Folk beliefs are not necessarily adopted with social justice theory in mind—nor should they be coerced into forming some sort of coherent ideology. Folklore is unofficial discourse with no predestined direction of development, and to treat it as if it were a systemic institution would be scientifically inaccurate.

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

Mexican Salt Superstition

Interviewer: I know you ain’t very fond of passing the salt shaker when eating without putting it on the table first. Why is that?

Informant: Well, there’s a little bit more that goes into it than just not wanting to pass the salt. I do believe luck is real, and it’s something that can be affected by other people. I feel that when someone hands the shaker directly to you, it could pass their bad luck or bad energy to you… or you could end up fighting(arguing) with that person in the future. That doesn’t worry me too much, because I don’t really get into fights with people often. However, since I play golf, I understand that sometimes luck can be the difference between a birdie or landing in a sand trap. There are also events in life that you’ll only experience if you luck out or, in some cases, have terrible luck… So I don’t hand someone the salt shaker directly because I don’t want to take any chances.

Interviewer: And are there other people that share this belief?

Informant: My mother used to believe the same, and my sister also believes that passing the salt can be bad luck. My husband doesn’t really like the idea of superstition, he’s a very religious man.

Interviewer: And is there anything you can do if you accidentally hand someone the salt shaker?

Informant: Yes, you quickly shake some salt in your hand and toss it over your shoulders. It’s a way of putting the bad luck “behind you,” so you don’t have to worry about it anymore. But I think it’s better not to come across the bad luck at all if possible.

 

Analysis

Although I don’t know how widespread this particular belief is, I do have my theories as to how it came to be originated. The belief in luck is quite popular, but I think this specific case stems from a certain expression in Spanish (Mexico): “Echar la sal” (lit. to throw salt on something), which usually means to predispose something to failure, to “jinx it,” or to outright ruin it. I think it’s very possible the expression influenced and birthed this superstition.

 

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.

Folk Beliefs
Holidays
Homeopathic
Magic
Rituals, festivals, holidays

Venezuelan Suitcase Superstition on New Year’s Eve

Context: The informant, a 20-year-old college student who was born in Venezuela and raised in Boston, Massachusetts, described various rituals and superstitions that relate to both her passion for theatre and her Venezuelan nationality. The following is an excerpt from our conversation, in which the informant recalls a Venezuelan superstition that people take part in during New Year’s Eve celebrations.

Text:

Informant: In Venezuela, New Years is a huge holiday. It’s not as big as Christmas or Easter, but it’s still pretty big, and we have a few things that we do that are like really unique to Venezuela. So one thing we do is we grab a suitcase that represents good travels and we run around the block once. This is kind of supposed to represent running around the world and so it’s basically done so that you can travel in the new year. Basically, if you don’t do that, it means that you won’t travel to a different country or somewhere else that’s new. I’ve done it since I can remember, with my family friends. We didn’t have a block when we did it, so we would run up and down their huge driveway. But basically in Venezuela, when it wasn’t… you know… deadly and violent, we would go around the block. We always did it and I always thought that it would come true, and it usually did! I think a lot of people know of it… I don’t know if everyone does it. I definitely believe that there is some truth to it. Because, you know, if you do something then you’ll put it into action. You’ll be like, “Oh, I did that, so now I should probably travel.” But yeah, I think it was definitely a staple part of my New Year’s celebrations growing up.

Informant’s relationship to the item: The superstition is clearly significant to the informant because she started practicing it when she was a young girl growing up in Venezuela. Even after moving to Boston, she continues to practice the superstition at every New Year’s Eve celebration with family and friends. The informant also acknowledges that there is a psychological element to the superstition; she feels that because she practices the ritual, it plants the idea in her head that she should travel and that makes traveling one of her resolutions in the new year.

Interpretation: This Venezuelan New Year’s Eve superstition and ritual serves as a prime example of folklorist Jame George Frazer’s theory of sympathetic magic, particularly homeopathic magic. His theory describes the belief among folk groups that certain practices can be carried out on a smaller scale that then produce major effects on a larger scale, or “like produces like.” An example of a superstition that involves homeopathic magic is the belief that whistling on a fishing boat will encourage the wind to pick up and a storm to start. The act of running around one’s neighborhood with a suitcase in tow in order to have good travels in the new year is very similar. Whether or not the superstitions are valid is a subject of debate, and belief in the ritual’s magic will vary among communities, but there is likely some truth to the informant’s statement about the psychological impact of performing such a specific superstition. Additionally, the country’s current economic crisis has forced more than a tenth of Venezuela’s population to leave the nation in the past few years. Thus, the suitcase ritual now also serves as a reminder of this tragic exodus, demonstrating how the significance of rituals evolves over time.

Works Cited:

To read more about James George Frazer’s theory of Sympathetic Magic, refer to:

Dundes, Alan. “The Principles of Sympathetic Magic.” International Folkloristics, Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 1999, pp. 109-118.

Folk Beliefs
Homeopathic
Magic

Pueblo Wizard (El Salvador)

Context/Background: The informant is Salvadoran and Mexican-American who grew up in a household surrounded by folk belief and customs. One in particular regarded magic in her grandmother’s hometown. In this circumstance, the informant’s grandmother has told her the stories of a local wizard and different legends about who he possibly is and is able to become.

Informant:

[Face to Face]

“My Grandma- she talks about a lot of things- but like, she talks about this man from her pueblo- the area she was born, who was kinda like a wizard, you can kinda say. And apparently, he would like, help heal people. Like one time, he told her to put like a cross under um, I think my dad who was like… drunk and gonna die on his back under the hammock and he would get better. This was an experience she had… and it was a story that he- this wizard- was like, she actually knows as a person, um, turns into a dog and scares people.”

KA: And where was she from:

“El Salvador, and it’s um… San Marcos specifically”

Introduced: The informant was introduced to this story through her Grandmother.

Analysis/Interpretation: I think this is an interesting dynamic because this story refers to someone who is real, but there is a legendary element to him which is questioned amongst local people expanding into a greater mystery when examining contrasting alter-ego types. I think it would be interesting to find out more both regarding how the wizard has interacted with others and what exactly his dog form symbolizes and what is done at that state.

Folk Beliefs
general
Homeopathic
Magic

Haitian Voodoo

Context: Informant’s father is from Haiti and grew up in an area where Voodoo was practiced. Though it may not have been the majority, there was still a presence and the practice was perceived as dangerous. Because of this, he would need to come back into the house from playing at a certain time in order to avoid being caught up in any practices in his neighborhood area.

Informant:

“The thing that keeps coming to mind is like Voodoo… which isn’t like… I don’t know. I just remember my Dad saying that like… he would play stuff… he would like play outside, and at a certain time, you would like, have to go inside because like… the Voodoo people would just like, come around the corner and do their thing and leave at night. But one day, he was like playing too late and he could hear sounds like around the corner, around the mountain or whatever, from around his house and then he saw them and they were in all white… and like, yeah.”

KA: And what is the “Voodoo people” specifically? Like, this was in…

“In Haiti.”

KA: Okay.

“This was like, when he was a kid in Haiti. Um… I mean, for my family specifically, we don’t have to like… really do anything related to Voodoo, but you shouldn’t like… not believe in it just in case anything comes true. It’s like you shouldn’t… I don’t know… I guess like… speak against the gods or like Loa or something like that. I’ve also started researching Voodoo, ’cause I thought it was interesting, but I don’t know. It’s not something that… it’s not really a thing that a lot of Haitians like… do? But it’s also like… not a thing that a lot of Haitians DON’T believe in.”

KA: So why would your Dad have to run inside and not be out?

“Because they’re also like… I mean it can be dangerous.”

Introduction: The informant was introduced to Voodoo through their father.

Analysis: I found this extremely interesting. I feel like people acknowledge Voodoo but don’t fully understand it all of the way. Growing up, I’d hear about Voodoo a little bit from my dad, but it was never an overwhelming presence in my life. The interaction I did have from him was caution though. Through the years I feel as though I’ve been exposed to it the most through popular culture which can morph the reality of it in a way, so I think it would be extremely interesting and beneficial to learn more through a lens that isn’t just one meant to entertain.

Folk Beliefs
general
Homeopathic
Magic

Don’t Stab Your Food with Chopsticks – A Chinese Folk Belief

Item:

Q: You said how you can’t stab chopsticks into food?

H: 落去飯(lok6 heoi3 faan6), right?

[Translation: Into rice right?]

Q: Yeah, 飯 (faan6) or 嘢食 (je5 sik6) in general?

[Translation: Yeah, rice or food in general?]

H: 嘢食 (je5 sik6) or 飯 (faan6) or whatever.  Why?

[Translation: Food or rice or whatever.  Why?]

H: 你拜神你係唔係插咗兩枝香落去 (lei5 baai3 sen4 lei5 hai6 m5 hai6 caap3 zo2 loeng2 zi2 hoeng1 lok6 heoi3).  It look like 你拜神插嗰啲嘢(lei5 baai3 sen4 caap3 go2 di1 je5).

[Translation: When you pray, don’t you stick the two incense into the holder?  It looks like when you’re praying and you have the two incense in the incense holder.]

 

Context:

I collected this piece in a Cantonese-English conversation about Chinese and Vietnamese folk beliefs.  The informant can speak Cantonese fluently but chose to speak to me in both Cantonese and English for my understanding.  The informant is Chinese and was born and raised in a Chinese community in Vietnam before immigrating to the United States in her late teens.  She didn’t mention specifically where she learned not to stab chopsticks into your food from, but only said, similar to a number of other folk beliefs and customs she knew of, that you would just know or pick up this sort of thing growing up from the community around you.

 

Analysis:

The basis of many folk beliefs is the belief in magic, either sympathetic or contagious.  In the case of not stabbing your chopsticks into food, the idea that like produces like comes into play because as the informant says, the two chopsticks standing up looking like sticks of incense used when praying.  Praying occurs for a number of reasons, death in the family and respecting one’s ancestors included, and it can be highly ritualized in Chinese culture, particularly when praying to the ancestors due to the long-standing tradition of ancestor worship and respect for those who came before you in your lineage.  There are rules about where the incense and incense holder are placed, what kind of offerings should be made, and when to pray.  For example, praying for ancestors has set time frames but praying after an individual’s death is done as appropriate.  As such, standing chopsticks in food not only emulates incense in the physical image, it may be seen as a poor recreation of the ritual and consequently a disrespect to one’s ancestors.  With such emphasis placed on respecting one’s lineage, this is very majorly looked down upon.  Furthermore, considering how like produces like – especially if it is not the correct time to pay one’s respects to their ancestors – someone may bring death or other bad omens to themselves or those around them through emulation of praying at an otherwise inappropriate time.

[geolocation]