Category Archives: Old age

Retirement, seniority, death, funerals, remembrances

Pele: Volcano Goddess

Abstract: The goddess Pele also known as the Volcano goddess is a trickster since she favors testing the kindness of people by transforming into an old lady and seeing how she is treated on the Island of Hawaii. Depending on the response, Pele will either protect your home from a volcanic eruption or destroy it. Pele moves depending on the Volcanos active on Hawaii and she currently resides on the big island which explains the Eruption which occurred a few years ago on the island. A volcano is only active when Pele wakes from her slumber. 

Background: DM is a student at the University of Southern California who is a native Hawaiin and grown up with many Hawaiin tales to explain how her place of living came to be. She finds great interest in the history of her island She grew up her entire life in Hawaii and with that, has heard a lot of folklore. After reading about famous Hawaiin Folklore, I saught to ask her about what she knows about her Island and its origins.

DM: Ok there is another person which I’ve heard of named Pele and she’s the goddess of the volcanos around the islands. She’s typically asleep but when she wakes, a volcano will become active but she also moves around like right now she’s hanging out on the big island which is where the volcano erupted a year or two ago. I don’t remember exactly when it erupted but there was footage of people’s homes either being spared by the lava or being consumed but it and that’s because those people were either good or bad to Pele. She finds this out by turning into an old woman and walk among the people to test who will be nice to her and who will anger her. That’s why she either spills lava on people’s homes or leaves them alone. As you can she has like a short temper and is easily agitated and she’s very deceitful as well so good thing she’s not living on my island right now. 

P: So what does she look any different from other Hawaiin women or is she very blended in with those around her? 

DM: She’s untraceable like you can’t tell if she’s there or not so you have more reason to be nice to everyone around you because you might make a volcano goddess mad.

Interpretation: 

It seems fitting that a volcano goddess has a hot head and is easily ticked off by people’s actions or how she is treating when she is tricking the islanders. The Hawaiin people personified one of their most powerful threats which are the volcanoes, a looming threat that seeks to destroyer but also creates more land for the natives. Pele turning herself into a which seems like a very common trend in many stories such as snow white or Beauty and the best where old women represent treachery and seek to cause chaos toward a person or a group of people for their own personal benefit whether it be the enjoyment of others suffering or punishing those for their misdeeds. Pele is an example of a goddess who gives and takes to those depending on how she is treated. Pele seems to be more than a myth because her story also comes with a lesson. Treat those who are older and wiser than you with respect and goodwill come from it such as protection and learning of secrets that may guide your own path. 

Chinese Red Eggs

Piece
H: Because the infant death rate was so high, people used to celebrate the baby’s birth after one month, so one month is actually their birthday. If they can, there is a big party and everyone gets red eggs. Ah-ma’s family was too poor to have a big party, but they give red eggs to the neighbors instead.
J: Why red eggs?
H: They’re a symbol of good luck and fortune. Also chicken eggs and chicken are a special treat in Taiwan. So the eggs are chicken eggs and red is for good things. [pause] You give them to people for other birthdays too, particularly for older people. Grandparents. Parents. Like 50 or 60. You give them red eggs too. You make red rice cakes stuffed with red bean. Anything with red bean paste. Mold it and make it the shape of, umm, the word doesn’t come out, a, a turtle! The rice cake in the shape of a turtle to symbolize long life. And if the person is older than you, you bow to them. When it’s their birthday, you bow to them.

Context
The informant learned this traditon from their mother who was born in Taiwan where this was a practice in their village and aided in throwing the red egg party for their neice.
This story was shared upon request by the collector when asking about various cultural traditions.

My Thoughts
I vaguely remember a red egg party for one of my first cousins. We dressed in red, fancy clothes and brought gifts. We ate red eggs and many other delicious foods and treats. Everything was red from the paper banners to the tablecloths to the food.
While red being a good color in Chinese culture is nothing new to me, I was surprised to hear at least some of the reasoning behind the eggs. In America, chicken is pretty cheap and easily available. Yet, for the informant, having chicken or chicken eggs was special and for celebratory occasions only.

49 Days After One’s Death in Korean Buddhism

Main Piece : 

49 Days After One’s Death in Buddhism

Context :

My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing how a Buddhist ancestral rites is done during 49 days after one’s death. She is identified as K, and I will be identified as E in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

K : In Korean Buddhist belief, 49 days after one’s death is the most critical time after the funeral. Once someone dies, they do not go to heaven or hell but are kept in a ‘middle-zone’ between Earth and the heavens for 49 days and are sent to seven stages of hell to judge whether they have lived an honest life.

E : What does it mean by ‘honest’ life?

K : It means that they haven’t done any wrong doings. One must not lie, not kill someone, not trick someone, and stuff like those. Even telling a small lie to your friend also counts as wrongdoing. Each hell determines if you have committed a crime. One category of these hell judges a ‘crime you have committed with your words’. This would include speaking bad about your friends, hurting your parent’s feelings with words, or lying. Like this, the ‘crime’ itself doesn’t always need to be a serious offense such as murdering or deceiving multiple people for money. We might be committing a ‘crime’ even now as we talk. 

E : So it means that you must be aware of what action you take, I guess. 

K : Yes. This belief tells people that anyone can be an ‘offender’ in the afterworld and makes them cautious. After the 7 weeks and 7 trials, they are then determined what life they will be living in their next life. Depending on how you lived your previous life, you might be reborn as a human, an animal, or even a non-animal such as a rock. The better life you lived, the more human you will become. If you commit a big crime, you will be reborn as an animal such as a dog or a pig. If you didn’t commit any sort of crime and lived a very pure life, that’s when you get your chance to enter heaven. 

E : Does that mean it’s impossible since we all commit ‘crimes’?

K : It sounds like it, doesn’t it? But it’s described to be possible. That’s why Buddhist monks shave their head, live in the temple, and train to strengthen their mind and body. This is also related to why they don’t eat any kind of meat – it means that an animal must unnecessarily die for the monks for their meal. In order to stop the unnecessary death, they eat with vegan choices. They are the closest beings to heaven since they consciously try to prevent themselves from commiting wrongdoings. Also, know that during those 49 days, the family members of the recently deceased are recommended to not participate in any events that are enjoyable. This includes drinking alcohol, going to a party, or going on a trip. It’s not set as a strict rule, but you just need to do it to show respect. You also wear only dark-colored clothes such as black or dark grey. 

Analysis :

This proverb shows how the Korean society believes in the Karma system and the cycle of life. In Buddhism belief, when one dies, they don’t directly go to heaven or hell like Christianity but are judged for the next 48 days for how they have lived in their previous life and how many wrongdoings they have done. I think the fact that the trial of one’s death is continued on for a long time is also to give a sense of pressure to people to not commit wrongdoings when they are alive. It pressures people to only act nicely if they do not want to be suffering even after their death. 

For another version of this story, take a look at the film, “Along with the Gods”. This Korean movie was made in 2017 and was based on the comic by Ho-Min Ju. The movie is about what happens in one’s afterlife in Buddhist belief and gives a good summary of the informant’s piece. 

Preparing Food for Ancestral Rites

Context :

My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing how to prepare the table for ancestral rite, which is different from regular meal table rites. She is identified as K, and I will be identified as E in the dialogue. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

K : As far as I know, the ancestral rite table is related to the belief in geomancy. To start off, the table must be facing the North side. 

E : Is there a reason why it must be facing the North side?

K : Yes. Ancestral rite day is considered as a ‘mini-day of the dead event’ and it is believed that all spirits come from the North side. So if you don’t have the table that way, it means that you’re not welcoming them. 

E : I see.

K : Other rules that need to be kept are related to this. Since the spirits will be coming from that side, all food and utensils must be prepared on the opposite side of us, so that the spirits can eat while we face them. 

E : So you’re putting utensils as if someone is sitting across from you?

K : Yes. You also need to put the rice on your, the person who is holding the ancestral rite, right and the soup on your left so that the spirits will have rice on their left and the soup on their right. Koreans have a ‘tacit agreement’ that warmer foods are supposed to be placed on the right side. 

She ended her description by noting how all families tend to have different styles of how they perform ancestral rites and that her description is just the basics; some families might not care what side their table is facing and some families might not even perform the rite at all. 

Analysis :

I live in a family who doesn’t perform ancestral rites as often and I found this piece very interesting. I’ve only attended ancestral rites twice or thrice when I was very young and didn’t know the details to it. The belief that the dead spirits of our ancestors return to have a quick meal that their descendents have prepared reflects the strong Confucianist belief of Korean societies; Korean descendents and the younger generations are expected to respect and take care of the older generations and even after they have passed away too. However, a lot of Korean families quitting to do annual ancestral rites also show that the new generations are walking away from Confucianist traditions that have been taking a spot in the Korean society for centuries.

Significance of Incense

Context :

My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing what an incense signifies in ancestral rites. She is identified as K and this piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

K : You know what incense is, right? It’s a stick you light it on fire like a candle and it produces smoke with a certain smell to it. Rather than smelling like something burning, it has a very organic smell to it. Maybe like burning wood. In Korean ancestral rites, burning an incense means that the person who burned the incense is calling the Gods and their ancestors from the sky. The smoke rises from the ground and when it reaches the sky, the God or the ancestor will know someone is calling them. If someone is only wishing for something, it is calling God to grant their dear wish. If someone is performing an ancestral rite, it means that they are calling their ancestors. 

Analysis : 

In our family, we burn incenses more than candles. Before listening to the meaning behind burning incenses, I only thought we do this for the smell of it or as a tradition; I was surprised that the smoke and the smell of the incense was meant to reach the sky. I think this aspect of burning incenses show the earnest wish of the user to see and meet the holistic figures. It should also be noted that not all incenses are meant for deep meanings like calling their God or ancestors, but a lot of people use it for its good smell. 

Bowing Down Twice

Context :

My informant is an adult female who was born in Seoul, South Korea. She received Korean education throughout her life and mainly speaks Korean. She believes in Buddhism and has been attending temple events for a long time. Her family also are Buddhist and follows the Buddhist way when it comes to events such as funerals and ancestral rites. Here, she is describing why bowing down only twice is important during a memorial rite or a funeral. This piece was collected over a phone call in Korean and was translated into English.

She told me that to understand this piece, you need to understand the Yin and the Yang (negative and positive) culture of Asian countries. Yin, is the power that is believed to be dark and negative, while Yang is the positive power. 

In Korean funerals or memorial rites, people only bow down twice. It is believed that one’s first bow means the Yang power and the second bow means the Yin power. This means that the first bow is only meant for the people who are living and the second bow is for the people who are dead and no longer in this ‘living’ world. Thus, when you bow down to the families of the dead, you only bow once because they are alive, and you bow down twice to show respect to the dead. Events that require bowing down and related to death such as a funeral or an ancestral rite will require bowing down twice. 

My informant also highlighted that all bows should be performed with the utmost respect because this is a matter of living and the dead. 

Analysis :

When I was young and attended funerals, I remember peeking through my arm to see how many times my parents were bowing down. I was sometimes confused because they would bow down once in some situations and would bow down twice in some situations. This connection of Yin and Yang with the funeral culture show how Asian countries strongly believe in the ‘powers’ of negativity and positivity and its connection to Confucianism; you need to have detailed and precise actions even when you are showing respect to your ancestors.

Italian Folk Saying

The following folk belief is a saying that my family friend G often heard from her mother in 1950s-60s San Francisco. Her mother was an Irish woman but G believes this is an Italian and global saying.

Text: It’s amazing that 1 mother can take care of 8 children but 8 children can’t take care of 1 mother.

Context: G told me this folksaying when I was meeting her for coffee, asking her about folklore she has heard. G described that this was a common saying in Italian and Irish families in San Francisco. G emphasises that she believes this folklore describes how a mother always takes care of her children and does anything for them while they are growing up. She is always there for her children when they need her throughout their lives. However, when a mother needs help, which is most often the occurrence towards the end of her life, all her children are absent. The children always claim they are to busy, have to work, or don’t have enough money to take care of the mother. G also said that throughout her lifetime, she has seen this folk saying come to fruition many times, and often see mothers be ignored or not given enough attention when they need help from their children.

Analysis: I think G’s interpretation of this folklore is completely accurate. This folk saying is clearly representing the belief that mothers should be cared for later in life, and often aren’t by their children. It demonstrates how our society is obsessed with wealth and capitalism, and not focused enough on family. Often times people don’t want to take care of their mothers later in life because it might limit the advancement of their careers. Another aspect of the folk belief is that it seems to personify older women to be in needing of care, which could show small sexism in society, as it is assumed that older men don’t need any help or resist it. However I do not belief that there is any true meaning to be sexist in this folksaying. In my research of this folk belief however, I found it interesting that this folk belief also occurrs in other cultures throughout the world, and exists in Muslim culture as well. Showing the importance of mothers throughout the world and the belief that children often neglect their mothers as they get older. Why this particular folk saying names 8 children, and others I found online have differing numbers of children, seems to be arbitrary and there is no meaning behind the specific number of children.

Old Man and Well Joke

Context: The informant told me this joke at a party where they were trying to tell some of their best jokes.

Piece: 

“Why did the old man fall into a well? Because he couldn’t see that well.”

Background: The informant is a 20 year old college student at Harvard. He really enjoys telling jokes and found this piece on Reddit. They enjoy finding jokes on Reddit to use in everyday life or tell to friends. They like this joke because it is short and witty, and consider it one of their best jokes.

Analysis: 

This piece is is a joke that touches on themes of old age and double entendre. The humor is created by unexpected switch in the punch line of the meaning of “well” from the water hole definition to the usage as a synonymous to good. The other humorous quality is poking fun at the nature of old age and how older people have weaker eyesight. This joke reflects how American culture has a pattern of joking about the elderly and this is part of American ideology that champions youth. There is also a trend in jokes where people find falling funny and this plays into that

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.

An apartment is found haunted by reflection on the window

Context
The informant grew up in Beijing. We were discussing ghost stories when she brought out this story.

Content
A man bought a new apartment. It was on the first floor. Outside the window is the garden, a small grassland in a residential district. He said that when the apartment was being furnished, he often saw an old man staring at him strangely from the window. When he walked outdoors to find the old man, the old man disappeared. When he moved into the house, a friend of his came to visit him. He told his friend that he often saw an old man. He asked his friend to go out and take a look, while he stood indoors to see whether the old man disappeared from the window. The friend went out, and then ran in hurriedly, brought him out and said, “You could not live in the apartment. The old man is a reflection on the window.”

Analysis
Because the old man is a reflection on the window, he is a ghost in the house. The main motif of the story is that mirrors or mirror-like object (window in this story) can show the reflection of ghosts, even though ghosts cannot be seen directly. Notice that the ghost is an old man. The old man must have some unfulfilled wishes that connect with the apartment – he probably lives in the apartment. To me, the story reflects the anxiety of the working force who fail to pay enough attention to their aging parents.